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Archive March 2011

What is Life? Another Great Debate Ken Perrott Mar 31

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The Arizona State University Origins Project in partnership with the Science Network, J. Epstein Foundation and the NASA Astrobiology Institute has sponsored another interesting debate – The Great Debate – What is Life? This follows on from their recent debate on morality -  The Great Debate – Can Science tell us Right from Wrong? (see Telling right from wrong).

I have yet to watch “What is Life?” (videos and audio downloads are available) but it certainly looks interesting. From the Science Network description:

Richard Dawkins, J. Craig Venter, Nobel laureates Sidney Altman and Leland Hartwell, Chris McKay, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss, and The Science Network’s Roger Bingham discuss the origins of life, the possibility of finding life elsewhere, and the latest development in synthetic biology. More than 2500 people filled ASU Gammage Auditorium on Saturday, February 12 to listen to this remarkable collection of scientists whose particular perspectives range from the cosmic to the microscopic.

And information on the panel and participants follows:

Read the rest of this entry »

The Galileo myths Ken Perrott Mar 30

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Dr Marc Crislip

For a while there I had wondered if I was the only one who noticed the current attempts of theistically motivated historians and philosophers to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair. But no, greater minds have come to a similar conclusions. I picked up this quote from Marc Crislip on the most recent podcast of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe:

“Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious. Today, he is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say they are being oppressed by science. So 1984.”

So true.

Last year was the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating in part Galileo’s original use of a telescope to observe heavenly bodies. An important celebration for science.

But it was also taken up by Christian apologists, historians and philosophers. A number of books were published rewriting the history in a way more sympathetic to the church. Opinion pieces were written and the apologist blogs eagerly leaped on the bandwagon. An all too common atmosphere of martyrdom was spread. George Sim Johnston, wrote recently on the Catholic Education Resource Centre blog that “the Galileo case is one of the historical bludgeons that are used to beat on the Church.”

Galileo and Sakharov

Andrei Sakharov – credit Wikipedia

So there you are – the Church was the victim in the Galileo affair! Bloody hell – that’s like say the Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev was being persecuted by Andrei Sakharov when this great scientist and Nobel peace Prize winner (Sakharov) was exiled to the city of Gorky for criticising the Soviet government. And that history should be rewritten to reflect that interpretation!

So the honest history of the Galileo affair offends the church. It must be rewritten? The orders have gone out. Faithful historians, opinion piece writers and bloggers have followed their commands.

So we get claims that actually “Galileo was wrong!” That because of Einsteinian relativity one cannot detect a difference between a heliocentric and geocentric solar system! (That will have Einstein spinning in his grave.)

That Galileo was wrong about his support for heliocentricism because his detailed attempt to explain the tides was incorrect (so was everyone elses – gravitational theory had yet to appear).

Galileo was wrong because somebody thinks that an experiment he referred to using the leaning tower of Pisa may have been done by student or been a “thought experiment.”

Or that genuine historians are persecuting the church because they are perpetuating a myth that the church had tortured Galileo and imprisoned him.

A Clayton’s myth

This later myth is really a “Clayton’s myth.*” A myth you have when you don’t have a myth. Because no-one of any understanding promotes it yet those who wish to present themselves as victims claim it is being used as a bludgeon.

Maurice A. Finocchiaro puts this myth into context. He has investigated the available documents thoroughly and in his chapter of the book with the same name,  ’Myth 8: That Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for advocating Copernicanism,’ he concludes:

“We should keep in mind, however, that for 150 years after the trial the publicly available evidence indicated that Galileo had been imprisoned, and for 250 years the evidence indicated that he had been tortured. The myths of Galileo’s torture and imprisonment are thus genuine myths: ideas that are in fact false but once seemed true–and continue to be accepted as true by poorly educated persons and careless scholars.’

That is this myth gained traction initially because the only document available was the Inquisition’s sentence which implied torture had at least been threatened if not used and that he was to be imprisoned. Many years later, with our access to more material, no serious historian appears to be perpetuating the myth.

But apologists are perpetuating their own myth that they are the victims of misrepresentation.

The basic question

There is a sense in which popular understanding of the Galileo affair is not quite right or incomplete. When one peruses the documents we find that the real issue was not a conflict between Galileo’s support for  a heliocentric solar system and the Catholic Church’s insistence on a geocentric solar system. It was actually more basic than this.

Galileo’s crime in the eyes of the church was his temerity in holding a belief which the church had decreed he should not. They saw this as an intrusion into theology, and in arguments strikingly similar to those being used today against some atheist scientists, they charged that Galileo was intruding into forbidden territory. He should have left theology to the theologians. Sound familiar?

Galileo had effectively been arguing, as a faithful Christian himself, that when there was a conflict between evidence based ideas and scripture the evidence based ideas should be held as correct. Scripture being far more abstract required interpretation and these conflicts just meant that more interpretation of the scripture was required.

The predominance he gave to evidence and testing ideas against reality rather than scripture was a necessary step in the scientific revolution leading to modern science. This makes the history of the Galileo affair important for our appreciation of scientific progress today. It is this basic aspect, rather than Galileo’s’ support for Copernicanism, which needs more historical research and presentation.

And none of this is helped by religious apologists promoting their own myth – that they are the victims and the truth about the affair is being used as a bludgeon to beat on them.


* A local saying derived from the advertising campaign for a non-alcoholic drink – “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink”.

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Beauty, mystery and science Ken Perrott Mar 28

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Here’s a cartoon aimed at demolishing the claim that science destroys the wonder and mystery of things.

via xkcd: Beauty. Thanks to Prof. Abel Méndez (@ProfAbelMendez).

How many times have I found the person in the street is more often turned off by what the scientists finds beautiful. Think small organisms, waste, bugs, soils, clay minerals, etc.

Richard Dawkins wrote about the fallacy of science destroying beauty in his book Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder.

Brian Green demonstrates this scientific enthusiasm in the recent interview on the Guardian Science Weekly podcast (Science Weekly podcast: Just how many universes are there?). he basically discusses ideas in his new book  The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

I have a copy and am looking forward to reading it.

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Christianity gave birth to science — a myth? Ken Perrott Mar 25

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Ibn al-Haytham – a pioneer of the scientific method

This theological myth seems to surface in any debate about the relationship between religion and science. It is the claim that Christianity gave birth to science. That modern science was not possible anywhere but in the European Christian culture.

The myth is actively promoted by some Christian scholars — theologians and philosophers of religion. And sometimes it even appears that less critical non-religious philosophers who are largely ignorant of the history of science accept the myth.

Perhaps we should expect a bit of Christian chauvinism. After all, nationalists claim all sorts of things originated in their own country (People of my generation may remember when the Russians were claiming all sorts of technologies were invented by their countrymen – I fondly remember their claim for lampposts!). And Christian chauvinism is alive and well in areas like human rights and morality.

An offensive myth

But this myth is offensive. It’s insulting to medieval Islam. To the scientists and philosophers of the Roman Empire and classical Greece. To the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China and India and beyond.

There is a useful chapter on this myth in a book recently edited by Ronald Numbers — ’Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.’ It’s ’Myth 9: That Christianity gave birth to modern science’ written by Noah J. Efron. He is President of the Society for Israeli History and Philosophy of Science.

No one denies that many scientists were, and are, Christian – or that Christian philosophers were involved in developing ideas about nature. But there is simply far more to the story of modern science than that. Efron points out that ’the imprint of Greek and Roman ideas on Christian intellectuals remained vivid; they provided the starting point for nearly all inquiries into nature until the start of the modern era. For many centuries, Aristotle’s philosophy was knit most tightly into the woof and warp of Christian theology.’

And ’excluding the place of classical philosophers from an account of the history of modern science is an act of intellectual appropriation of breathtaking arrogance. . . .Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears.’

Importance of Islamic science

Christian philosophers also took from Muslim. ’It was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth centuries. . . .By virtue of its geography alone, Islam became ’the meeting point for Greek, Egyptian, Indian and Persian traditions of thought, as well as the technology of China.’ This was an asset of incalculable value.’

Muslim scholars translated ’great numbers of Greek, Indian, and Persian books of philosophy and natural philosophy into Arabic.’ Muslim scholars added to the original texts and wrote original material ’that advanced every major field of inquiry. . .They developed intricate instruments of observation.’ These translations and new work were of immense worth. They were later translated into Latin and became available to Christian scholars.

’Many of these Muslim achievements were, in time, eagerly adopted by Christian philosophers of nature.’ Efron stresses that ’this grand body of new materials forever changed the course of Christian philosophy of nature.’

Dialogue of civilisations

Scientists are used to proper attribution. To acknowledging that we all stand on the shoulders of giants — and it’s a bit like ’turtles all the way down.’  Efron writes: ’Modern science rests (somewhat, anyway) on early modern, renaissance, and medieval philosophies of nature, and these rested (somewhat, anyway) on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested (somewhat, anyway) on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures. .  .  . ’This has been called ‘the dialogue of civilisations in the birth of modern science’ [by Arun Bala in his book The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science]’

Other European sources

Even going no further than Europe at the time of the scientific revolution we can see other sources of modern science besides, or as well as, religious scholarship. Commerce and trade: ’the values inherent in the world of commerce were explicitly and self-consciously recognised to be at the root of the new science by contemporaries.’ The early-modern voyages of discovery also contributed. There were invention and importation of important technologies (eg. clocks, printing press) which boosted inquiry. ’Europe’s legal systems influenced the development of both scientific theory and practice.’ And: ’Early modern Europe also saw the emergence of other secular institutions that came to play an important role in the growth of modern science. Scientific societies, for example, were established across the continent beginning in the seventeenth century.’

Science a human endeavour

This history and the current situation where a large percentage of scientists are not Christian, many not even religious, show an important fact about modern science. ’The rich diversity of the cultural and intellectual soil deep into which its roots extend.’ And: ’With the passage of time, the ethos of science came to stand at odds with the particularist claims of any religion or ethnic group.’ Science is a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive enterprise.

The chauvinistic approach of the myth that Christianity gave birth to science opposes this scientific ethos. It is denigrating to non-Christians and immature. As Efron points out assigning credit is not a zero-sum game. ’It does not diminish Christianity to recognise that non-Christians, too, have a proud place in the history of science.’

Efron concludes his chapter with: ’For better or worse, science is a human endeavour, and it always has been.’

Amen to that.

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The implausibility of reality Ken Perrott Mar 23

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Seems to describe my state of mind at the moment. I am trying to deal with a computer trashed by a virus. So something short and sweet to go on with.

I am currently reading Antonio Damasio‘s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Chapter two starts with this:

Mark Twain thought the big difference between fiction and reality was that fiction had to be believable. Reality could afford to be implausible, but fiction could not.”

I like it.

While we often say facts are strange than fiction I think this quote also encompasses the idea that reality is counter-intuitive. Discovering the truth about reality doesn’t come easily because we have evolved to make subjective decisions which are often not correct, although they may have been adaptive.

It took humanity thousands of years to develop procedures which give us a reliable picture of reality. These methods are most obviously embodied in modern science. And these methods include requirements of evidence and checking against reality.

So, fiction has to be believable because there is no way of checking the story. But scientific knowledge can be intuitively implausible – because we can check against reality. Its what confirms our ideas for us – and keeps us honest.

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Is atheism bad for science? Ken Perrott Mar 21

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Since publication of books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the mid 2000′s some reviewers and commentators have argued that the “new atheists” and  vocal “atheist scientists” are “bad for science.” That they are turning people, especially students, away from science. Even that a hostile public will endanger future funding science funding.

Some of these naysayers have an obvious motive. The militant religionists who just wish the people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers would STFU.  Their concept of a pluralist society does not extend to allowing a public voice to people who disagree with god beliefs. They are “offended” by such voices.

But there have also been the non-religious who disagree with what is being said. Or, agree but don’t think the way it is said is polite or quiet enough. Possibly these people are more honest in their concern that scientists who are up-front about their atheism could be endangering public acceptance of science and its future funding. I don’t think that is a principled position -  surely in a democratic society atheists have as much freedom to being “vocal” as believers have. But should they be concerned about public opinion?

Another myth

I suggested in my last post, Myths within a myth, that perhaps this impression of public attitudes is mistaken. Perhaps it is just another myth. Well, I have been continuing to check out data indicating public attitudes towards scientists. The US Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010 has some relevant data taken from Harris Polls (Harris Interactive 2008b). These have asked questions about public attitude to professions in the USA. The relevant question was: “tell me if you feel it is an occupation of:

  • very great prestige,
  • considerable prestige,
  • some prestige, or
  • hardly any prestige at all?”

The data in the figure below show responses of ’very great prestige.’ As the complaint about “atheist scientists” and “new atheists” causing a decline in support for science have come from religiously motivated people I thought I would also include the data for religious professions.

%age of US public considering professions of "very great prestige."

It seem to me that since the 70′s, attitudes to scientists has been fairly constant in the range 50 – 60%, with a mean of 55%, of the US public considering the science profession has “very great prestige.”

Contrast this with the public’s opinion of the religious professions. The mean numbers supporting “very great prestige” have been about 40% – with a minimum of 32% in 2004.

Now, I wouldn’t make too much of these sort of statistics. But they certainly don’t support the thesis that “atheist scientists” or “new atheists” are responsible for turning the US public off science. Remember – the “new atheist” phenomena that theological commenters complain about started in the early to mid 2000s. Books like “The God Delusion” and the new willingness of scientists to be open about their atheism, especially after September 2001, do not seem to have led to the feared loss in  prestige for the profession among the US public.

“New Christians” too strident?

Maybe the “new atheists,” “atheist scientists” and their books have turned the public off the religious professions? Or more likely, the decline in the mid 2000′s could have resulted from the attack on the US by religious terrorists in September 2001.

But what about the religious attacks on evolutionary science and promotion of creationism and “intelligent design” alternatives? Perhaps publicity around the Dover trial and the legislation being promoted by creationists in various State legislatures have influenced public opinion. Even the proliferation of books attacking “new atheism” – after all there have been many more of these than “new atheist’ books themselves.

Perhaps these religious militants should be told by their more liberal brethren to STFU. Perhaps the more thoughtful believers in our society should turn their attention and concern away from “atheist scientists” and “new atheists.” Maybe they should be warning their own militants to stop being so “strident” and militant”. That their brash behaviour is endangering the public’s acceptance of religion in our societies. Maybe even threatening future funding for religion.

Just imagine of the public got so pissed off they agreed to do away with the privileged position religions have with tax exemption?

 

Myths within a myth Ken Perrott Mar 18

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Yes – this is going to be about religion – a common source of myths. Specifically the “conflict paradigm,” “conflict hypothesis” or “conflict myth.” Really the myth that there is such a “paradigm”, “hypothesis” or “myth” claiming  religion is and always has been at odds with science.’ If you see what I mean. Think of Russian Matryoshka wooden dolls.

This is a story put about by Christian apologists (“militant Christians”) who would have us believe that there is no conflict between science and religion. That actually Christianity is the mother of science. And any conflicts that do occur are really the work of atheists, or “atheist scientists.” These atheists are the ones putting about a false myth.

I want to unpack the myth advanced by these militants.

Of course there are conflicts between religion and science – inevitable when the epistemology is so different. Whereas religious knowledge is based on revelation and authority, science is based on evidence, reason and testing against reality. But this is a principled difference – it’s not the same as claiming religion is and always has been at odds with science.’

Religious and non-religious scientists work alongside each other with no ideological conflict. And “atheist scientists” are hardly to blame for the very public attacks on science by creationists and intelligent design proponents.

The public view of science

But what about the public? How do they perceive science and religion? Do they only see conflict? Or do they accept the differences. After all, they don’t go to a mechanic when they are ill – so why should they go to a religious leader when they wish to find out about the world and the universe.


I ask this because I am currently reading Elaine Howard Eckland’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.

Eckland’s research for this book appears to be inspired by a belief, or concern, that the US public is suspicious of science. The public is described as highly religious and it is thought to perceive that scientists are mostly atheistic and hostile towards religion.  This could in the future lead to decline in public funding and other support for science. It is imperative that scientists communicate better with the public. That current scientific personalities are perceived as atheist and only fanning the flames of the conflict. And that religious scientists must come forward to speak for science. Particularly to deny any conflict between religion and science. To give a religious veneer to science.

But she doesn’t offer any data in her research to support the concern. No survey or interviews with the non-scientific public. The research (funded by The Templeton Foundation) was solely about the religious attitudes and traditions of scientists. The public attitudes seem to be assumed.

Personally I would like to see some good data

What is the public perception?

Do the public really think scientists are hostile to religion?

Is it based on misinformation from creationists and intelligent design proponents?

Is it really a perception of religious hostility to science rather than vice versa (Creationist/intelligent design hostility to science)?

Is the public still motivated by historical events like the Galileo affair?

Is there anything in the militant Christian claim that the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger have promoted this myth?

Has there been a huge swing in public perception as a result of best sellers like Dawkins’ “The God Delusion?”

And why should this be, given that the numbers of “new atheist” books are minuscule compared with the numbers of those supporting religion?

Or is it based on expectations that science must be based on the real world, not myths or faith? That such conflicts are therefore inevitable?


Postscript

Well I have now finished the book.  And on the 4th to last page I find Eckland’s only reference to any quantitative estimate of the public concern with science that she appears to have assumed: “according to a recent national  survey, nearly 25% of the American public think that scientists are hostile to religion.”*

Bloody hell – “nearly 25%”! And for this she is warning that the public may resist future funding and support for science?

This figure is relatively small – considering that over 45% of the US public regularly oppose evolutionary science in surveys. Surely this indicates that despite ideological pet beliefs, which may interfere with public understanding on a few issues, the US public still overwhelmingly respects science. And is not concerned with the fact that some US scientists are non-believers. Over 75% of the US public do not think scientists are hostile to religion. That’s about the same proportion of the New Zealand population that accepts evolutionary science.

My conclusion

The whole issue is full of myths. Just like a Matryoshka doll the Christian militants’ claim that the science-religion conflict is a myth promoted by “atheist scientists,” is itself a myth. As is the story that atheist scientists, and current scientific personalities,  are turning the public away from science and therefore threatening future public funding and support. A myth within a myth.

These are myths within the apologists’ overall myth about the relationship between science and religion.


* This survey was the 2006 “Science and Engineering Indicators” developed by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resources Statistics.  (There is a similar survey for 2010). I have had a brief read through the report and actually can’t find the relevant statistic. Eckland has possibly calculated it from the other data in report though.

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Thank goodness for eBook Readers Ken Perrott Mar 16

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I have a  reputation (well-deserved) for untidiness. Piles of books and papers seem to accumulate wherever I work, – or even sit for any length of time.

The “paperless office” has been no help. Like most people I find reading from a monitor screen uncomfortable. So I will usually print off material for later reading. But I have difficulty throwing things away – even knowing that I have instantly lost them by placing them in one of my piles.

This has been a drawback for me of the Readability add-on I recently discussed (see A nice little tool for printing blog posts). It’s been great – but if anything I am even more untidy. I am now hoping that I can overcome this problem with the help of my eBook Reader (see The joys of eBook readers — the Sony PRS-650 Touch).

And the little add-on dotEPUB which makes it  possible to download any web page as an e-Book.

dotEPUB

This works a bit like Readability. You install a bookmark in the toolbar (available for Firefox and Chrome but not yet for Internet explorer).

The video  below describes installation of dotEPUB.

Clicking on the bookmark will convert the current web page or blog to an eBook. Really a short ePub file. This will be opened in whatever ePub programme you have installed (I am using epubreader - a Firefox add-on).  Then it’s just one click to save the file  on to my PC.

At the end of the day I copy all the save ePub files (together with any eBooks I have downloaded)  on to my eBoook Reader. DotEPUB.com uses the Readability script (© by arc90) in the cleanup process so the saved material is a joy to read.

When I have read the material I can easily delete it, or save it in a collection for later reference. (Yes I know, I will probably lose it but being only electrons who else is to know?).

So give it a few months and I be interested to hear what my family says about my tidiness.


What about Kindle?

You can choose to include links or not when installing the bookmark. Currently the ePub file will not contain images or videos (but will present links to them). In the few cases where I wished to include images I did this by editing the file in Sigil*. With some difficult web pages the output is messy. You can easily check this before saving. And I have found that I can clean up at least some of the files like this by putting through the Calibre* programme.

Apparently there are plans to include image capture and production of Kindle eBooks in future versions of  dotEPUB.


* Sigil and Calibre if you are serious

At least for anyone serious about eBooks.

Caibre will convert different formats. (This solves my problem of finding a particular eBook at Amazon, but only in the Kindle format. Now easily converted). It will also produce an eBook file from text documents and pdfs and functions as a library

Sigil is an ePub editing programme. I use to clean up converted files, correcting image placement, adjusting tables of content, etc.

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Theistic science? No such thing Ken Perrott Mar 14

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I came across this interesting observation in Elaine  Howard Eckland’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think:

“believers did not consider their traditions and beliefs influential on how they conducted their research. None of the religious scientists I talked to supported the theory of intelligent design”

This conclusion is based on her extensive survey of academic scientists in the USA.

It’s interesting because it confirms that those theologians and “philosophers of religion” who advocate abandonment of “materialism” or “naturalism” by scientists are barking up the wrong tree. Even scientists who have strong god beliefs don’t allow these to interfere with the way they do their science. In fact, if they did they would no longer be doing science.

Mind you, the conclusion is not at all surprising to anyone working in a scientific environment. We know from experience that religious scientists don’t change their methodology because of their ideological beliefs or world view.

A theistic science – the Wedge Strategy

The argument against “materialism” and “naturalism” in science is most clearly put in the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Strategy Document (see Wedge Strategy: Center for Renewal of Science and Culture):

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.”

And:

“However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the “thin edge of the wedge,” was Phillip ]ohnson’s critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeatng Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe’s highly successful Darwin’s Black Box followed Johnson’s work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

So, Eckland’s survey shows that even in the USA where the Discovery Institute’s Wedge strategy has been targeted, there has been no success in replacing modern science “with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

While this criticism of science, even attack on science, comes mainly from Christian apologists and “philosophers of religion” it does get a hearing from others. I can understand how many religious people feel disappointed that science does not support their beliefs. They easily fall victim to the argument that this is because “it does not accept ‘supernatural’ explanations.” But, unfortunately, even some non-religious philosophers and sociologists are also be influenced by the argument. Especially those with a post-modernistic bent.

Science requires evidence and validation against reality

But, in the end science is not about “natural”, “supernatural” or “materialism.” It is about evidence and checking ideas against reality.Those who argue for “a science consonant with christian and theistic convictions” are really arguing for a “science” stripped of this need for evidence and validation against reality. Of course that would no longer be science – it would be religion.

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The ethics of exploitation Ken Perrott Mar 11

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A cartoon in the current issue of the NZ Listener magazine says it all. It portrays New Zealand politicians lining up to pass through the cordon around the earthquake damaged city of Christchurch. The policeman on duty is saying “No politics past this point.”

New Zealanders don’t think well of people who seek to exploit a tragedy for their own political, ideological or monetary purposes.

The web site that attempted to explain the earthquake as divine punishment for homosexuals and prostitutes in Christchurch offended us. (Whether genuine or a very bad joke that site seems to have now been taken down).

Respectful and secular

New Zealand TV coverage of the quake has generally been respectful. It has been inclusive and secular – giving no overt support to any particular politics or belief. Welcoming, and grateful to, everyone who helped. Mourning all the deaths. And empathising with all those who lost loved one or otherwise suffered.

I saw one example of an interviewee (I think an Exclusive Brethren) attempting to give his message that the earthquake was his god’s punishment for our sinful ways. However, the interviewer refused to buy into his argument, ignored his message and got on with her substantive questions.

Much of the early TV coverage was free of advertising. A matter of respect.

The Campbell live interview with Ken Ring, who runs a business predicting weather, earthquakes and “debunking” climate change science, was offensive. Yes – because of Campbell’s anger. But also because such “prediction” businesses are exploitative and offensive at these times.

“Moonman’s” take on ethics

Ring has responded to criticism of his ethics by attempting to show himself as no different from scientists and everyday consultants. This from his The ethics of warning. (Or Ethics of warning - he does tend to change his links):

’Should people in the sciences warn if they see cyclones coming? How about earthquakes? What should the geosciences do if they see on their earthquake sensors that one area is starting to become more active? If they remain silent, why have that technology in the first place? How about others who also think, from alternative viewpoints, that an earthquake is on the cards? If consultants are to remain silent then gone would they all be from our society, accounatnts, economists, and all doctors.’

But Ring’s business is not in the same class as “the sciences” or consultants like “accountants, economists, and all doctors.’ He uses “science” in the same way as a peddler of a cosmetic or snake oil – or as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination.

Consider his appeal: “How about others who also think, from alternative viewpoints, that an earthquake is on the cards?” This would justify TVNZ running programmes at this time to peddlers of all sorts of woo. So alongside Ken ring’s prediction business we should also see other astrologers, religious claimants ranting against homosexuals and sin, the doomsayers who predict the end of the world (surely there is a group targeting March 20th – there is for May 21 – see How do we know when the world will end?). Just use you imaginations. They all have their loyal followers, as does Ken Ring.There are plenty of groups and individuals out there who could similarly exploit the Christchurch earthquake tragedy. For monetary, political or ideological reasons.

But this would be disrespectful to all those who have died, to their loved ones, to those continuing to suffer and to those who empathise with victims of the tragedy.

It would not be ethical.

As for Ring’s “scientific” claims – Joanne Black, also in the current issue of the NZ Listener,  summed it up in her article Don’t Ring Us. . .“:

“Of course, in these terribly economically straightened times we could close down the geology departments of our universities and instead buy a special edition of Ring’s almanac, putting he money we save towards evacuating people whenever he says there is going to be an earthquake. My prediction is that it would not be worth it.”

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