Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Unanswered Talking Points

March 14th, 2010 20 comments

Last night, Amy Holmes, a conservative commentator, appeared on Bill Maher’s show, and did something I see a lot of conservative talking heads do. She came out with a number of “facts” that were dead wrong, but–and this is the key point–were obscure enough that no one on the panel knew about them in detail and so could not rebut. This seems to be a favorite technique with such guests, as you can come across as sounding factual and winning the argument, despite being full of crap.

The topic where she was worst on this was climate change. She started with a really weird attack which Maher and liberal guest Hill Harper should have jumped on but didn’t (italics in quotes reflects her spoken emphasis):

RFK Jr., he said, and you know he supports this global warming theory, he said that he would never see snowfalls like he did in his childhood because of global warming. And what do we get, we got three blizzards in a row this last Christmas. So, I don’t think that weather patterns tell us whether or not global warming is happening, but people who advocated for global warming, they told us weather patterns can tell you if it’s happening.

Really? A celebrity was wrong about snowfall, so that disproves climate change theory? I still can’t believe that no one took that on. If RFK were a climatologist, even that would be a single instance, but just because a famous person screws up the facts–if RFK Jr. did indeed even say that–it’s not even related to the science. At all. But then she got to the slip-in-the-bogus-fact part:

I don’t think the science is settled, and the scientists who are involved in it themselves… Phil Jones, who is the head of research in England, you know that Phil Jones also said … he also said that the Middle Ages may have been hotter than it is now. … One of the top climate researchers, he admitted now, that the Middle Ages may have been hotter than it is now, before there were cars, or CO2 emitting factories.

This is something that few people would be able to respond to without research. I hadn’t heard it, but after a few minutes online I was able to find out that it was a lie. Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (the place where the emails were hacked), had an interview with the BBC in which they tossed at him the junk-science assertion that because there was a warming trend in the middle ages, that means that what we are experiencing now is just part of a normal cycle caused by things like sunspots and ocean currents. Jones answered that we don’t have global data on what is called the “Medieval Warm Period” (MWP), and so we can’t know if it has any significance; all he allowed was that if we had the global data, and if that data showed warming in excess of what we have now, then “late-20th century warmth would not be unprecedented.” But he pointed out that we don’t have that data, and therefore we have no reason to believe that the MWP means anything.

In an article in the Daily Mail, Jones’ statements were wholly misrepresented. The article claimed that Jones “conceded the possibility that the world was warmer in medieval times than now – suggesting global warming may not be a man-made phenomenon.” This is an incredibly misleading-trending-to-outright false statement. “Conceding” a possibility does not give it an ounce of credence–any scientist would have to “concede” that it’s possible that aliens are living on Pluto right now; that does not make it in the least bit true. To then jump to the statement that Jones’ “concession” suggested that global warming is not man-made is the “outright lie” part. He suggested the opposite, pointing out that we lack the data to make such a point.

But now that a news agency had said that a top climatologist had conceded that global warming is disproved, it was picked up by the right-wing blogosphere and, of course, Fox News, in this case, Sean Hannity:

Now keep in mind that Jones’ findings have been used for years to bolster the U.N.’s findings on climate change. Now, in an interview with the BBC over the weekend Jones admitted that there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995, that the world may have been warmer in Medieval Times, that is to say up until now, which would undermine the theory of this manmade global warming all together. And that warming in recent times mirrors warming patterns from pre-industrial periods.

The part that Hannity adds about “statistically significant warming” is just as much a lie; more on that here.

The point is, nobody on the panel had followed this story closely and so when Holmes brought it up, no one was able to shoot it down. There are now probably a lot of people who came away from that thinking that there was something to the statement, as few people actually check these things out. Such lies get released into the public consciousness all the time, are believed, and add to the general, unspecific idea that climate change is more and more “in question.”

Apart from the value of showing such claims about climate change to be false, what one should take from this is that when you hear such “facts” from talking heads on discussion panels–or anywhere else–check them out before you swallow them whole.

Categories: Right-Wing Lies, Science Tags:

Scotty Was Here

August 5th, 2009 Comments off

Transparent Aluminum. Somebody count the whales.

Categories: Science Tags:

Quantum Weirdness

July 26th, 2009 10 comments

IntOne physics experiment that is fascinating to contemplate is the double-slit experiment. You shine a light through a slit in a wall onto a light-sensitive screen behind it, and you get an exposure of light in the form of a single vertical line behind the slit. But if you open two slits in the wall and shine a light through, you don’t get two vertical lines of exposure–you get several: an interference pattern. The idea here is that light coming from each slit interferes with light coming from the other slit–like waves coming from two stones dropped into water–producing the multiple lines on the screen.

Normally, all this would prove is that light has wave-like properties, the waves from each slit interfering with each other. Now, if you perform the experiment again, except this time you only allow one “particle” of light through at a time, then you get the same result: an interference pattern. If only one “particle” of light is in motion at a time, going through only one slit, then what interferes with it?200Px-Double-Slit Experiment Results Tanamura 2 A wave makes sense–but we usually think of waves as bing made up of numerous parts. If there is only one “bit” or “piece” of light, how can it go through two slits at the same time, and then interfere with itself?

The popular solution to this problem is to assume that the particle did travel through both slits–in fact, the assumption is that the particle traveled every possible path from the light source to the screen. In essence, a vast horde of possible-particles each take slightly different paths, forming a virtual wave–and a wave can go through both slits, forming two wave-like patterns emerging from the other side of the slits, each one interfering with the other, creating the interference pattern. When the particle-wave hits the screen, the paths all “average out,” collapsing the vast number of possible-particles-wave into a single real one that represents the most likely path taken. Because interference was involved on the way to the screen, we get the interference pattern–despite there being only a single particle.

Some take this further, and suggest that instead of all those possible-particles existing in this universe alone, they represent a manifestation of the many-worlds hypothesis, where the light particles from many other universes much like our own interfere with the particle in our universe. In other words, the particle never becomes a wave, it simply interacts with particles from other universes which together resemble the effects of a wave.

But that’s not the end of the weirdness. Place sensors at the slits so we can sense which slit the particle is going through on its way to the screen, and something interesting happens: the interference pattern disappears, and we get two vertical lines.

This is due to what is called the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum theory. As stated above, all matter exists as that many-possible state, a “cloud” of possibilities, until it is observed. For example, if you flip a coin and it falls where you cannot see it, it is in a state of flux–it is both heads and tails, and exists in every possible location it could have possibly landed–and it stays that way until you shine a light on it and see it. Once you do that, the cloud of possible outcomes “collapses” into a single outcome, which is then “real.”

So, in the situation described above where the sensors are placed at the slits to see which one the particle passes through, we are observing the particle before it passes through the slits, therefore collapsing the possibilities and making it into a single “real” particle able only to pass through one slit–thus the interference pattern disappears.

In short, by observing the event, we change its outcome. That’s something which we hear about, but it sounds like some abstraction that doesn’t really affect actual events. However, the result of placing the sensor at the slits takes it from the theoretical to the real. It’s not just a thought experiment any more–it actually happens, and we can see it. It’s real.

Upon hearing about this, I had a question: what is causing the results to change? Is it something from the sensors at the slits which changes the nature of the particle? Or is it the fact that a conscious observer sees the data coming from the sensors? This is a key question: if consciousness is necessary, then this implies that consciousness is somehow tied into the laws of physics, so that a human observing something makes it “real” instead of simply possible.

So I thought of a way to test this: put the sensors at the slits, have them record the data–but then, before you see what pattern emerged on the light-sensitive screen, erase the slit-sensor data so no human ever sees it. If it is the sensors which are making the difference, then the waveform should collapse and the interference pattern disappears, no matter what the humans decide to observe.

For a long time, I thought no one actually did this experiment, until I found a lecture on YouTube where a physicist lays out exactly that test (see here and here). It’s called the “Delayed Choice” experiment.

The result: if the sensors are used, and the data is recorded–but then is erased before the screen’s pattern is looked at–the interference pattern reappears, as if the slit sensors had no effect. If the sensor data is not erased and is looked at before looking at the test’s results, then the interference pattern disappears. Meaning that it was the human viewing of the data that determined the outcome of the experiment. It is interesting to remember that the choice to observe or erase the slit sensor data is made after the experiment concludes–and the recorded data changes depending on an action taken after it was recorded.

This seems particularly significant–it would seem to confirm that human consciousness ties into the laws of physics. But a key point to remember is that when the particle hits the screen, that event does not determine the location of the particle hit. The results on the light-sensitive screen are also in flux until they are observed.

The way it was explained in the YouTube lecture:

Despite the fact that machines have registered something at the slits and at the back wall, there is no information at the back wall until we choose to look at it.

When we choose to look at it, the information about where the particles hit at the back wall will be created, and the result will be determined by our knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the particles at the slits.

In this way, we seem to establish that the machine “observation” does not collapse the wave function of the particle–only human interaction does. So it would seem that human consciousness is tied in to the fabric of reality.

However, the official explanation is that human consciousness is not required–though I have yet to find out how that was determined. (If anyone reading this knows a source, please point it out.)

However, whatever way you look at it, there is one unavoidable conclusion: the sensors at the slits are not what’s responsible for the changes; in this case at least, it is a purely human decision, a matter of human perception. Making a decision and looking at sensor data presently physically unconnected to the light-sensitive screen will make the data on the screen change form one pattern or another.

Any way you look at it, weird stuff is going on here.

If you can get a fair grasp on what is written above, then you will probably get one of my favorite science jokes, from Futurama. The gag is in the first half-minute, with the punch line at 25 seconds:

Postscript (same day):

I have been doing some more research, but as of yet cannot find anything which positively refutes the idea that it is human consciousness that makes the difference in collapsing the waveform. I have found several sources which say that a human consciousness is not necessary, but no explanation of an alternate system which can fully replace the human observer, doing the same thing in the same way.

In terms of theory, what I have found seems to say that the original theory linked the effect to actual human consciousness, and that most scientists were uncomfortable about how this might relate to mysticism, and so started to formulate theories that negated the idea. If this is all–theories and no experimental proof–then I find it highly suspect. A scientific theory should absolutely not be determined by the prejudice of the theorist; if the evidence leads to an answer which seems mystical, then so be it. I get the nagging feeling that I am wrong and there is proof that human consciousness is not truly involved, but if that’s the case, why isn’t proof of this more evident? I would think that such evidence would be put front and center in most discussions on the subject–so why is it so hard to find?

Certainly, the evidence I have seen so far seems to support the human-consciousness model. After all, in the quantum-eraser experiment detailed above, it was established that the sensors recording the passage of the particle through the slit were not sufficient by themselves to collapse the waveform, because even when they functioned and recorded the event, all it took was the lack of a human looking at the data to make the effect of the sensors nil. Similarly, even the particles of energy hitting the light-sensitive screen was not enough, as the pattern left was changeable depending upon a human observer, even if the observation happened after the particles supposedly hit the screen.

If neither highly sensitive sensors recording data on a particle’s position in transit nor a screen recording the location of a particle’s impact are sufficient to collapse the waveform, then what non-human agency is capable of this, and how does it differ from human interaction?

Here are some suggestions for further experiments which I think would be very interesting:

1. Does the observer have to be able to recognize what they are seeing? What if a person sees the slit-sensor data but is not told what they are looking at, and they don’t understand it? Will that change the pattern the particles leave?

2. If the observer does not need to understand what they see, then does the observer have to be human? What if a chimpanzee, or even a dog, sees the data? Does this affect the patterns like it does when a person notices the data?

3. What if two different people observe the data? One person sees the slit-sensor data, but vows never to discuss it with a different person who sees the pattern left? I suppose it would also be necessary to prevent the observer of the slit-sensor data from seeing the pattern left on the screen.

That leads to another question: is it the erasure of the slit-sensor data that affects the pattern on the screen, or is it the decision to erase the data? That suggests another experiment:

4. Have a scientist perform the quantum-eraser delayed choice experiment, but don’t tell him that we’ve disabled the erasing function for the slit-sensor data. Let him think he’s erased the data, and see if the pattern still changes!

If the pattern becomes one of interference as if the data had actually been erased, then one would wonder what would happen if the data were then viewed, especially by that scientist, after the screen’s pattern had been viewed.

If these experiments have already been done and you know about them, please do tell! If not, I wonder why not–they all seem rather significant.

Categories: Science Tags:

On Not Seeing Tomorrow

April 28th, 2009 Comments off

When Democrats put forward the stimulus bill, it included some stuff that was more good ideas than pure job-creation. Republicans objected to many of these but two programs stand out now. One was volcano monitoring, which Bobby Jindal dismissed as unnecessary, saying that “Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington.” Geologists disagreed. One month later, Alaska’s Mount Redoubt erupted with five massive explosions, threatening people nearby, putting not too fine a point on how such monitoring can save lives, and in an extreme case, help avoid having to spend far more money in the long run.

At the same time, Republicans were attacking Democrats for including nearly a billion dollars for pandemic flu preparedness in the spending bill. Republican Senator Susan Collins from Maine argued that the funding should be cut, and was successful in doing so. Now, two and a half months later, a swine flu epidemic seems to be on the verge of outbreak, with the possibility of turning into a pandemic–something that could cost the country trillions of dollars. Unless we’re prepared. Oops.

True, neither were particularly great for job creation–but they would have created jobs, and would also be highly practical, with great benefits for the country.

Republican politicians seem to be rather famously short-sighted on stuff like this, thinking about the immediate bottom line rather than long-term complications and potential hazards. In the meantime, when a Democrat is far-sighted, he gets pilloried. Just look at Al Gore. He was very strongly involved in the 1980’s to not only keep the then-embryonic Internet funded when it was going to be discarded by the Reagan Administration, but worked to build and expand it. Later, it became a multi-trillion-dollar boon to the nation’s economy. The Republican reaction: to falsely ridicule him by saying that he claimed to have single-handedly invented the Internet. Well, guffaw.

Categories: Science Tags:

It Could Be Worse

March 20th, 2009 Comments off

From a new poll:

A record-high 16 percent of Americans now believe that global warming will never occur; in more than ten years of polling, no more than 11 percent of respondents had ever expressed this opinion.

And about 50% of the American people don’t believe in evolution. So, despite the rising number of people believing the right-wing rhetoric, we still have a long way before we reach the levels of denial seen elsewhere.

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Japan Takes the Lead

May 9th, 2008 5 comments

As Christian Fundamentalists work hard to undermine science in the U.S. and the Bush administration subverts the field for their political goals, the Japanese government is planning to hire a new generation of Science teachers for primary, middle, and high schools to spur new interest in the field in Japanese youngsters.

Meanwhile, how is your Internet connection in the U.S.? I currently pay $40/mo. for a 100 Mbps fiber optic line, and the reception’s great. I can do that because years ago, the Japanese government implemented a policy called “e-Japan” to spur Internet development in Japan. It worked, finishing a year ahead of schedule in its goal to make almost all of Japan able to connect to the Net at speeds no less than 30 Mbps at low cost.

The U.S., to this date, still has no coherent policy on Internet development. Beyond, that is, abortive attempts by bought-off congress members to repeal Network Neutrality, allowing the Telecoms to charge even more for Internet connections, while not binding them to any promises to develop faster broadband connections.

All this while Americans are suddenly realizing that gas prices are only going up, and those gas-guzzling SUV’s they thought were so cool are far too expensive to maintain. Guess which country is the only one specializing in smaller, fuel-efficient automobiles?

You would think that at some point, the U.S. would learn a lesson or two. This time around, it’s not so much about Japan being super-smart as it is about America being super-dumb.

Categories: Science Tags:

Academic Freedom… to Be Anti-Academic

May 4th, 2008 7 comments

Well, the ID’ers are at it again, trying to cram creationism into Science classes by way of sabotaging the teaching of Evolution theory. This time, their false-front is called “academic freedom,” as in “academic freedom bills” which creationist legislators are pushing to get passed now. It’s all about the name of the bill, isn’t it? This one is like the “Patriot Act,” suggesting you’re not a patriot if you vote against it. We all know that the more strongly a bill is so named, the more likely it is not to have any relation to the name, and this one certainly fits the bill.

The problem is this case, of course, is that it’s not about academic freedom. It is not “academic freedom,” for example, to teach that photosynthesis doesn’t happen, or that the Earth’s atmosphere is primarily made up of oxygen. Instead, that kind of stuff is more accurately termed as “being wrong.” Now, the ID’ers are not claiming that photosynthesis doesn’t happen or that the Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t mostly consist of nitrogen. My point is that they would be arguing such drivel if they had happened to interpret the bible as having said so. They are not against Evolution because it’s wrong–after all, they have not argued against scientific theories that are far more likely to be wrong. They argue against it because it goes against the peculiar brand of science they have divined from scriptures written by people who knew even less about science than the least-educated people in the country today, people who were not even writing about science, but from whose words people today extract conclusions about the nature of the universe. They argue against Evolution because they want people to believe in their own product instead of what actually exists.

The argument is that these new laws don’t bring creationism into the classroom, but just like ID, that is a shallow pretense and is ultimately false. After all, what is being proposed is essentially to tear down Evolution in the classroom and teach that it is false–which is precisely the nature of the intelligent design scheme, which runs not on its own evidence but rather purely on the conjecture that Evolution is wrong–which they claim leads us to the conclusion that god created the universe.

They are, to their credit, becoming a lot more politically savvy about this. Creationism failed because it was a blatant attempt to implant one religion’s dogma into science classes. ID failed because it was a sloppy attempt to dress up creationism as a faux scientific theory; its origins were directly traced back to creationism, and as a “scientific” theory, it was laughable. This latest attempt is the creationists’ cleverest attempt yet, because it claims to do nothing but to allow teachers to challenge Evolution theory, which is what Science is supposed to do–challenge and test theories to see if they stand up.

That sounds legitimate, except for one small detail: it is even more a fraud than ID was. This is not about challenging Evolution theory in scientific venues to test its veracity; if it were, there would be no new laws necessary; anyone can challenge Evolution theory anytime they want, however often they want. ID’ers have been trying to for some time, and they came up against a teensy little problem: their challenges have to have the smallest shred of legitimacy or fact, and none of theirs have that. What these new “academic freedom” laws intend to do is not to challenge the theory, but to discredit it with false claims that have been disproved in that very peer review.

Here’s the Fox News argument presented by one creationist “Science” teacher:

Doug Cowan, a public-school biology teacher, said his colleagues are often afraid to speak out.

Mr. Cowan said he tells students: “I’m going to give you the evidence for Evolution and the evidence against, and let you decide.” For instance, he’ll mention Darwin’s observation that finches evolve different-shaped beaks to suit different ecosystems. Then he’ll add that you don’t see a finch changing into another species.

Asked what evidence he presents to bolster evolution, Mr. Cowan paused. “I don’t have any,” he said.

Mr. Cowan is obviously an idiot. First of all, if he has no evidence to bolster Evolution, then he clearly is not a Science teacher; that’s like a professor of Constitutional Law claiming he doesn’t have any evidence to bolster the concept of Freedom of Speech. Secondly, the claim that no one sees a finch spontaneously change into a giraffe in a sudden puff of smoke is just one of the many completely ludicrous “criticisms” of Evolution theory that has the honor of having been so plainly disproved that even creationists are loath to bring it up; Mr. Cowan apparently didn’t get the memo.

But even aside from that, Mr. Cowan is suggesting that it’s a good idea to have creationists masquerading as authorities representing Science in the classroom to follow a half-assed representation of a rock-solid theory upheld by a century and a half of testing and peer review with a rebuttal of plainly false creationist fabrications, and then “let the students decide.” Yes, let’s do this for all subjects. Let’s hire members of white supremacist groups to teach American History, give students a half-assed lecture about slavery, follow it with a rebuttal about how black people enjoyed slavery and were better off under it, and then “let the students decide.” Or let’s have Computer Science taught by Luddites who briefly introduce the Internet and follow it up with a scare lecture about how using the Internet will lead teenagers to be raped and killed by child molesters, and let the kids decide on that, too. Because this kind of teaching methodology will only lead students to make informed choices which are bound to be correct. Right?

Let’s not kid ourselves. This bill to introduce “academic freedom” is nothing less than a bald attempt to give creationists who have defrauded their way into becoming “science” teachers free license to sabotage the teaching of actual science so that the students will, they hope, be driven to accept creationism.

This new angle is building up to a regression of lies and scams, all leading back to creationist claims that when what we see with our eyes contradicts a specific interpretation of biblical stories, we should deny observed fact and instead accept the preferred biblical interpretations. I mean, really, who could believe that science-fiction claptrap about the formation of proteins in a primordial soup, followed by the formation of cells grouping into colonies, which then progressed into more complex forms which survived by being the best-adapted to changing environments? Baloney! After looking at all of the abundance of fossils, the chemical analyses, the structure of DNA, and all the rest of the evidence, it is so obvious that man was formed when a big guy with a white beard breathed on a lump of clay! I mean, come on, how clear can it be? All you have is a century and a half of piercing peer review and mountains of evidence; we’ve got a guy who may or may not have been a sheep herder four thousand years ago who claims he spoke to god!! Beat that, science bitches!!

Categories: Education, Religion, Science Tags:


April 12th, 2008 2 comments

For those of you who have not been following the story in P.Z. Myer’s blog Pharyngula, there is a “documentary” out called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed which is essentially a brazenly slanted and strongly dishonest “Intelligent Design” propaganda film, hosted by one of the “theory’s” most prominent proponents, Ben Stein. From the very start, the entire project was a sham. Contacting various scientists and others who are proponents of evolution, an organization calling itself “Rampart Films” asked them if they would like to be interviewed for a film titled Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion–a very reasonable-sounding title. A search on the organization’s web site at the time would have brought forth this blurb:

Crossroads – The Intersection of Science and Religion:

It’s been the central question of humanity throughout the ages: How in the world did we get here? In 1859 Charles Darwin provided the answer in his landmark book, “The Origin of Species.” In the century and a half since, biologists, geologists, physicists, astronomers and philosophers have contributed a vast amount of research and data in support of Darwin’s idea. And yet, millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other people of faith believe in a literal interpretation that humans were crafted by the hand of God. This conflict between science and religion has unleashed passions in school board meetings, courtrooms, and town halls across America and beyond.

Indeed, this sounds like a very reasonable presentation of the issue in a fair, unbiased way. The scientists agreed to be interviewed. However, once the interviews were procured, the name of the production company was switched, and the title of the movie and its summary changed to:

Ben Stein, in the new film EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed; His heroic and, at times, shocking journey confronting the world’s top scientists, educators and philosophers, regarding the persecution of the many by an elite few. Ben travels the world on his quest, and learns an awe-inspiring truth…that bewilders him, then angers him…and then spurs him to action! Ben realizes that he has been “Expelled,” and that educators and scientists are being ridiculed, denied tenure and even fired – for the “crime” of merely believing that there might be evidence of “design” in nature, and that perhaps life is not just the result of accidental, random chance. To which Ben Says: “Enough!” And then gets busy. NOBODY messes with Ben.

A slight change in tone, one should admit. When Myers and others’ interviews were put into the film, they were presented not only out of context, but in a completely new one: their filmed answers (shot in a style as if they had to be filmed with a hidden camera) were intercut with footage of goose-stepping Nazi storm troopers. You can guess where things went from there.

Basically, the film does what ID’ers generally do: present no actual evidence for their own argument (not possible, because there is none), but instead attempt to expose the “fallacies” in evolutionary theory (all such claims are demonstrably false) whilst trying to cast evolution and “Darwinists” (are the filmmakers “Yahwehists”?) as responsible for every reprehensible person, organization, and event in history.

A recent development is the lengthy review by Scientific American which, predictably, rips the filmmakers a new hole in their space-time continuum. A short excerpt:

Like the decision to call evolution Darwinism, the omission of science from Expelled was a deliberate choice. In fact, it was crucial to the film’s strategy. Because they know Americans revere freedom of speech and fairness, the producers cast the conflict between evolution and ID as purely a struggle between worldviews—a difference of opinions, a battle of ideologies—in which one side is censoring the other. They know that the public will instinctively want to defend the underdog, especially when that opinion aligns with the religious beliefs many of them already share.

It is a terrific strategy, but with one caveat: that airy skirmish of opinions must never, ever touch the ground of solid evidence. Because if it does, if viewers are ever allowed to notice that evolution is supported by mountains of tangible, peer-reviewed evidence gathered by generations of scientists, whereas ID has little more than a smattering of vanity-press pamphlets from a handful of cranks… the bubble pops.

Expelled is all about how science should not reject people with ID “theories.” The filmmakers must therefore stop you from ever asking, Why?—because even children understand that in science, two ideas are not equally good if one of them is wrong. Some of the ideas fluffing up ID are demonstrably wrong; the rest are often described as “not even wrong” because they are so untestable or irreconcilable with the rest of science.

It was hard to choose just that one snippet because the entire review is excellent, going to great lengths to show how completely full of BS the film and its creators are, with Scientific American using as much evidence to prove their point as the filmmakers do not use to not prop up their own.

For more on the general subject, check out the Index to Creationist Claims, which exhaustively shoots down every creationist and ID myth and lie; the PBS documentary Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial (the entire documentary is viewable online, and it is excellent); my discussion of the reactions to that documentary; the site Expelled: Exposed, which covers reviews and other coverage of the “documentary”; and (again) P.Z. Myers’ blog, Pharyngula.

Categories: Religion, Science Tags:

Haldane Knew What He Was Talking About

March 7th, 2008 7 comments

Tonight I feel like indulging in a little Quantum physics 101. There’s something in quantum physics which is always fascinating: the double-slit experiment.

Take a light source, like a light bulb. Across the room is photosensitive paper which will get dark if exposed to light. Between them is an opaque wall. In the wall there is a tall, thin slit that can be opened and closed.

You open the slit. As expected, it will expose a section of the photosensitive paper behind it and you’ll get a tall, thin exposure there.

Now, imagine there’s a second slit. Do the experiment again, but this time open both slits at the same time. You might expect that you will expose two slits on the photosensitive paper, one for each opening in the wall. But in reality, you get a series of exposures on the photosensitive paper, as if there were many slits.

This is because when energy travels, it does so as a wave, like waves in a pond. If you drop two stones into a pond, waves go forth, and when the two sets of waves meet, they form an interference pattern. Same thing with the light through the two slits; the light pouring through each slit comes through in a wave form, like the waves from the stones in the pond; the waves interfere with each other, and so form the extra exposures.

Okay, so far we’ve only determined that energy travels as a wave. You’ve heard about “radio waves” your whole life, so this is not too impressive. But when further experiments are done, weird things begin to happen.

The idea of the interference pattern is that large numbers of energy packets are flowing through both slits, so obviously (or so one would think) the interference pattern comes from different light waves coming through each slit. Light wave A travels through one slit, and light wave B travels through the other slit; A and B meet on the other side and interfere with each other.

So someone decided to carry out this experiment with a variation: instead of using a light bulb, a different energy source was used: one that would emit just one packet of energy at a time, a packet of energy that could not be divided. Each packet would have to travel through one slit or the other, with no other packets to interfere along the way. After letting this experiment run its course and enough of packets of energy to pass through both slits, one would expect to see only two exposures, one for each slit, on the photosensitive paper on the far side of the wall with slits.

Except that’s not what happens. Instead, you get the same multiple-exposure interference pattern. And that’s where the weirdness comes in: if only one packet of energy, only one “wave” of light, is issued at one time, what could be interfering with it?

The answer: the energy is interfering with itself.

According to the theory, when you issue a packet of energy and let it go flying across the room, it does not simply follow a single straight path across the room. It takes every path across the room, simultaneously. In the case of the double-slit experiment, the energy packet does not just pass through slit A or slit B, it passes through both slit A and slit B.

But how can one piece of energy go through two slits? Here’s where it gets hairy: every possible path the light could possibly take is taken by a ghost-like probability of the energy packet, each probability nonetheless being “real” enough to interfere with other probabilities. It is as if a near-infinite number of probable versions of that energy packet take off across the room, interfering with each other all along the way. When the packet reaches the photosensitive paper and is forced to make an observable record of its location, the multitudinous probabilities collapse into the one most likely probability, and the impact of the energy packet on the photosensitive paper is recorded.

What’s more weird is what makes the probabilities collapse: observation. Place a detector at each slit that can observe the energy packet going through the slit–before it has a chance to interfere with itself on the other side–and the multiple exposures disappear, leaving only two exposures on the photosensitive paper. Even a detector over just one slit is enough to collapse the probabilities into single, definite paths–somehow the energy packets going through the unobserved slit “know” that observation is going on at the other slit, and behave accordingly.

You’ve probably heard of Schrödinger’s Cat; this thought experiment expresses what is explained above. I prefer to simplify it as a coin-in-a-box. Flip a coin in the air so it will land in an opaque, soundproofed box. When it drops below the upper rim of the box, slap a cover onto the box. You cannot hear where the coin went, how long it bounced around, and being human, you can’t predict which side will come up, heads or tails, just from watching the trajectory and the rate of spin of the coin going into the box. To make absolutely sure, flip the coin in the dark, so you can’t possibly predict how it landed.

The common-sense expectation is that the coin has landed in the box, and is either heads-up or tails-up, and it has a specific location in the box. We assume these things are decided just as if we were watching them, except in this case, we simply haven’t seen the results yet.

But the quantum theory expectation is far different. Once we stop observing the coin, it no longer exists as an object with a specific location. Instead, it exists as a cloud of probable-coins. Half of those are heads-up, and half are tails-up, aside from a small number of probable-coins that rest on their sides along the edges of the box. Probable-coins exist in all possible locations within the box. It’s really just one coin, expressed as a cloud of probable outcomes. And it stays that way until we open the box and observe it–at which time the probable-coins collapse into the most likely probability, which we observe.

That idea really messes with your head. It gives a whole new interpretation to the question, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” According to this theory, if no one is there to hear it, the tree doesn’t even fall. Just probable-versions of the tree fall, and what sound they do or do not make, I won’t venture to guess.

Einstein didn’t like this–probably for many different reasons, but at least because the theory implies that different probable-versions of a particle somehow instantaneously communicate with each other. That is, when the probable-versions collapse, they don’t all shout “Olly Olly Oxen-Free!” to each other. When an observation is made, they simply all collapse, regardless of distance, and that violates classical expectations of how things work.

Einstein tried to disprove this “spooky action at a distance,” but in fact, an experiment performed in Switzerland has shown it to be real, where two “twinned” photons shared information instantaneously at a distance of ten kilometers. We now know that two intertwined particles can share information without paying attention to the speed of light. However, because of the way things work, we cannot use this as a means of faster-than-light communication.

This one effect aside, the whole situation raises bigger questions: is a conscious observer required, and if so, then is consciousness tied in with the fabric of the universe? Is nothing real until it is observed by life forms capable of being observers?

Those into New-Age spiritualism will often might conclude that this is proof of the soul. Scientists will tell you that these are abstractions created by mathematical attempts to explain observable phenomena and do not necessarily translate into real-world conclusions that New-Agers might subscribe to. Science fiction writers use this as a launching point to travel to all sorts of possible explanations, fiction made more fascinating because of its “grounding” in real physics.

In the end, we don’t know what the hell is going on. But it is fun as hell to speculate, to travel to those possible realities, and to know that–to paraphrase J. B. S. Haldane–the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but it is stranger than we can imagine.

Categories: Science Tags:

The Principle of Shallow Thinking

January 13th, 2008 1 comment

After seeing this story summing up all the candidates’ stands on evolution (read Mike Gravel’s in particular), I was reminded of an excellent television program aired a few months back: NOVA’s (when aren’t they excellent?) special two-hour Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. If you haven’t seen it, you can (and should) watch it wholly online at NOVA’s web site.

The program does a very good job of describing the trial in Dover, PA, where a judge ruled unconstitutional a school board policy to present Intelligent Design as an alternate theory to Evolution. Not only did the Evolution side blow the ID claims out of the water, but they also succeeded in revealing a paper trail which showed that ID was the direct evolutionary descendant of creationism.

I’ve made my thoughts on ID clear in this blog before. It is, as the Dover case illustrated, nothing more than creationism reworked for the sole purpose of sneaking it into science classes. Simply put, ID has no evidence to back it up; its entire case is that evolution is wrong, and therefore ID is right. There is no evidence, no mathematical model which supports ID; it is a theory based upon a negative, relying purely upon fallacious criticisms of evolution so that a metaphysical argument is “proven” by nothing more than the process of elimination.

It is a theory which personifies the creationist mindset: don’t think. It doesn’t rely on any positive evidence. It requires no deep study, no deep thinking–just belief. Essentially, it says that we are just too complex, so don’t even bother finding an explanation other than god. And that pretty concisely sums up how creationists approach things: not with deep understanding, but with a superficial denial based upon a poor grasp of core issues.

You can see this in action by looking at the PBS Ombudsman’s column for the show, where a good deal of viewer mail is displayed. It is quite educational.

One question asked by several creationists is best stated here:

If evolution were true and man “evolved” from apes, why do we have apes and monkeys co-existing with man? Why have the apes not all turned into humans?

This is the sort of question that so baldly expresses the simple lack of understanding of evolution by those who feel they know more than enough to dismiss it. It reminds me of my co-worker from years back who felt confident that radioactive dating methods that showed the Earth being far more than 6000 years old were wrong because she believed she found a fatal flaw in the science… based on her hearing a summary of the procedure in her high school Science class. She didn’t study, didn’t ask, didn’t investigate; she just found something that sounded like it could be a flaw, and immediately decided that science must be wrong and her religion correct.

This question about co-existing with other primates is a classic example of this sort of shallow, non-thinking reasoning. The person who asked it obviously wasn’t looking for an answer; a quick Google search would have provided him with the answer, as would have a simply query over the phone to any local Science teacher or perhaps even any librarian. Clearly this person had either heard this question asked but not answered, or thought of it themselves, and never sought an answer to it beyond the ID community.

Had they done so, they would have found the answer. First, and most glaringly, we did not evolve from “apes.” Both humans and apes evolved from early primates. There is somehow the idea that the apes that now exist also existed back then, and we are descended from them; this is incorrect. Now, if you want to call the early primates “apes,” go ahead, but it is an incorrect classification that leads to further misunderstanding. Second, evolution is not a process where all members of a species change at the same time and in the same way; this was amply demonstrated in the NOVA documentary when it explained “branching.” And while the early primates from which all current primates evolved went extinct, there is no rule which says they have to disappear. Some species have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years; it is possible for a new species to have branched from an ancient one, and yet both still exist side-by-side.

Of course, one writer mentioned the whole “macro-evolution” paradigm. Since evolution can clearly be seen at work over the course of a few years, ID’ers have split evolution into two categories–“micro-evolution,” which they concede happens but does not contradict creationism, and “macro-evolution,” which is large changes over large spans of time, which they deny because it does contradict creationism. This is known as “moving the goal posts,” something that the creationist crowd does constantly. You provide proof that a creationist claim is wrong, they either ignore it, deny it, or, in the goal-post-moving paradigm, claim that it’s not enough and more specific evidence is needed.

Another viewer writes:

This was labeled as a landmark case. Not so. This was a smaller court not a Federal court from what I have found.

Again, we have people not just assuming facts not in evidence, but assuming facts contrary to clear evidence. Right at the beginning of the documentary, it was made clear that the judge in the case was appointed by President Bush. That clearly makes him a federal judge. Not to mention that a very quick Google could have shown the fact even more clearly. The same writer continues:

Most scientists who are Darwinists have atheistic beliefs just as there are people of faith who support creation or ID. About two years ago a FEDERAL court ruled that atheism is a religion.

And here we come to another common belief among creationists: that evolution is as much a child of atheism as creationism is of religion. Of course “Atheism” (“strong Atheism,” that is, the belief that god does not exist) is a religion belief system not based on fact, as is a belief in the existence of god [edit]. But evolution has nothing whatsoever to do with Atheism. Atheism is a belief system; evolution is a scientific theory with huge amounts of physical evidence which has healthily survived a century and a half of strident and piercing attack and review.

It is only from the fundamentalist religious viewpoint that evolution is a belief system, or is part of one, and that is chiefly because fundamentalists use biblical scripture as if it were a Science text, and from there come to conclusions about the nature of the universe which are easily shown as false by physical observations. Fundamentalists see any idea or information which contradicts their religious beliefs as being just as much based on a belief system, and so they ascribe it to Atheism, or as an attack on their religion.

Most of the negative views on the documentary accused it of bias. An easy accusation, since it’s such a contentious topic, and so many see it in a deeply subjective light. But ultimately, it’s a false claim, based upon the perception that their side was not adequately presented–because their side was shown as losing.

Any look at the evolution vs. ID debate is going to be controversial, and any view that winds up supporting one side will naturally be called biased by the other side. What NOVA did was to focus on the two in the crucible of a federal courtroom, not to mention one presided over by a Republican, a Lutheran, and appointed by George W. Bush, no less. ID’ers could not have asked for a fairer judge, and initially, were pleased, as this commenter on a ID blog wrote:

Judge John E. Jones on the other hand is a good old boy brought up through the conservative ranks. He was state attorney for D.A.R.E, an Assistant Scout Master with extensively involved with local and national Boy Scouts of America, political buddy of Governor Tom Ridge (who in turn is deep in George W. Bush’s circle of power), and finally was appointed by GW hisself. … Unless Judge Jones wants to cut his career off at the knees he isn’t going to rule against the wishes of his political allies. Of course the ACLU will appeal. This won’t be over until it gets to the Supreme Court. But now we own that too.

NOVA looked at the issue in the most even-handed venue that could be found (one which actually leaned in favor of ID from all appearances), where both sides had their chance to present their arguments.

One clear fact is that the side representing evolution won, and won big. That would suggest that they made their case much better, and therefore NOVA’s presentation was probably more toward the “fair” side of things. The only way you could get around this would be to suggest that Judge Jones was somehow so biased and unfair that the decision was fatally flawed and incorrect… and predictably, this is exactly the tack that ID’ers have taken since the decision was handed down, and they turned viciously against “their” judge.

Some commenters on the NOVA documentary felt that there was even a conspiracy at work:

WHAT IS PBS AFRAID OF, that they would not allow it??? PBS’s refusal to allow a fair rebuttal tells the whole story. What a shame that so many Americans who can intuitively see that there is a difference between intelligent involvement and random chance must pay for such one-sided reporting. It is sad that the Intelligent Design idea has been hushed-up. Talk about loss of freedom of speech!

What it really comes down to, however, is that the claims of “Intelligent Design” are completely unscientific, and are not backed up by a shred of evidence that can withstand any sort of review. Any “evidence” posited by the ID side can inevitably be knocked down. For a large number of examples of this, visit the Index to Creationist Claims, which deals with all such “evidence” with comprehensive and devastating detail. Really, go take a look at it–it’s pretty impressive.

And that’s why Science ends up winning cases like the one in Dover: they have got their stuff together. I guess defending a theory successfully over a century and a half of arduous attack will leave you that way.

Though I kind of like the way Ars Mathematica put it, graphically:


Categories: Religion, Science Tags:

For Those of You Impatient for Steorn

December 1st, 2007 2 comments

There is news of a big dinner in London tonight where some kind of new “super material” is to be revealed, a material which is supposed to lead to a major lowering of production costs, which will help to greatly reduce climate change. Engadget and a few other sites are buzzing about it. Here’s a quote from the story released in The Independent last week:

Al Gore is to be the star turn at a dinner where guests have paid at least £1,000 a head, and some will have parted with £50,000 for their share of the Aberdeen Angus steak and pink champagne, under the high ornate ceilings of London’s Royal Courts of Justice. The combined wealth of the diners has been estimated at £100bn. But the most unusual aspect of the evening is not the price of the tickets but the nature of the floor show. In place of professional performers, the guests will be regaled by people who are not always thought of as entertainers, though some think they are all mad. They are inventive British boffins who care about climate change. …

“This is something … that’s the accumulation of almost a decade of work,” [Kane Kramer] said. “It’s a new science, a Super Material. It would be 80 per cent cheaper than any alternative means of production, and it will contribute in a major way to reducing climate change.

”I like it because it’s kind of lateral. It will make possible things that weren’t possible before. We have put it through severe ‘due diligence’, with quite a team of people, not just in the UK, and we’re completely 100 per cent sure that this is the way forward.“

Sound familiar? Sounds like Steorn all over again, except the cast listing looks a lot more appealing. The thing is, the story at The Independent seems to be misleading. It seems to be suggesting that the event is centered around this new technology. However, a quick Google News search reveals that there is an event hosted by Al Gore at London’s Royal Courts of Justice tonight, but it’s a fundraiser for various charities. No mention of startling new technology, or any kind of technology showcase by British inventors; the showcase is famous people pitching charities, and then a singing performance by Damien Rice.

The fundraiser should have ended a few hours ago, and there are no news stories about new technology. So, is Kramer joining the ranks of Steorn in the Royal Hall of Vaporware Breakthroughs?

Categories: Science Tags:

Orbo Or Not Orbo

July 5th, 2007 6 comments

Steorn said they’d demo the Orbo in July, and it seems like that will finally happen. The alleged perpetual-motion free-energy machine will go on display, according to reports, at the Kinetica Museum in London. It will repeatedly lift an object, for ten days, in a clear plastic case with no battery or other power source in evidence.


According to Steorn’s CEO:

“The law of conservation of energy has been very reliable for 300 years, however it’s missing one variable from the equation, and that’s time,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy explained to Silicon Republic that Orbo technology works on the basis that occurrences in magnetic fields do not happen instantaneously, and are therefore not subject to time in the way that, say, gravity is.

This time variance allows the Orbo platform to generate and consistently produce power, going against the law of conservation of energy which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

Should be interesting to see what comes of this. It sounds fake and it sounds real. One hopes for real.

Update:…or not, again. Steorn cancelled the event due to “technical difficulties.”

Categories: Science Tags:

Orbo Watch

April 12th, 2007 1 comment

Apparently, something may or may not be revealed about the Steorn Orbo saga on Friday. For a rundown on what Steorn Orbo is, either check out my prior blog post on it, or read this blog on Orbo developments, but the Reader’s Digest version is that a company called Steorn says that it accidentally stumbled upon a way of arranging magnets so as to create a system which produces more energy than is put into it–the classic perpetual-motion “free energy” machine, which the company has now dubbed “Orbo.” Sounds just like any number of hoaxes and false claims that litter the landscape every year–but the twist is that the company isn’t acting like a bunch of fraudsters: they stopped sales and solicitations, took out a very expensive ad to call for a scientific jury to study and verify the technology, and are otherwise making the kind of noises that one would not expect from those perpetrating a hoax.

Now, Steorn has announced that on Friday, April 13, they “will be releasing the update on the Jury process and so on.” People are expecting this to mean that the company will be releasing at least preliminary results on what the jury has found, and perhaps identifying members of the jury and publishing some of their statements. “Other info,” possibly including some specs on the technology, are also expected. Steorn claims that they are producing around 100,000 devices that use the technology as samples, and that could be released anytime between now and July.

Will it turn out to be a hoax? Will it change the world? Is it just an incredibly elaborate publicity stunt to promote the TV show “Lost”?

One hopes, and yet one suspects.

UPDATE: False alarm. Steorn was just releasing an update to information already released. The only new information is the number of people on the jury, which is 22. Ho-hum. So wait until July, which seems to be the next date where they might come out with something. Or, from today’s experience, not.

Categories: Science Tags:

Io, Again

March 9th, 2007 Comments off


You’ve got to just love the stuff NASA comes out with. This is a new image of Io, the wildest of Jupiter’s moons, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft as it passes by Jupiter to get a speed boost as it travels to Pluto. Io can be seen with three volcanic plumes erupting–one of them, as you can see, spectacularly–and mountains bigger than Everest catching the morning sun on their peaks.

Beyond cool.

Categories: Science Tags:

If Only

February 20th, 2007 1 comment

You may or may not have heard of a company called Steorn, which is hyping a product called “Orbo.” Despite the names, the company is not Norwegian–it’s Irish (though the name “Steorn” is Norwegian, meaning to guide or manage). And the product is not a new piece of computer equipment or fashion accessory, it is, supposedly, a source of free energy:

Orbo produces free, clean and constant energy – that is our claim. By free we mean that the energy produced is done so without recourse to external source. By clean we mean that during operation the technology produces no emissions. By constant we mean that with the exception of mechanical failure the technology will continue to operate indefinitely.

Okay, already your skeptic’s hat is firmly planted atop your head by now, no doubt. Interestingly, on the exact same page the above claim is made, the entrepreneurs themselves admit that “The sum of these claims for our Orbo technology is a violation of the principle of conservation of energy, perhaps the most fundamental of scientific principles.”

Every so often, you get claims like this. Sometimes it’s a promise of an invisibility cloak, other times it’s a car that gets 200 miles to the gallon, but usually it’s like the contention above–a free, clean energy technology which is also potentially a perpetual-motion machine, or close enough to one.

The interesting thing about this claim is that it’s just odd and bold enough to make your tinfoil hat slip ever so slightly off-center so that the bozo rays from this company make you wonder just a tiny bit if there’s actually something to it.

And admit it: you want it to be true. It would be so cool.

Here’s the deal: these guys published a full-page ad in The Economist (which likely cost $160,000) last year claiming that they developed a technology which provides a “free, clean, and constant energy” source. They have invited skeptics and scientists to come and review the technology first-hand. The firm’s CEO is not some conspiracy-theory nutcase (he says he doesn’t believe in them), is not claiming that anyone is trying to suppress their findings, and promises to reveal and license the technology later this year after the independent scientific review has been completed. The noises they’re making sound very much on-the-level (“until this thing is validated by science we won’t be doing anything commercial with it”), and their process of validation seems like they’re willing to pony up the goods for independent verification.

Facts like these are what makes the claim intriguing. On the other hand, the company has released no firm explanation or proof of the new technology; it has a very shaky financial history; and, let’s face it, the technology they claim to have would violate the first law of thermodynamics. That being the case, a patent for the whole technology cannot be granted, which is convenient as a way to avoid revealing the whole technology in a patent application.

Nevertheless, the claims are enticing if vaporish:

Sean McCarthy stated in an RTE radio interview that, “What we have developed is a way to construct magnetic fields so that when you travel round the magnetic fields, starting and stopping at the same position, you have gained energy… The energy isn’t being converted from any other source such as the energy within the magnet. It’s literally created. Once the technology operates it provides a constant stream of clean energy.”

In a demonstration to The Guardian at Steorn’s office, a computer display reported the device to have an efficiency of 285%. The article goes on to say that Steorn claims to have measured efficiencies up to 400%. The device has been reported to be an all-magnet motor, with no electromagnetic component. Steorn also claims that according to its research the device can be scaled to almost any size, powering anything from a flashlight to an airplane.

None of these claims have been independently verified.

There is a huge chance that these guys are very clever scam artists who are trying to get investors to pour money into a fake technology which they can claim was an honest but failed attempt at a free and clean energy source (apparently, they have raised two and a half million euros, though that was before the public announcement–they claim that since the announcement and until the results of the validation are complete, they will raise no new investments).

But in the same way you hope that this time your lottery ticket will have the winning numbers, you find yourself willing, even if just a little bit, to suspend disbelief and imagine what it would be like if these guys were actually on the level and actually had something here.

Here’s the CEO of the company talking about the whole shebang:

Categories: Science Tags:

…And Disregards the Rest

January 3rd, 2007 2 comments

Here is another excellent example of the conservative mindset at work. Some people take science so simplistically that they do not try to understand a concept beyond the two words used to describe it–especially when they know that dealing with the issue would threaten the lifestyle they are comfortable with.

Of course, while that might explain people like Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, it cannot explain someone like Pat Michaels, someone who actually studied the subject and holds a professorship, trying to claim that extreme cold weather events are proof that global warming is a crock. One would assume that a person who actually got a Ph.D. in ecological climatology would not be so idiotic as to say, “if you believe that warming causes cooling, you’re like my neighbors down in Virginia who think that if you put hot water in the ice cube tray, it freezes faster. It doesn’t work that way.”

Unless, of course, you are a right-wing extremist who is so blinded by your political leanings and the money you can make whoring for the energy industry as to make nonsensical statements like that one–as if the Earth’s climate is not complex enough for a warming trend to cause disruptions that could create extreme cold weather events in some places.

Which, of course, is another way that conservatives find to believe the “science” that suits their politics: find the rare “scientist” with credentials for the task, ignore their severely compromised status, and believe what they have to say, like a chain smoker buying into the “research” and “studies” funded by the tobacco industry that say smoking is harmless. It’s little more than that–addictive behavior–which is why it’s no surprise that it is a common practice in the Bush White House.

Categories: Political Ranting, Science Tags:

They’re Sheep, They’re Here, Get Used to It

January 2nd, 2007 2 comments

Researchers in the U.S. are carrying out experiments to see if gay sheep can be changed into straight sheep. This, naturally, has sparked all sorts of fun outcry, including people defending the sheep’s “right” to be gay, and others saying it’ll be a “cure” for homosexuality.

The fundies must be conflicted about this one. After all, if homosexuality could be reversed chemically, I am sure they would be overjoyed. On the other hand, accepting this research, especially before knowing whether it will be successful, would be the same as admitting that homosexuality does occur in animal species, and axiomatically that homosexuality is a natural process and not a choice (those sheep chose to be gay!)–both being conclusions they have soundly rejected.

Although I am usually favorable to most scientific research as a matter of principle, I am not very positive about this particular line. The only benefit I see is the possible light shed on mammalian reproductive biology, and then only if the experiments produce some kind of measurable and reproducible effect. However, the nature of the experiments themselves is disturbing, as it would appear to be an attempt by people who are anti-gay attempting to “cure” homosexuality. (How ironic it would be if they failed to make gay sheep straight but instead found a way to make straight sheep gay!)

But should the “desired” technique be found, it could lead to what is essentially forced chemical alteration of human beings, akin to chemical castration of sex offenders. This of course stems from the belief that homosexuality is a disease, or at least an “imbalance,” something unhealthy and undesired, which should be “cured.” It brings to mind a relatively bad episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Riker falls for a member of a sexless society who is sexual; when discovered, she is cured of her “deviancy.”

Of course, there is also the possibility that a drug regimen could be found which does not change one’s actual sexual orientation, but could make one temporarily more inclined to respond to sexual cues from a certain gender. Think of drugs that make a peaceful person violent; you have not changed their nature with the drugs, you have simply poisoned them with a mind-altering drug. This would be particularly dangerous because it could be used to “prove” that homosexuality can be “cured” or “treated” whilst doing no such thing. Similarly, if the experiment fails, fundies will likely claim such a result to be proof that homosexuality is not a biological process, which would also be a faulty conclusion.

All in all, it does not sound like a very worthwhile line of study–unless the researchers are closet fundies trying to “get rid of” gay people. In which case it might be worthwhile from that point of view, while repugnant and horrifying from others.

Categories: Science Tags:


December 30th, 2006 Comments off

Due to supposedly non-existent global warming, a huge 50-sq.-km chunk of ice has broken free of an ice shelf in Canada and could smite oil rigs and wreak havoc upon oil tanker shipping lines.

Let’s think about this like a fundie televangelist: what, exactly, is god trying to tell us?


Categories: Religion, Science Tags:

Not Something You Hear Everyday

December 23rd, 2006 Comments off

“Giant squid are a major source of food for sperm whales.” [Source]


Categories: Science, The Lighter Side Tags:

The Beam in Thine Own Eye

December 4th, 2006 3 comments

Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye. –Luke 6:42

You’d think that in Kenya, a country now world-famous as being the cradle of mankind due to the fossils found by Dr. Richard Leakey there, would be proud of that distinction and would overcome quite some obstacles to claim international pride in the fact. Apparently, however, a bunch of fundamentalists have cowed the nation’s museums enough to seriously consider hiding the fossils so as not to upset the people who believe that the Earth is 6000 years old and that evolution is “just one theory.”

Leaders of Kenya’s 6-million-strong Pentecostal church want the fossils “de-emphasized”:

“The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact,” said Bishop Bonifes Adoyo, head of the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya, the Christ is the Answer Ministries.

“Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory,” the bishop said.

The criticism that it is a “theory,” of course, is a common creationist fallacy; Evolution is a “theory” just like gravity is a “theory.” The theory is not about whether it exists, the theory is about how it works. Evolution clearly exists, and in that respect, it is not “just one theory,” it is fact. The only thing that can overcome that is a faith in a belief that says you should ignore facts before your eyes in favor of the unsupported belief–which is exactly what these people are asking be done.

Now, even if one is to bend way over backwards and allow them their “theory” argument, consider what they have said: Evolution is “just one theory.” Well, another “theory” is creationism. And that “theory” has vastly less evidence to back it up than Evolution has. So it should be “de-emphasized” more, yes? Even they themselves admit that Evolution goes against their doctrine–not their research, not their evidence, not their proofs, but their doctrines, which are lesser than research, evidence, or proof (unless you have the all-important fact-defying faith).

But then consider the irony: the fossils they are seeking to suppress are evidence to back up Evolution (hence their eagerness to suppress them). First, they dismiss Evolution is “theory,” and say that because of this, evidence to back up that theory should be “de-emphasized.” Imagine you come up to someone in the early morning and say, “Look, the ground as far as we can see is wet, therefore it must have rained last night.” To which the other person says, “That’s just a theory, so we should ignore your evidence for it and only look up at the sky. See, it is clear and sunny now, therefore there was no rain last night. Ha, what a jolly fool you are!”

If the religious folks were to have their own “theories” held up to the same rigorous tests that they castigate science for not passing (even when it does), their “doctrines” would shatter into tiny little pieces. Ergo, my quote about the mote and the beam from Luke. That’s one thing religion is sometimes good for: maxims about principles and common sense. So why is it that the most holier-than-thou bible-thumpers violate these principles more than anyone else?

Thank goodness that the people running the museums have good sense and–

“We have a responsibility to present all our artifacts in the best way that we can so that everyone who sees them can gain a full understanding of their significance,” said Ali Chege, public relations manager for the National Museums of Kenya. “But things can get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists, or researchers on the other, saying the opposite.”

[sound of me smacking my palm against my forehead]

Yes, it is tricky when one side wants to present evidence and the other side wants to suppress it. Whatever are we to do? After all, we are just simple museum folk.


Categories: Religion, Science Tags: