Archive for the ‘reason’ Category

creation nation

Monday, July 21st, 2008

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”

A couple of my friends went to visit the Creation Museum in Kentucky last week. I think they thought it was kind of funny, although I only saw them briefly and didn’t really get the chance to talk it through with them – I think that also the fault may have been with me because this kind of nonsense just gets me really mad. Then today I saw a link to a piece on the museum: Creation Nation in n+1 magazine. The museum seems like everything you would expect, and more.

challenge your assumptions

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Here’s a great story on why the answers may not always be as obvious as you think. There’s quite a movement in the US and the UK (and presumably other countries) based on the assumption that we import so much food now that this can’t be good for the environment. Sounds intuitive, right? Shipping something like tulips to the UK from Africa seems very wasteful compared with growing them in Holland and a short ride across the sea to Britain.

However a recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon disputes this fact – their reasoning being that the transport costs are such a small part of the environmental cost of growing food, and in fact it may be more environmentally friendly to grow food in certain locations and ship it to where it’s needed. Here’s a paragraph from a summary:

The line, then, is that the prudent environmentalist will eat local in order to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Intuitively, that makes a lot of sense. Bananas shipped from Brazil can’t be good for the environment. But two Carnegie Mellon researchers recently broke down the carbon footprint of foods, and their findings were a bit surprising. 83 percent of emissions came from the growth and production of the food itself. Only 11 percent came from transportation, and even then, only 4 percent came from the transportation between grower and seller (which is the part that eating local helps cut). Additionally, food shipped from far off may be better for the environment than food shipped within the country — ocean travel is much more efficient than trucking.

A further example I heard recently was that buying apples grown in New Zealand can usually be a more environmentally choice than locally grown, because the conditions in New Zealand are so conducive to growing apples that they need very little extra help, such as fertilizers, irrigation etc, all of which are a greater environmental drain than the transportation.

The moral of this: always be ready to challenge your assumptions. The answers are often counter-intuitive or more complex than you would think.

population growth

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Just read an article on the BBC about how the Jewish population in the UK is rising rapidly. No comment from me on the point of the article, but some of the way it was written made me want to be picky and pedantic, and seeing as this is my website I think I have the right.

Orthodox Jews in London First thing I noticed was the picture – it seemed to me that it was quite a cliched-looking group. However the article goes on to talk about how the Orthodox population and tradition is a large part of the reason for Jewish population growth, so kind of fair enough. Could have maybe found a happier looking bunch though!

Secondly the following couple of paragraphs:

The population fell to a historic low of 275,000 in 2005, but that figure has since increased to 280,000 in 2008.

The figures were based on UK census data and the monitoring of Jewish births by academics.

Do they mean “The monitoring by academics of Jewish births”? It’s quite a different meaning!

Next pedantic point:

Dr Yaakov Wise, of Manchester University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, says the population has now risen, to about 280,000, and attributes the growth to the extraordinary fertility of strictly orthodox families.

Surely they mean that although the strictly orthodox families are large due to, ahem, cultural practices, they’re not necessarily more fertile than non-orthodox Jews, or anyone else. Surely it’s more to do with being less likely to use birth control?

Also one of the quotes which came out of this from Dr. Wise: “Approximately half of all the Jewish under-fives in Greater Manchester are ultra-orthodox.” I would think he means that they are from ultra-orthodox families. Can a three-year-old truly have ultra-orthodox beliefs?

In fact now I think about it the whole article is kind of grating to me. It seems that this research came from someone who defines Jewishness as subscribing to the Jewish faith, not so much Jewish heritage, based on this quote “Dr Wise – who says his research is based on regular monitoring of Jewish births – attributes the decline in the Jewish population to the fact that about half of more secular Jews marry outside the community, and many of them do not bring their children up as Jewish.” I was under the impression that being Jewish can be as much ancestral (many people describe themselves as being secular Jews) as religious.


Friday, February 22nd, 2008

I just listened to a very interesting interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air show. It’s with Professor Bart Ehrman on questioning religion on why we suffer. The link has lots of details, including his bio and an excerpt from his book, but in a nutshell he talks about his being drawn to Christianity because he believed it explained suffering in the world, and as he became a college professor in religion the more he studied this question the more unsatisfying he found the answer, with the result (so far) that he is agnostic, and seems to be quite comfortable with this fact. A few of the reasons I liked the interview (this sounds like a 5th grade book report) was that he asks a lot of the questions I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of years; he is very scholarly and not particularly confrontational; and his reasoning seems to be quite well rooted in scripture. He has clearly been thinking deeply about these issues for a number of years.

tidings of misuse and woe

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

A sad, sad story from local Twin Cities News: The Prosperity Gospel church is facing cutbacks of between $40,000 and $70,000 per week, and their pastor is having to sell his plane. Plus some of their contemporaries are under investigation by the U.S. Senate on uses of their budget, and there are allegations that some ministers may have improperly solicited funds for presidential candidate Mike Huckabee during a conference at which their head pastor spoke (it is illegal for tax-exempt organizations, such as churches or charities, to solicit for presidential candidates, which is why Focus on the Family head James Dobson was speaking as a private citizen when he endorsed Mitt Romney).

The full story is in our local paper; if they remove the link you can also see it here (with some extra commentary). Key lines:

“Prosperity Gospel” churches are based on the notion that success in business or personal life is evidence of God’s love.

Hammond [the pastor] told other ministers that people “gradually become disillusioned” when their prayers are not met promptly or when promised riches don’t come.

“They have needs to be met, and when they don’t get it they leave,” Hammond said. “They get their hands put on them, they don’t get cured, then the disillusionment sets in.”

it’s all academic

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Warning: many sarcastic uses of quotation marks ahead. You may roll your eyes at each one:

Today in Slate, their Hot Document is the style guide and “reviewing” guidelines for the Young Earth-endorsing journal the “Answers” “Research” Journal. I could call them on pretty much any aspect of the document – to pretend that it is academic or properly peer reviewed if they have to do things like allow pen names is pretty low, and to me suggests that what they’re trying to do is a pile of – how can I put this politely – complete and indefensible fabrication. If you have to go sneaking around and to such extreme lengths to try to get people to accept what you are saying, maybe there’s something wrong with the message. Ah, the joys of mixing religion and science.

from the archbish

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

This posted on Of Course I Could Be Wrong…


science/religion discussion

Friday, February 8th, 2008

I read the Of Course I Could Be Wrong… blog fairly regularly – it’s written by a rather cynical Anglican priest, and is usually interesting and challenging. Today I read a post on it about science and religion, and for the first time was moved to respond. It turned out to be one very long and one medium response (so far) and is quite an interesting thread, although I think some people aren’t really speaking the same language. If you don’t feel like following the links, here is my comment:

Science is not a construct where anything is ever “accepted as a complete and proved theory”. Any scientist who does this is basically a charlatan. There’s no such thing as a “scientific fundamentalist” – a true scientist will always allow his or her theories to be undermined by further scientific findings.

A couple of examples: a scientist would believe that water boils at 100C. That seems like a fact. Then another scientist points out that a different air pressure would change the boiling point of water, so the theory of water boiling is altered accordingly, results are published and peer reviewed, experiments are repeated to ensure that the results can be replicated, and the theory is taken as a solid working theory with the understanding that new findings, or more accurate measurements, could change the theory. And that’s good, because this is science and we want to find out more about our wonderful universe, and use our scientific theories to drive more exploration.

Similar things were seen with Newton’s theory of gravity. This theory was poked at and tested and supported for many years. But when Einstein suggested his refinements, his ideas were again published, peer reviewed and eventually tested and re-tested and found to be a better understanding of the mechanics of gravity. Even the theory of gravity – you’d think this would be untouchable from a factual standpoint – can be upended due to new scientific findings.

OK, so those are two physics examples. How about evolution? Remember that Darwin wasn’t the only person to be working on theories of inheritance. Lamarck was a famous scientist who altered understanding of evolution by suggesting that organisms pass on characteristics which they have acquired during their lifetimes. This was a widely held scientific belief, to the extent that Soviet scientist and agriculturists followed the theory, attempting to breed hardier crops by subjecting them to cold, with the result that the Soviet Union suffered massive crop failures. The point of this example is that Lamarckism was a widely held understanding of evolution which turned out to be basically false, so the theory of evolution was refined accordingly.

We’ll come back to evolution in a moment, but in passing I want to address what you said about the “can’t be anything outside the universe” statement. I agree, very unscientific, and I’m sure you know that there are theoretical physicists who are examining the many-universes theory – Richard Dawkins mentions this in The God Delusion.

So what about evolution? Why is it picked on more than other scientific theories? It’s because there are creation stories in the Bible. I’m sure if there were electricity stories in the Bible we’d be having the same discussions about that. So: for the science, the theory of evolution is broadly agreed upon by scientists, with subtly different interpretations, because the theory has been tested and tested and refined and re-tested and refined and re-tested and can be used as a tool for understanding the way organisms work, with solid predictive results, although where the predictions turn out to be false the scientific community refines the theory accordingly. So for example the theory of evolution can be used to predict where in rock strata you can find certain types of fossils, or even reconstruct the proteins of a bacterium which was around 3.5 million years ago. But here’s the thing: the theory is always open to refinement and even negation if the challenge is supported by scientific reasoning. In this way we can see that there are new theories which suggest that virus genetic material may actually become part of the genes of another organism, providing leaps in the host organism’s evolution. This is quite a change from the standard understanding of evolution, but because it is a scientific theory, in that it is testable and refutable, it can be accepted by scientists. Saying “I don’t understand” or “it doesn’t add up” just isn’t science, I’m afraid.

One more point/clarification in closing: Dawkins doesn’t say that there is no God, just that if you use scientific reasoning it is highly unlikely that there is a god. This means that he uses a scientific method – testability and probability – to suggest that if we accept broadly evolution/natural selection over time, and we also accept that a creator created the universe (and even disregarding how we could ever test for discovering that creator), we need to come up with a theory for where the creator came from and how it came into being. And so far nobody has been able to explain where that creator came from, or how you would design a test to prove, or at least suggest, the existence of a creator. So you could argue that science in this way has been used to suggest that it is highly unlikely that there is a creator. However if someone could ever suggest a way to test for this beyond “I think that there must be a creator and you scientists are just being close-minded” I’m sure that scientists would be all over it – would there be a more amazing and revolutionary scientific finding? Who wouldn’t want to test that? It’s not science’s job to prove the non-existence of something, science is used to theorize how something works and test that theory.


danger: word of god

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Even long before I started feeling ambivalent towards religion I was made to think about the Episcopal Church’s practice of ending a reading with the words “The word of the lord” and the congregation’s response “Thanks be to God.” Knowing that the Bible comes from many sources, and was compiled by even well-intentioned people, made me think twice about whether it could really be directly from God. I tended to prefer words along the lines of “the word inspired by God.” Apart from the scholarly aspect of it all, I found it very presumptuous for humans to believe that they understood the will of the creator of the entire universe.

Yesterday listening to the news I heard two headlines, which were right next to each other. The first was about the horrific suicide bombing in Baghdad, where two women blew themselves up in a pet market where many children were visiting because they had the day off school. Just evil. The second headline concerned the funeral of the recently deceased head of the Mormon church (AKA the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints). The news item mentioned the afterlife beliefs of the LDS faithful. That, along with this article on how the LDS Church will choose its next prophet, made me think further about the use and abuse of people who claim to hear or understand the word of god. From the Mormon article:

Like the adherents of many religions, Mormons believe their president to be more than merely an administrative head. The president’s unofficial title as “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” speaks to the quasi-divine nature of the role. As prophet, Hinckley was (and Monson will be) regarded as God’s human representative on earth, capable of receiving revelations to direct the church. “A growing church … that is spreading across the earth in these complex times,” Hinckley explained in a 2005 article for a Mormon publication, “needs constant revelation from the throne of heaven to guide it and move it forward.” Monson will now receive those revelations as he leads the Mormon Church into the years ahead.

Now clearly the Mormon Church is not a terrorist organization and would not advocate anyone to commit violent acts. But many people say that about the Muslim faith too, yet a few twisted leaders of that faith exhort followers to do just that. And it’s not just there – fundamentalist Christian leaders tell their followers that it’s OK to hate gays, attack abortion clinics, even hope for nuclear holocaust as a sign of the End Times, because that’s what God wants.

I asked the Dean of St. Mark’s a few years ago how come fundies can be so certain of beliefs which directly contradict the peaceful, reconciling version of Christianity which he preaches at the Cathedral, and how it works that people can be so sure that they hear god telling them to persecute other people of god. His answer basically said that there are often false prophets. But, surely they would say the same thing about him. So how do you know who is right? And where would an actual god fit into this? How would a benevolent, all-loving deity allow this state of affairs to happen?


Saturday, December 29th, 2007

Yesterday Emma and I were discussing the nature of why lower class voters in America often support more socially conservative politicians, as I told her about some thoughts by writer Andrew Sullivan. She asked why then would someone very privileged, like George Bush, also hold these socially conservative viewpoints.

My thinking is that obviously Sullivan was talking about trends, not absolutes, but that also of course politicians will say whatever it takes to win votes, hence (especially) the Republican presidential nominees trying to out-conservative each other at the moment (“Double Guantanamo!” “I now do not support gay civil unions!” “Etc!”).

An interesting example in this story of a Louisiana town which persuaded the phone company to change their phone area code from 666. The political quote from the mayor:

Mayor Scott Walker said CenturyTel’s decision was “divine intervention”.

However, he admitted it helped that Louisiana’s two senators had also lobbied for the change with the phone company and the state Public Service Commission.

He’s either a slimy politician who will say anything to pander to the voters, or a nutter, or just maybe someone who has a very different theological view from mine and I’m just being mean for the sake of it.