Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement:

To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.

It's a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy: a major-party candidate announces that he doesn't deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it's not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70% of Republicans deny evolution.

Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won't do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn't an exaggeration for polemical effect; it's the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute - both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields - and Huntsman's refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.

But opposition to climate change is something new in the Republican platform. As recently as a few years ago, both Mitt Romney and John McCain supported cap-and-trade laws, and Newt Gingrich appeared in pro-environment ads with Nancy Pelosi. The party's rejection of climate science is fairly new, and probably comes from its increasing dependence on campaign cash from dirty-energy barons like the Koch brothers.

By contrast, the Republican party's denial of evolution is much older and more grass-roots in nature, dating at least to when the national parties traded places during the civil-rights era. The conservative South, in addition to its other charming qualities, has a long history of passing laws hostile to science - from Tennessee's Butler Act, the 1925 law prohibiting the teaching of evolution that led to the Scopes trial, to Louisiana's 1981 Balanced Treatment Act, which decreed that "creation science" had to be given an equal share of classroom time.

But while fundamentalists have always been hostile to evolution, the modern creationist movement got its start in the 1960s, primarily due to the influence of an evangelical author named Henry Morris. Morris' 1964 book The Genesis Flood argued, among other things, that Noah's flood happened just as the Bible describes it - in other words, that it was reasonable to believe that eight people could care for a floating zoo containing at least two members of every species on Earth. Imagine trying to run the entire Bronx Zoo with just eight employees. Now consider that Noah's leaky tub, by even the most forgiving estimates, would have to have had far more kinds of animals (including dinosaurs, which creationists believe existed simultaneously with humans, a la the Flintstones). Imagine how much feeding, watering, and manure-carrying that would be. Imagine all this frenetic activity taking place in the cramped, dark, foul-smelling confines of a wooden boat, with predators and prey side-by-side in narrow pens, during the most violent and catastrophic storm in the history of the planet, with an absolute requirement that not a single animal get sick or die. Now try not to laugh too hard at the people who seriously believe that all this really happened.

As already mentioned, the creationist movement's original strategy revolved around getting friendly state legislatures to decree that their ideas had to be taught in public schools, regardless of scientific merit or lack thereof. This strategy hasn't fared well in court: aside from a Pyrrhic victory in the Scopes trial, judges have repeatedly recognized this for the obvious violation of separation of church and state that it is. And each time they lost, the creationist movement responded the same way: like a snake shedding its skin, they rebranded themselves with a new name, then tried again with the same ideas. "Creation science" became "scientific creationism," which became "abrupt-appearance theory," and so on. The currently preferred nomenclature is "intelligent design" (which is totally constitutional and not at all religious, because we're not saying who we think the intelligent designer is - nudge nudge, wink wink!). But even this watered-down creationism met with defeat in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005, when a judge appointed by George W. Bush handed down a resounding ruling that teaching intelligent design in public school is unconstitutional.

It remains to be seen how they'll rebrand themselves next, though we can be confident that their basic strategy won't change. One of the most hilarious parts of the Dover case was evidence showing that, after a court ruling which made it illegal to teach creationism in public schools, the authors of a creationist textbook did a find-and-replace to change "creationism" to "intelligent design" and "creationists" to "design proponents". At one point, someone mistyped and left a transitional fossil in an early draft: a paragraph that referred to "cdesign proponentsists".

But while creationists keep bumbling on the legal front, they've had more success in the cultural arena, by infiltrating the public schools with creationist teachers who flout the law and preach their religious beliefs in class. There are some notable and egregious examples: in an earlier essay on AlterNet, I mentioned David Paskiewicz, the New Jersey high school teacher who advocated creationism in class, in addition to telling a Muslim student that she belonged in hell. There's also John Freshwater, a creationist science teacher who was fired for breaking school rules about proselytizing in the classroom. Among other things, he allegedly used a Tesla coil to burn a cross onto a student's arm!

And it's not just the teachers, either. Creationist churches are training students at all educational levels to refuse to learn about any science their religion rejects, as in this story:

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

"I refuse to answer," Bryce wrote. "I don't believe in this."

Although there are different kinds of creationists, the most fervent and most influential are the so-called young-earth creationists, who believe the world and every species on it is about 6,000 years old. The young-earth creationists, or YECs for short, believe that the universe was created in seven twenty-four-hour days, that there was a literal Garden of Eden, a literal Adam and Eve, and a literal talking snake just as the Book of Genesis describes.

To anyone who has even the most passing acquaintance with real science, these myths are laughably false, on the same level as believing in a literal wolf who blew down the houses of literal pigs. Anyone who knows anything about genetics can see the impossibility of a healthy species arising from a single breeding pair. A population starting from such a tiny gene pool just wouldn't have enough genetic diversity to adapt to environmental changes - not to mention the obvious problem of inbreeding depression, where sex between close relatives results in a far greater likelihood of the offspring inheriting the same rare and harmful mutations from both parents. (For fun, ask a creationist to explain about how they believe the prohibition on incest didn't apply in the beginning. After all, once Adam and Eve had sons and daughters, where was the next generation of human beings going to come from?)

Likewise, the geologic record shows that the Earth has an enormously long and intricate history. Preserved in the rock record, we see evidence of continents drifting and colliding, thrusting up mountain ranges that are then slowly worn down by erosion; glaciers advancing and retreating, carving and scouring the landscape; sedimentary rock layers slowly built up by eons of deposition, then cut into deep canyons by rivers or metamorphosed by heat and pressure; the same land becoming shallow sea, swamp, forest, plain, desert and back to sea again, as sea levels rise and fall over the ages. This grand tapestry stands in stark contrast to the creationists' cartoonish view of geology, in which Noah's flood was the only geological event of significance to happen in the planet's brief history. Geologists knew well before Charles Darwin that there was no evidence for a global flood, and modern scientists can add the evidence of radiometric dating, which shows the precise ages of ancient rocks and artifacts and proves that they're far older than the creationist worldview permits.

And then there's the direct evidence for evolution, in all its sprawling grandeur. We know evolution is true from genetic studies which show that all species share deep similarities at the genetic level. In fact, by charting which species' genomes share the same one-off mutations, we can build evolutionary trees which show the patterns of relationship between species and allow us to estimate when they branched from each other. This nested hierarchy, the pattern produced by descent with modification, binds all living and extinct species together in an unbreakable web of heredity and kinship, every bit as real as the one that connects you to your ancestors and your living relatives.

We know evolution is true from transitional fossils which preserve snapshots of evolutionary change, such as the bird-like feathered dinosaurs; the therapsids that are intermediate between reptiles and mammals; the primitive whales with legs that are ancestors of today's cetaceans; and in our own family lineage, the humanlike hominids that show how modern Homo sapiens arose from more ape-like ancestors. (Hilariously, the creationists all agree that there are no transitional fossils and that all fossil hominid species are either fully human or fully ape - but they can't agree on which is which, exactly as we'd expect from true intermediates.)

We know evolution is true from the kludges, hacks, and jury-rigs we find in the anatomy of living things, including us - evidence not of a wise and forward-looking designer, but of a slow, mindless, tinkering process of change, a "blind watchmaker" as Richard Dawkins famously termed it. From the useless goosebumps we get when cold or frightened, to the backwards-wired human retina, to the babies occasionally born with vestigial tails, human bodies bear the indelible stamp of our species' history.

The creationists are forced to deny all this and much more besides. That's not a figure of speech: major creationist organizations and religious colleges require their faculty to sign statements promising to reject any evidence that contradicts their worldview. The official statement of faith of the group Answers in Genesis, for example, requires members to affirm that "No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record." And when people affiliated with these groups do express doubt or flirt with unorthodoxy, retribution is invariably swift and harsh.

But as laughable as the creationists' beliefs are, the creationist movement is no joke. They want to wipe out all the findings of hundreds of years of scientific investigation, erase everything we've learned about the vast and majestic history of the universe, and replace it with a cartoon version that grotesquely magnifies our own importance, treating human beings as the crowning glory of creation and diminishing the immensity of the universe to a tiny stage crafted only so that the Bible's small stories could play out on it.

Why does this matter so much to them? It's not just an arcane scientific debate: in their minds, only Christianity can produce virtue, and Christianity can be true only if evolution is false. It follows that they believe - and they've said that they believe - that evolution underlies every moral problem they see in the world, from drug use to pornography to people voting Democratic. Tom DeLay infamously blamed the Columbine school shootings on the teaching of evolution, stating that "our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup."

The larger lesson to be drawn from this is that the religious right isn't just targeting the theory of evolution. By their own words, they can't be. They believe that a person's morality is completely determined by their factual beliefs - that being a good person depends on believing the right things about the origin of the universe. And since they believe that all truths worth knowing have already been revealed in the Bible, it follows that science is at best unnecessary and at worst a fatal deception that leads people away from salvation. Why, then, do we need science at all?

To those who hold the creationist worldview, everything has been going downhill since the Enlightenment. The willingness of people to think for themselves, to question authority, to investigate the world for truth - they see all this as a disastrous trend, one that only takes us farther from their ideal vision of a medieval, theocratic state. They seek nothing less than to turn back the clock of progress by several centuries, abolish the rational, reality-based view of the world, and return to the superstitious mindset in which blind faith is the answer to every problem. And, again, these are the people who've completely captured one of America's two major parties. What kind of havoc will result if they gain political power again?

September 23, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink40 comments

Near-Death Experiences Without Being Near Death

I've written before about near-death experiences and what they can prove about the existence of the soul. Now another study has come to my attention, one that has an even more potent conclusion. (HT: Boing Boing)

It's long been known that the content of NDEs is influenced by religion and culture. People who have them consistently encounter the kind of afterlife they expect and meet the religious figures they've been taught to believe in. For example, while Christian NDEs often include Jesus or angels, Hindus report NDEs in which they meet Hindu gods, or a clerk in a celestial bureaucracy who says that there's been a paperwork error and someone else with the same name was supposed to die instead.

This suggests that NDEs, rather than a glimpse of another reality, are brain-generated experiences. Like dreams or hallucinations, they're shaped by people's background beliefs and expectations. And there's more evidence for this in a 1990 article in the Lancet, with the wonderfully sardonic title, "Features of 'near-death experience' in relation to whether or not patients were near death". (The abstract is online, as is full text.)

As the article says:

The medical records of 58 patients, most of whom believed they were near death during an illness or after an injury and all of whom later remembered unusual experiences occurring at the time, were examined. 28 patients were judged to have been so close to death that they would have died without medical intervention; the other 30 patients were not in danger of dying although most of them thought they were.

There were some differences between the two groups. People who were genuinely near death were more likely to report perceiving some kind of strong light (whether diffuse, at the end of a tunnel, or emanating from people they saw during the NDE). They were also more likely to report "enhanced cognitive function", including greater speed or clarity of thought or unusually vivid sensory perceptions. However, when it comes to the "classic" NDE elements, the sense of leaving one's body and of experiencing a "life review", there was no difference between the people who were actually near death and those who weren't:

Belief in having left the body and seeing it from above. The two groups showed no difference in this belief. 68% of both groups reported this belief.
Memories of earlier events in life. The two groups also did not differ in proportions reporting memories of earlier events in the subject's life (sometimes called "life review" or "panoramic memory"). 6 (27%) of 22 patients near death and 4 (17%) of 23 patients not near death reported some such memories. Most patients reported only a few memories; only 2 (9%) patients near death and 2 (9%) patients not near death reported a review or replay of his or her whole life.

Some of the patients who were not near death were judged to have no serious illness or injury; others had a serious illness or injury, but not one that put them in danger of dying. Regardless, they believed they were dying or near death, and they had NDEs that seemed indistinguishable from those of people who had serious impairment of vital signs and would have died without medical intervention. The conclusion is clear: NDEs are the product of imagination, of a brain that thinks it's dying, whether it actually is or not. As the authors of the paper say:

The psychological interpretation receives support from the evidence that persons who are not near death (from illness or injury) may have experiences that in all respects resemble those of persons who are near death. It would seem that among those who were not near death their experiences were precipitated by their belief that they were.

September 19, 2011, 5:45 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments

New on AlterNet: Why Creationism Is Dangerous

My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous. In it, I survey the history of the modern creationist movement, point out how it's completely captured one of America's two major political parties, and illuminate the larger ideological goals that lie behind the assault on evolution. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!

A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

It's a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy. A major-party candidate announces that he doesn't deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it's not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70 percent of Republicans deny evolution.

Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won't do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn't an exaggeration for polemical effect; it's the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute -- both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields -- and Huntsman's refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.

Continue reading on AlterNet...

September 12, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink14 comments

Tax Breaks for Ignorance

As you doubtless already know, America is suffering through an unprecedented economic disaster. With millions of people jobless and millions of homeowners underwater, the economy is stagnant and its prospects are dim. Which is why, in these hard times, nothing is more important than shoveling more taxpayer dollars into the gaping maw of the fundamentalist carnival sideshow:

A group of private investors and religious organizations is hoping to build a Bible-themed amusement park in Kentucky, complete with a full-size 500-foot-by-75-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark, a Tower of Babel, and other biblical exhibits on a 800-acre campus outside of Williamstown, KY. Their effort got a shot in the arm yesterday when the state approved $43 million in tax breaks for the project.

As the article notes, Kentucky has cut funding to education and Medicaid eight times in the past three years. But, somehow, its government has found room in the budget for a $43 million tax break, a 75% property-tax reduction over 30 years, $200,000 in direct incentives, 100 acres of reduced-price state land, $40 million in sales tax rebates, and $11 million in nearby road improvements, all of which are for the benefit of a creationist "amusement park" whose chief attraction will be a full-size replica of Noah's leaky boat. All this is to complement the "creation museum" which Kentucky already boasts, though I feel dirty even using the word "museum" to describe an institute devoted to the teaching of antiscientific ignorance.

This story is a prime example of something that I first saw pointed out by Sikivu Hutchinson. In economically depressed communities, storefront churches are both a sign of and a contributor to blight: a sign of blight because it means that profit-generating businesses can't get a foothold; a contributor to blight because churches, unlike businesses, pay no taxes and don't help broaden the revenue base. The same is likely to be true of these "creation museums": as soon as their builders have cashed the state's checks, we can expect them to turn around and claim that they're part of a ministry and should be entirely tax-exempt, over and above the massive tax breaks they've already been given.

This project is unlikely to help the state's economy, but it does help right-wing demagogues burnish their theocratic credentials for the benefit of the masses. In today's Republican party, being anti-science is a prerequisite, and dispensing government pork to some loon who claims that the universe is younger than the invention of writing is a solid bullet point on a politician's resumé. That said, I can't pin all the blame on Republicans: Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, also supports the project, which just proves that ignorance and pandering cross party lines.

Nor is it just Kentucky that's rewarding the purveyors of religious lunacy. In Texas (where else?), the state is funneling money to "crisis pregnancy" centers, those anti-choice fronts that typically do their best to look like legitimate family-planning clinics so that they can bombard women who come to them with religious propaganda.

What these stories show is that the Republicans' alleged fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with deficits, and everything to do with wielding the power of the government as a bludgeon to support their regressive, medieval views on science and women's rights. They're dead-set against raising taxes, except when it's raising taxes on abortion and family planning. They're ferociously opposed to more government spending, except when that spending is for the benefit of carnival-barker religious whackjobs or deceitful anti-choicers. They're more than willing to use the government's spending power to advance ignorance and take away choice, just never the other way around.

August 26, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink13 comments

Creationist Target Practice

Yesterday, someone calling himself Rev. Skeens posted the following comment. I rejected it since it had no perceptible connection to the post it was submitted under, but then I had second thoughts. Granted that this is beginner-level stuff and hardly challenging, but it's been a while since we honed our debating skills on an actual creationist around here, so I thought it might be entertaining to throw it out there and use it for target practice. Who wants to have a go?

Secular archeologist's may claim that there is no evidence of a global flood, but, Scientist's have found fossils of sea creatures high in the Himalayan Mountains, and also at between 7,000-8,000 feet above sea level in the Grand Canyon rock formation layers. These are the two prominent finds that support a global flood, but, if you do the research yourself, not just listen to what other atheists say, you can find that on every continent on the planet are fossils found high above sea level of sea creatures. If these formations weren't under water at one point in time or another, how did the sea creature fossils get there?

Mr. Skeens has taken his best shot at us. You may return fire when ready. I'll be sure to e-mail him and tell him about this post so he doesn't miss out!

August 6, 2011, 2:50 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink201 comments

200,000 Earths

[Think we're all ready to talk about something else for a while? —Ebonmuse]

In May 1987, astronomers witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event: a supernova, the explosive death of a supergiant star, in the Large Magellanic Cloud approximately 170,000 light-years from Earth. SN 1987A, as it was named, was the first supernova to be studied using the instruments of modern astronomy (although not the first supernova witnessed by humanity), and produced a wealth of data for scientists.

Image via.

After the bright initial explosion, SN 1987A gradually faded over the next few months. But then, later in the year, astronomers got a second bonus: three large, glowing rings appeared around the star, lit up as if by a cosmic switch. The prevailing theory is that these rings are clouds of gas puffed off by the star earlier in life, and the intense shock wave of energy emitted by the supernova ionized and heated them to the point of becoming luminous. Among other things, these bright rings were large enough to use for a trigonometric calculation that yields the exact distance between SN 1987A and Earth, providing a useful cross-check for other methods of measuring cosmological distance. And the ongoing study of SN 1987A continues to yield new discoveries, including one just reported in the July 8 issue of the journal Science.

The European Space Agency's space-based Herschel observatory, which sees in far infrared wavelengths, was surveying the Large Magellanic Cloud and had a chance to observe the dead star. In Herschel's sensitive vision, the site of SN 1987A was glowing with dim, low-temperature radiation being emitted from a colossal cloud of cold dust surrounding the supernova remnant. This cosmic dust is made up of all the elements heavier than helium - carbon, oxygen, iron, nitrogen, silicon - that were synthesized in the nuclear cauldron of the star's later life and spewed into space in its death throes.

But what surprised the astronomers was the sheer size of the dust cloud. Being cold and dark, it would have been hard to detect with a less sensitive instrument than Herschel, which is why it went unnoticed until now - but, according to the researchers, there was enough dust blown out of the supernova to create 200,000 Earth-sized planets.

I hope, when you read that number, you feel the same faint tingle of awe that I do. That cold, dark dust cloud enshrouding the dead star potentially contains the seeds of tens of thousands of worlds.

As the supernova remnant expands, most of this dust will dissipate into the cosmic medium, become spread out into space. But some of it may enrich gaseous nebulae where new stars are born, and when the swirling protoplanetary disks around those young suns collapse, they'll form planetesimals that will be drawn to each other by gravity and coalesce to form new planets. When the fiery heat of their birth subsides, these new planets will have their own continents, their own oceans, their own mountains, their own rivers and seas - and perhaps in time their own life, all made, just as our world and we ourselves are made, of atoms forged millions of years ago in a star's stupendous death.

We are scions of the universe, and the cosmic process of creation that made us is still going on. Carl Sagan, of course, said it best:

"The Cosmos was originally all hydrogen and helium. Heavier elements were made in red giants and in supernovas and then blown off into space, where they were available for subsequent generations of stars and planets. Our Sun is probably a third-generation star. Except for hydrogen and helium, every atom in the Sun and the Earth was synthesized in other stars. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the gold in our banks, the uranium in our arsenals were all made thousands of light-years away and billions of years ago. Our planet, our society and we ourselves are built of star stuff."

170,000 years ago, a sun died in a distant galaxy, and the dispersal of starstuff began anew. The light from that cataclysm only reached our telescopes in 1987, which means that we won't know for another 170,000 years what's going on in that region today. It may well be that some of those precious atoms are already engaged in the processes that will one day lead to them becoming part of a living being on a rich and distant world.

July 11, 2011, 5:58 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink12 comments

News Flash: Psychics Still Useless

You may have heard about this bizarre story out of Texas this week, where a self-proclaimed psychic called police with a tip that a certain home was the site of a mass grave containing dozens of dismembered bodies, including the bodies of children. A swarm of reporters, FBI agents and Texas Rangers promptly converged on the address, bringing cameras, news helicopters and cadaver-sniffing dogs.

At first they found spots of blood on the porch, seemingly proving that the psychic tip-off was good as gold. But after obtaining a search warrant and examining the property in more detail, they found that the blood had a mundane explanation, and there were no bodies, no mass grave, and indeed no indication of any crime at all.

"With the assistance of various agencies out here at the scene," Captain Evans said, "we were able to search the premises after the arrival of a search warrant, and we have no indication that there are in fact any bodies located in the residence, the shed, or any property here at the scene."

(Some news agencies excitedly and mistakenly reported at first that bodies had been found, only to be forced to retract that claim subsequently.)

Are any of us surprised? Of course not, because as this story demonstrates further, all psychics are worthless frauds and con artists. Shame on the Texas police for not knowing that from the beginning and treating her "tip" as the useless hoax it was. How do they justify this colossal waste of time and resources chasing a wild claim from a posturing charlatan?

"Some of the information that was provided to us did specifically match information we found at the scene," Mr. Evans said.

Ah yes, of course. Because there was in fact a house at the location described by the tipster, that means that the wild claim of a mass grave was plausible? This reminds me of the Christian apologists who say that if the places described in the New Testament were real, that proves that Jesus really did walk on water and come back from the dead. You can't justify an extraordinary claim with merely ordinary evidence.

The obvious explanation for how the tipster was able to describe the house is that it's someone who knows the people who live there. That was in fact suggested by one of the homeowners, who believes the source was a mentally unstable neighbor with a vendetta against them. The Texas police say they plan to track down the tipster and charge her with filing a false police report, as they should, and I hope this embarrassment is an object lesson to them the next time some deluded person calls in with another wild story.

But the most comical part of it all is the "real" psychics claiming - wait for it - that this sort of thing makes them look bad!

"Oh my God, now we're all going to get a black eye," was Jacki Mari's first thought when she heard that a false tip from a psychic had led law enforcement officers on a fruitless search for a mass grave in East Texas on Tuesday night.

Ms. Mari, also known as Sherlockjackie, has, by her own reckoning, helped solve more than 400 murders and missing persons cases around the world -- all without leaving her office outside Chicago. Her own psychic powers -- she calls it "extrasensory intelligence" -- told her that the informant's tip was spurious, Ms. Mari said...

You'll also note that, once again, a credulous media has given a pretender unrebutted column space to claim they've "helped" in dozens of cases, without debunking this claim or even asking for follow-up details about which cases these were. The standard M.O. for psychics in a real police investigation is to provide dozens of tips, ranging from the absurdly specific but unverifiable to the uselessly vague ("The body will be found near water," "The body will be found near a church"), and then claiming that they "helped" if any of those statements turn out in retrospect to be true - even if many more of them are wrong, and even if the "psychic"'s advice played no role in actually helping the police find the body or catch the criminal. (Another classic example was the "remote viewing" company which wrongly claimed kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart was dead.)

When a psychic can provide a convincing demonstration of their powers in a controlled test, I'll believe there may be something to their claims. Until and unless that ever happens, the only reasonable conclusion is that psychics are all either self-deluded or deliberate fraudsters, and don't deserve to be taken seriously by the police or anyone else.

June 10, 2011, 12:22 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink37 comments

Darwin's Long Regret

Since we've been reading a lot lately about scientists pandering to religion, it's worth remembering that there's nothing new under the sun. As long as there's been science, there have been believers who fought fiercely to prevent their god of choice from being dislodged from a gap, and there have been scientists who felt obliged to placate them. Even some of humanity's greatest scientists felt this pressure, and bowed to it on occasion. Here's one example, which I first read about in Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale.

The final page of the first edition of Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, concludes with this eloquent statement:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

But the second edition, published a year later, makes one small but significant change, which you can see highlighted in the online variorum:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The phrase "by the Creator" was added by Darwin as a sop to religious people who were upset by the implications of his theory. But though the change persisted in later editions of Origin, he was never happy about it. In a letter three years later to his colleague Joseph Hooker, Darwin expressed regret for having inserted it:

But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant "appeared" by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.

I can't help being reminded of similar scientific regrets, like when Albert Einstein added a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to general relativity to counterbalance the force of gravity and accommodate the then-fashionable belief in a perfectly static universe. If he'd left it out, he would have been able to predict from his own equation that the universe was dynamic, as Edwin Hubble proved just a short time later with the discovery of galactic redshifts. He later called this his biggest blunder, and it seems Darwin viewed this change in a similar light.

In Darwin's writing, we see both of the threads that the scientific community has been wrestling with ever since: the desire to tell the truth, no matter what, and the desire to pay tribute to people's preexisting beliefs to make them see scientists as friends and not enemies. If there's a lesson to be drawn here, however, it's that this sort of clumsy pandering rarely works (as Darwin himself would have agreed). The theistic language Darwin added, of course, did nothing to placate the religious groups who saw uncomfortable implications for their beliefs in his theory. Neither did it stem the creationist backlash that's still going strong.

With that in mind, shouldn't modern scientists take the lesson that they should speak the truth as they see it above all else? Watering down a theory by finding gaps to insert God into will only decrease its scientific merit, without making any difference to the diehard fundamentalists who will never accept any idea that challenges their beliefs. It's better to disregard religion altogether: study the world and learn what it has to teach, and don't worry about the fleeting superstitions that cry objection when their self-proclaimed fields of sovereignty are infringed.

June 4, 2011, 5:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink7 comments

A Confluence of Holidays

This year, there's an interesting calendrical coincidence: Today is both Earth Day and Good Friday. That being so, I thought it would prove enlightening to compare these two holidays and the messages they respectively send to their practitioners.

One of the holidays on this date is to commemorate the gory death of a Jewish mystic some two thousand years ago, a dimly remembered event in an obscure corner of a long-vanished empire - an event which, we're told, takes precedence over everything else that's ever happened, and that people living today should feel personally responsible for. The other is to celebrate the Earth - our home, the cradle of our life - and to remind us of its vulnerability and our common responsibility to protect it.

In many ways, these holidays sum up the competing religious and secular views of our existence, and the contrast between them couldn't be clearer. One celebrates parochial interests; the other is for the sake of common concerns that matter to all of us. One is to pay homage to superstition; the other is to raise awareness of the pressing realities we can't afford to ignore. One holiday is meant to fill us with misery and lamentation; the other is meant to give us reason to hope. One holiday is meant to keep us dwelling on the past; the other encourages us to look to the future.

The overwhelming importance placed by Christians on Good Friday, its ad nauseam repetition and commemoration, shows the myopia of their religious viewpoint. Even if Jesus existed, his death was just one among many in a turbulent and violent era, yet believers continue to insist that this one death, out of billions of anonymous and forgotten others in human history, is freighted with cosmic significance. Some go so far as to call it the only truly important thing that's ever happened in the entire lifetime of the cosmos, and its consequences the only thing worth concerning ourselves with.

Meanwhile, Earth Day calls our attention not to provincial religious mythologies, but to a broader, global perspective and to the things of true importance that are happening on our planet. In the real world, rainforest is being cut down to grow cash crops and graze cattle, and the green and living lungs of the planet are slowly turning to desert. In the real world, our reckless burning of fossil fuel continues to pump carbon into the atmosphere, and as the climate slowly warms in response, ice caps and glaciers are retreating, droughts are growing more severe and storms more powerful, and sea levels are rising, threatening island nations and coastal cities alike. In the real world, human overuse and sprawl is draining aquifers, drying up lakes and rivers, ransacking virgin habitat, and driving species to extinction, each one a unique, irreplaceable treasure trove of genetic diversity lost forever.

These realities press in on us, whether we want to admit it or not. Try as we might to adapt, they're undermining the way of life our civilization has grown to depend on. If we continue on our unsustainable course, there will come a day when we'll have to face a reckoning - and no ancient, crucified Jewish sage is going to return from the clouds to magically save us all by recreating the Earth as it once was. Hoping for a miracle is only going to distract us from the urgency of the course corrections we still have to make, while there's time for them to do our descendants any good.

Not only does Good Friday value superstition over reality, its intent is to moor believers to the past, perpetually replaying a long-ago evil - and telling them that they are personally responsible for it. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Good Friday is a day of lamentation, penance and sorrow. Believers are encouraged to fast all day, to perform the Stations of the Cross (a series of images used to visualize and meditate on Jesus' agonizing death), and to pray acts of reparation apologizing for the crucifixion. Church altars are covered with black cloth, and in some churches, images of the crucified Jesus or Jesus in the tomb are presented so that believers can kneel, weep and kiss them. Any display of happiness is frowned on. According to the official Catholic liturgy, even funerals held on this day should have no singing or music.

By contrast, Earth Day calls on us to acknowledge our responsibility in environmental destruction, yes, but not for the sake of self-flagellation. Rather, its purpose is to inspire us to mindfulness and action: to preserve what hasn't been destroyed, to save what can still be saved, to avert what can still be averted, and most of all, to do this not out of guilt but because we recognize our world as a precious thing worthy of protection. Our planet is a vast, ineffably beautiful, majestic yet fragile place, unique (as far as we know) in all the immensity of the cosmos, and its riches and wonders are the common property of humankind. We should learn from it not to exalt one faith, one culture, or one life above all others, because we are all part of an interconnected whole, and it's this recognition, and not baseless superstition, that should guide us to a more enlightened and moral view of our place in it all.

[Editor's Note: As an Earth Day treat, check out NASA's Eyes on the Earth website - a stunning multimedia display that lets you track, in real time, the scientific satellites orbiting our planet, see them up close, learn about their missions, and even see the data that they've collected!]

April 22, 2011, 6:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink14 comments

The Language of God: Biologos: Epic Fail

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

In this chapter, Collins tackles the claim that BioLogos damages both science and religion. Collins disagrees in a way that fails so epically that it almost makes the previous sections of this book seem prescient.

For the atheist scientist, BioLogos seems to be another "God of the gaps" theory imposing the presence of the divine where none is needed or desired. This argument is not apt. BioLogos doesn't try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as "How did the universe get here?" "What is the meaning of life?" "What happens to us after we die?" Unlike Intelligent Design, BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul" (p.204).

I can see how BioLogos isn't wedging God between gaps in our understanding of the natural world, but only because BioLogos seems to set God outside of the scope of our inquiry. There's simply no place for God in our understanding of the natural world. After all, even if science can one day explain everything naturally, there could still be some questions to which someone could point to God. However, to the extent that those unanswered questions don't concern our understanding of the natural world (that is, well, everything we can know), the entire concept of God seems to be a red herring. Pretty much ends the conversation, doesn't it?

But apparently BioLogos isn't completely outside of our inquiry. We just have to ask god-questions with our hearts. Yes, the spiritual logic of the heart, mind, and soul; which is, of course, unfalsifiable.

I once asked a group of friends in a philosophy club if my idea of truth made sense. I said something like "truth is the extent to which the ideas in our mind correlate to objective reality," and they thought that made sense. And here's the problematic part. If we have to weigh the ideas in our minds against objective reality, then regardless of how logical our arguments might be, they can stand only with the support of evidence. The logic shows us that our thinking is internally consistent and sound, but we can't see how that thinking correlates to objective reality without the evidence. For example, it's completely logical and consistent for me to posit that all rocks fall to Earth at 3.0 m/s. But, given the facts shown through experiments, I'd be wrong.

So without any evidence to check whatever this "spiritual logic" is, how can one see how strongly those spiritually logically derived thoughts correlate to objective reality? I don't think we can, which I think highlights the fact that scientific inquiry tends to converge on one answer (maybe not all at once, as it's a sloppy process), while spiritual inquiry diverges into thousands of different sects and cults. In hindsight, I probably fell into some undocumented offshoot of Roman Catholicism, stemming from my decisions (which changed over time) to pick and choose certain parts of the official canon to believe.

Other posts in this series:

April 18, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

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