Archive September 2011

Compulsory payments for advancement of religion — let’s get rid of that. Ken Perrott Sep 29


I read  recently how cynically humans use the word “freedom.” (I think it was in Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s Doubt: A History)  How often do you see a fascist or otherwise undemocratic organisation with freedom in its name or slogans?

This came to mind again when I saw this post Students: Free at Last. (At Say Hello to my Little Friend – a blog which has a smoking gun in its heading. The blogger justifies the graphic saying “it depicts the way I like to ruthlessly ’whack’ bad ideas.” Rather unfortunate use of gangster terminology – especially as he uses the blog to advance his own “bad ideas”).

This particular post is “whacking” the “bad idea” of compulsorily union membership. I agree that, in this case, it is a bad idea  – in principle. During most of my working life I supported unionism – and the union I belonged to was voluntary, a comparatively strong and active union because of that. In fact people of my “socialist” persuasion saw compulsory unionism as a right-wing fetter, promoting class apathy and, in most cases, ensuring a leadership complaint with employer interests.

But, in my experience, most of those who have campaigned against compulsory unionism did so because they were more opposed to the “unionism” part than the “compulsory” part. They had their own ideological reasons for their campaign and it wasn’t desire for freedom.

This is why I find this, and similar campaigns, by conservative Christian groups and blogs (as “Say Hello” is) hypocritical. Some of these groups don’t allow their own members to join unions, compulsory or not. And many of their policies are the very opposite of freedom.

For example – I oppose the classification of “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose for purposes of tax exemption – and local body rates. In practice these means part of my taxes are used to subsidise the tax-free status of people, organisations and buildings whose only purpose is proselytization of ideas I find abhorent. I don’t see that a charitable purpose, nor would most New Zealanders. Yet provided these organisations or people are proselytising a supernatural world view they can get tax exemption. No real charitable work is required for this.

Sure, many religious organisations do genuine charitable work – and I have no problem with their receiving tax exemption for that part of their work. None at all.

But this subsidy for the “advancement of religion” is undemocratic on two grounds:

  1. It is available only to those who hold supernatural beliefs;
  2. We all pay for it through our taxes and rates, we have never been asked if we wish to and most people are just completely unaware of this imposition on their earnings.

I think it is hypocritical for conservative Christians to argue on the one hand against compulsory unionism, or deduction of union fees or their equivalent. Then, to argue on the other hand that the compulsory payment of taxes to subsidise their specific supernatural beliefs is somehow OK.

It is not.

If we want to talk about freedom lets not be hypocritical about it. Let’s recognise that this compulsory deduction from our earnings to subsidise the advancement of supernatural ideas also violates our freedoms – specifically our freedom to be treated equally, irrespective of religion or belief. And our freedom of, and freedom from, religion or belief.

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Some recent recommended science books Ken Perrott Sep 28

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Here’s something for those who love science books, or are thinking of Christmas presents for such people (hint). It’s the latest annual short list selected by the UK Royal Society for the Winton Prize for Science Books.

I think they all look interesting. I have already purchased two of these (The Disappearing Spoon and Massive) and will keep an eye out for the others.

Below, I have provided links for those wanting more details, price, etc. Also the judges comments on each book provided by the Royal Society (see Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books Shortlist Announced).

Alex’s Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos

’This book is a complete revelation. A rich and diverse story of mathematics, peppered with anecdote and personalities, whirling round the globe and through history from Euclid to the supercomputer, it brings maths bursting to life in a way we never expected.’

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher

’A enthralling book that truly broadened our understanding of language, culture and the science of perception, using startling experiments to make us re-think the subtle assumptions with which we all view and describe the material world.”

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

’This is much more than just a witty guide to the periodic table — it gives a fascinating insight into the history of the elements, how they were discovered, and the extraordinary part they play in our lives.’

The Wavewatcher’s Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney

’A brilliant almost poetic book that really opened our eyes. We were amazed to find that we now see waves everywhere we look, making the world around us a more absorbing and enchanting place, thanks to modern science.’

Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample

’An extraordinary book that tells the real human story behind one of the biggest science adventures of our time, managing to translate the complex concepts of particle physics into a real page-turner.’

The Rough Guide to The Future by Jon Turney

’A thought-provoking and refreshingly optimistic view of the future across the whole range of the sciences, with a highly original style of brief and multi-focused presentations, that sets it apart from conventional scientific writing.’

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Art in science Ken Perrott Sep 26

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Elusive … subatomic neutrino tracks showing electrons and muons. Photograph: Dan Mccoy/Rainbow/Science Faction/Corbis

The process of science is very creative in itself. But I think creativity in science  takes on a deeper meaning, and provide a wider communication, when it involves other art forms like writing, music and the graphic arts.

Spare a thought

So I enjoyed this little song by Andrew Pontzen (a theoretical cosmologist – @apontzen) commenting on  the recent news of neutrinos caught travelling faster than light.

It’s called Spare a Thought – and to my limited appreciation of the subject he seems to hint at the underlying physics of the situation.

Thanks to Geek Pop Podcast: The Live Sessions at geek pop.

Some NZ poetry

And I have just found out that SciBlogsNZ has its own resident poet. The chemist Michael Edmonds who writes the blog Molecular Matters.

He has just posted two poems Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and A New Scientific Revolution. Both are very relevant to the issues we face today.

Evolutionary cooperation Ken Perrott Sep 26

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Kropotkin wrote about evolutionary cooperation*

Here’s a lecture on evolutionary cooperation by PZ Myers. Ok, it’s pretty long, but it’s worth downloading and watching (or even listening as the video doesn’t catch most of the slides).

Click on World Humanist Congress 2011 08/13/11 07:32AM.

Cooperation as an important component of evolution is often ignored while competition is stressed. Creationists will purposely ignore cooperation. Yet cooperation and conflict are really two sides of the same coin.

Myers illustrates his talk with examples of cooperation from nature and stresses the important evolutionary leaps made possible by cooperation. But he goes on to show that cooperation is also natural for humans.

PZ presented this talk at the 2011 World Humanist Congress in Oslo, Norway last August. Human cooperation, world peace and conflict prevention were important themes at the congress. The programme looks interesting, including sessions on:

  • The role of supra-national organizations
  • Lifestance and peace
  • Our emotional life and the role of ceremonies
  • Bit by bit and Peace by Piece

While Myers doesn’t deal in any detail with strategies for cooperation in modern human society and internationally it looks like some of the other presenters did. I will have to download more videos.

*See, for example:
Mutual Aid; a factor of evolution
Evolution and Environment (Collected Works of Peter Kropotkin)
Kropotkin: ‘The Conquest of Bread’ and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)

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Where have we been? Ken Perrott Sep 23

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Here’s a great graphic I picked up from Geekation. There’s a lot of information here. Click on the image to access the details – It’s worth it.

This fascinates me as I remember the first Sputnik launch in 1957. All this has happened in my lifetime!

It’s certainly changed our picture of the solar system.

Thanks to: Where have we been? A very cool picture of where we have sent probes throughout the solar system.

Rings around Uranus Ken Perrott Sep 22

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We don’t often get to see images of Uranus – and certainly none like this.

Uranus and Miranda (Credit: Mike Brown/CalTech)

The astronomer Mike Brown took the photo a few days ago using one of the 10-meter twin telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

It’s an infrared image and clearly shows the rings which were discovered as recently as 1977. Several moons are also obvious – the brightest at top left being Miranda.

Mike Brown is the author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. It tells the story of his work leading to the discovery of the then 10th planet. This was one of the factors leading to reclassification of planets and to Pluto’s demotion.

Thanks to Skymania: Now hotshot Mike grabs Uranus.

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William Lane Craig’s ’logic’ Ken Perrott Sep 21

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I don’t know how long this video will survive on YouTube. It’s a takeoff of William Lane Craig and his “logic.” Apparently Craig has made several attempts to remove it.

Personally, I think there is room for many more of these videos – Craig’s debates could be mined for multiple examples of faulty logic.

William Lane Craig Is Not A Meatloaf – YouTube.

Science and the ’supernatural’ Ken Perrott Sep 19

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I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

The non-overlapping magisteria argument

Dr Fishman takes issue with the idea that science can say nothing about the “supernatural,” or be used to evaluate “supernatural” claims. This argument has often been used by opponents of science, eg. the theologically motivated  who argue that science is too restrictive, that it should be “opened up” to “supernatural” explanations.

But it has also been used by those defending science from such religious intrusions. As Fishman says this position argues:

 ”that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims. Thus, science is necessarily mute on the question of whether or not supernatural phenomena exist. Consequently, to the extent that religion involves supernatural entities or phenomena, there can be no conflict between scientific claims and religious claims.”

On the one hand opponents argue this is a limitation that should be removed from science. On the other hand defenders of science concede the limitation and argue that this enables science and religion to coexist harmoniously – provided they keep to their own “magisteria.” They put a lot of weight on their claim that science only deals with the “natural” world.

The latter approach was implicit in Stephen J. Gould‘s description of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (see Overlapping Magisteria?). An approach supported by many, but not all by any means,  scientists, philosophers of science , religious philosophers and theologians. For example Fishman refers to statements of position by two prominent US scientific institutions, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). And the arguments against intelligent design (ID) presented by supporters of science, like philosopher Barbara Forrest, at the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial. This approach was incorporated into the judgement from this trial which is often quoted by supporters of science.

But the same argument (the inability of science to accommodate the supernatural) is used by opponents of science to discredit scientific ideas and campaign for reincorporation of theological ideas into science. This is a common argument of supporters of ID (see the Wedge document or Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda for a clear example), conservative Christians and many theologians/philosophers of religion.

The latter groups will often use “arguments from authority”, quoting cherry-picked “secular” or “naturalist” philosophers of science  to support their attacks on science and its findings. I believe this makes the use of this “limits of science” argument by supporters of science doubly faulty because it feeds the opponents of science.

The scientific method

Fishman rejects the thesis that science is unable to investigate “supernatural” claims. After all, those advancing “supernatural” phenomena claim these are real – and science investigates reality. The scientific method is ideal for this because:

“if an entity, phenomenon, or effect exists, it is detectable in some way. Either its existence is directly observable or its existence is not directly observable but it causes effects or implies consequences which are directly observable (such as the track made by a subatomic particle in a bubble chamber).”

Proponents of the “supernatural” open up their claims to scientific investigation because:

“In general, most believers hold that gods, spirits, and paranormal phenomena have real effects on the world and on their lives. These effects should be testable by the methods of science. Indeed, many supernatural and paranormal claims have already been investigated by scientists, often at the behest of those intending to validate the supernatural.”

He mentions as examples the effects of intercessory prayer on patient outcomes, paranormal or ’psi’ phenomena, astrology and the so-called ’Bible Code’ prophecies.

“If these hypotheses can legitimately be examined by science, then there is no principled reason why other supernatural claims cannot be so examined as well.”

Surely this has implications for how we present the scientific method. And the argument “that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims” appears disingenuous.

And hasn’t science, throughout its history been doing this. Investigating phenomena which have in previous times been seen as “supernatural” and which we now consider “natural:”

“the history of science has been characterized by the progressive ‘naturalization of the world’, providing non-supernatural alternative explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be explicable only by appeal to supernatural agents.”

In my experience no scientist ever asks herself if phenomena are “supernatural” or not before undertaking an investigation. The question of pursuing investigation of phenomena revolves more around funding, difficulty, availability of equipment and expertise, etc. Not around a “supernatural”/”natural” judgement. (And how can such a judgement be made at the beginning of an investigation, anyway).

Demands for special treatment

The real problem with “supernatural” claims in science is that their advocates very often demand special treatment. They are not looking for their claims to be tested – just accepted purely on the basis of logical possibility. Or they reject scientific findings with arguments like “science has not yet caught up with homeopathy!”

In fact the usual argument of the proponents of “supernatural” claims is to attempt to discredit existing so-called “naturalist” theories and then argue their alternative “supernatural” ideas should be accept as the default (or fallback) position – no testing required. They assure us their claims are “logically sound.” That seems to be the inevitable mode of argument used by proponents of creationism/ID.


“mere logical possibility is not sufficient. As Kelly Smith notes, ’If we accept the mere possibility of an alternative explanation [i.e., supernatural creationism] as sufficient grounds to abandon an hypothesis [i.e., naturalistic evolution], we will never commit to any hypothesis whatsoever, because the alternatives to be ruled out are limited only by our imaginations.’

True, there have been areas science has avoided in the past – like origins of morality, the nature of consciousness, etc. But these are no longer taboo. And I think we are no longer fooled by the idea that such difficult subjects should be handed over to theology.

Scientists are quite happy to acknowledge that a pehomena may, at this stage, be inexplainable. That some things, in the end, may even be beyond human ability to understand or explain. Human may not have, may never have, the required technological, congitive or reasoning skills. But such arguments should never be used to justify, by default, hypotheses or explanations which rely on wishful thinking rather than evidence.

Implications for science education

I agree that the popular NOMA argument and exclusion of the “supernatural” from science misrepresents the way we do science. And it should not be used to dictate the way we teach science.

The data so far. Credit: xkcd (

It is really only a political tactic – used either by supporters  to defend science against theological intrusions or by opponents to demand theological influence in science.

Scientists should not resort to such an opportunist, and incorrect, argument in their defense against current theological attacks. As Fishman says:

“rejection of the supernatural is not a priori, it is not declared ‘before examining the facts.’ It comes only from a scientific investigation of the evidence  . . . .

ID should not be dismissed on the grounds that it is unscientific; ID should be dismissed on the grounds that the empirical evidence for its claims just isn’t there.”

Fishman discusses the implications and challenges of this issue for science education. It is important that science should “pursue truth, regardless of religious or political sensitivities.” But “science educators face the challenge of maintaining both intellectual integrity and the receptivity of students to potentially controversial scientific material.”

They may be assisted by “presenting a historical perspective on science to provide a framework for understanding how science has arrived at its currently accepted theories about the world.” But honesty and good factual information are important.

“It is clear that teaching critical thinking skills in addition to factual information will not only foster scientific literacy, but may have far reaching beneficial consequences for how students conduct their daily lives and for a society all too often enticed by the paranormal and deceived by potentially dangerous pseudoscientific claims. By fostering critical thinking and a scientific frame of mind there is an increased likelihood that students will adopt a skeptical attitude toward supernatural claims in light of the scientific evidence against them. Importantly, critical thinking and a scientific approach to claims are not just for scientists and debunkers of the supernatural. A well-informed population proficient in critical thinking will be better equipped to make intelligent decisions concerning crucial political issues of our day, such as global warming and governmental foreign policy. Indeed, an intellectually honest engagement with reality is a prerequisite for promoting the long-term interest of individuals and society at large.”


These few sentences seem to sum things up from the point of view of education:

“Given that science does have implications concerning the probable truth of supernatural worldviews, claims should not be excluded a priori from science education simply because they might be characterized as supernatural, paranormal, or religious. Rather, claims should be excluded from science education when the evidence does not support them, regardless of whether they are designated as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’.”

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Empathy for colleagues Ken Perrott Sep 15

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Science follows certain procedures, but does the media get the signal? Credit: CSIRO

The Australian astrophysicist Mathew Bailes recently got international recognition for his part in the discovery of an exoplanet which could be made of diamond. As he says: “Following the publication of our finding in the journal Science, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media.” (See Diamond planets, climate change and the scientific method)

It’s always nice when a scientific discovery, and the work of a scientist, receive public attention. Even though, as he says:

” in the overall scheme of things, it isn’t that important.

And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live.

In that sense, for myself and my co-authors, I suspect it will be among the greatest discoveries of our careers.

Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame.”

It could have been different

But here’s the lesson in this story:

“The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.

How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.”

And he asks you to consider a parallel scenario;

“Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.

Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.

Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.

People on the fringe of science would be quoted as opponents of our work, arguing that it was nothing more than a theory yet to be conclusively proven.

There would be doubt cast on the interpretation of our data and conjecture about whether we were ’buddies’ with the journal referees.

If our opponents dug really deep they might even find that I’d once written a paper on a similar topic that had to be retracted.

Before long our credibility and findings would be under serious question.”


“Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.”

It’s worth those of us outside the climate science community reflecting on this. Scientists and non-scientists alike.

Consider the continuing harassment of Dr Michael Mann who is still be pursued by climate deniers and conservative politicians. What do they want. His emails from years back! (see Professor turns to law to protect climate-change work).

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Approaching a Middle East peace Ken Perrott Sep 14

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Came across this song of Tim Minchen’s Peace Anthem For Palestine.

Actually think he might be on to something

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