Archive June 2012

Scientific knowledge should trump “belief” Ken Perrott Jun 28


I have listened to a few discussions on the Christian Radio Rhema recently. Unusual for me, I know, but I have followed the current controversy around the problem of religious instruction in New Zealand public schools. This issue has been debated (and defended) a bit on Radio Rhema.

My post Mixing values and Jesus in secular education discussed the problem. Basically it involves getting around the required secular nature of public education by closing the school for the duration of the instruction, which is provided by a church-trained voluntary “teacher.” Some parents feel the system is being wroughted by tying this instruction to the values content of the secular curriculum. And although there is a theoretical opt-out provision, parents are often unaware of this, or of the religious instruction, until the children come home with strange stories about creationism or hell.

But back to Radio Rhema. What amazed me about the announcer and the Christian spokespersons he interviewed was their naive use of post-modernist arguments to justify religious instruction and creationism/intelligent design teaching. They rely on the simple claim that inevitably everyone has a “world view,” a belief system. So everyone must be biased. That whatever is taught is only just a belief. And that science has not more access to truth than religion has. One belief is as good as another.

Dragging science down to a “belief”

It’s not the only place I have heard such arguments. In fact this seems to be the inevitable fall-back position when science challenges religious ideas. In this case one spokesperson even said that evolution is just a myth, no better than the creation myths! Another pulled out the old chestnut that any belief system required faith – science requires faith just as much as any religious story! Yet another claimed that both “human caused” and “non-human caused” beliefs about climate change should be taught in schools. Equal tome for each belief – forget about the facts.

In one way these people are sawing off the branch they are sitting on because when they deny scientific knowledge, or the epistemic advantage of scientific method, they attempt to put it in the same basket they reside in. But I suppose if you can’t give a reason for your myths to be better than scientific knowledge this may be all you are left with. Dragging science down to the epistemic level of your own ideology.

But those who use such arguments and who treat scientific or historical knowledge as “just beliefs,” having no more support than beliefs derived from magical thinking, show at least a basic misunderstanding of science. Of course, their motives may actually be more malicious. They may consciously be attempting to misrepresent science. to advance their own beliefs

In contrast to the beliefs comprising religious “knowledge,” scientific knowledge is intimately connected with the real world. Scientific ideas and theories are based on evidence, derived from interaction with reality. And they are validated by testing against reality. This does not make scientific knowledge absolute and complete “Truth” – in the capitalised sense. But it does give a picture of reality which usually closely reflects the truth of that reality. Very often close enough to enable practical applications.  It’s a constantly improving picture as we get more evidence and more ways of interacting with reality.

The epistemic advantage of science

But importantly, its basis in evidence and its close connection with reality means scientific knowledge is not a “belief.” It is very different to religious beliefs which may, in fact, bear no relation to reality.

This means that science has an epistemic advantage – an advantage that society generally recognises. That is why concern about possible climate change has caused governments to consult climate scientists to summarise the findings of their science. Governments are not interested in beliefs – they are interested in the facts, or at least the best summary of the facts the experts can provide.

If the naive picture presented by the commenters on Radio Rhema was true then governments could save a lot of money. Instead of all the investment in field work, laboratory analysis and scientific and technical staff we could have solved the problem of cobalt deficiency in New Zealand soils by hiring a theologian. And surely even an interfaith committee of theologians, flash robes and lifestyles included, advising the government over climate issues would have been a lot cheaper than NIWA or our contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Especially if no international scientific research was actually carried out on climate and these theologians instead consulted the writings of their overseas colleagues.

Mind you, after attempting to read some of the post-modernist material produced by theologians I can just imagine how useless the recommendations of this interfaith committee would be. I doubt if they could even agree on anything understandable, let alone specific enough for a government to base policies on.

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Seven Minutes of Terror Ken Perrott Jun 27

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Although recent US probes to Mars have been very successful there have certainly been a lot of failures in both US and Russian attempts in the past.

However, we all have our fingers crossed for the Curiosity probe which will attempt the landing of a rover on Mars in early August. But the landing itself will be very stressful. There are just so many problems to overcome – not the least  the 15 minutes radio messages take to get from Mars to Earth – one way.

I don’t know what odds to bookies place on a successful landing – but after watching this video I don’t think it can be very high.

Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror – YouTube.

Still, a lot of people are hoping for success and no doubt we will be able to share the tension, excitement and (hopefully) joys of the NASA engineers involved in real-time on the internet and via Twitter.

Australian census confirms healthy trend Ken Perrott Jun 25

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The early results from the Australian 2011 census have appeared. There has been a lot of comment on the trends for religion. The No Religion group has now moved to second place (22.3%), behind Catholic (25.3%) and ahead of Anglican (17.1%). And, the No Religion group is the only one of the major religious groups that has increased since the previous Census (2006) – all the other major religious groups have declined. I have summarised the data (from 2011 Census QuickStats: Australia) in the figure below.

This trend is just a continuation of that clear since earlier census results (see Secular twins and Non religious in Australia and New Zealand). And Australia still has some catching up to do with New Zealand. (In 2006 the No Religion was about 34% in New Zealand and 19% in Australia).  Although this might be at least partly due to the fact that in New Zealand we put the “No religion” choice at the top of the box while the Australians put theirs at the bottom (see Non religious in Australia and New Zealand).

I’ll return to this when the Australian detailed census data is published. My interest is to see the breakdown with respect to age. Previous results in Australia and New Zealand show that the “No Religion” choice is much higher for younger people (see Religious belief and age). And the recent Pew data for the USA show there was a sharp jump in non-belief among younger people in the middle of the last decade (see Sharp increase in “nones”).

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Science is messy – for girls too! Ken Perrott Jun 24

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My name is Maureen A. Donnelly and I am a biologist at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. This photo was taken in Madre de Dios Peru after Rudolf von May and I visited one of his study sites. We are interested in the ecology and conservation of tropical forest frogs. Credit – This is What a scientist Looks Like.

Twenty years ago I produced a Calendar using photographic portraits of local artists. It was a project for a photographic portrait course. It did cross my mind to use scientists as a subject, but I didn’t pursue that because it felt too close.

But I wonder what subjects I would have come up with. Would I have tried to get portraits which fitted the prevailing stereotype of a scientists.? Or would I actually have gone out and photographed the subjects “in the field”, as it were?

The current uproar over the Science: It’s a Girl Thing campaign reminded me of that project. And this one seems to have been a huge fail. An example of stereotype fitting in the worst, anti-female, way.

So as a counter, have a look at this website – This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. It appears relatively new but aims to be a collection of photos of real scientists – the above is their first example.

You could even submit your own photos.

I have often said that scientific research is a messy process – obviously in more ways than one.

See also: Science: It’s a Girl Thing!

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Print-on-demand books – what’s the hold-up? Ken Perrott Jun 21

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A man demonstrates the printing of a book from an Espresso Book Machine at Google headquarters in California Photo: AP & Telegraph

When I first heard about print-on-demand books I thought they seems an obvious answer to problems in the book marker – at least from this consumer’s perspective. They seemed to give the ability of obtaining almost any book by getting your bookshop to download the file and print off a good quality copy on-site. And relatively cheaply.

This should have helped support a market for pBooks despite the attractiveness of eBooks to a section of the market. And it would overcome the necessity for bookshops to carry huge ranges of books that might never be sold. And getting rid of the inevitable surplus stock.

It seemed to me an ideal complement to eBooks, one that I found attractive and was looking forward to.

But it didn’t happen! And I couldn’t work out why.

Well, Alan Beatts, proprietor of the Borderlands bookstore in San Francisco seems to have explained why. He initially looked into the economics of running the Espresso, print-on-demand book machine in his shop and had concluded it could take over 11 years for profits to recover the cost of an Espresso.

Now he has recalculated, taking into account the market for self-publishing by patroons of the bookshop. This seems a key factor and can bring the recovery time down to less than 5 years (see Print On Demand Might Come to a Store Near You ). That’s printing one book per hour. If the shop can print 3 books per hour, the machine pays off in a year and a half.

That looks much better. But in practice this self-publishing market becomes very important and tends to be what these machines are mostly used for. Alan Beatts says:

“The bad news is that 90% of the income from one of these machines comes from a process that is closer to running a copy-shop or a service bureau, not a bookstore.  It’s not a process that most of the booksellers I know are well suited to — moderately technical and involving potentially challenging customer service that is totally unlike bookselling (there’s a world of difference between helping someone find the right book and getting someone’s baby . . . I mean, their novel . . . to look right). “

Still, there must be businesses or institutions in New Zealand who already do this sort of thing and should be ideal for retailing print-on-demand books. Or maybe there is scope for cooperation of printing/publishing businesses with book retail businesses. Maybe even cooperation with academic institutes as such a facility would be ideal for conference organisers, or for departments wanting a limited run of special books for students or researchers.

Whatever, I would certainly love to see it. Potentially it could make available in both eBook and pBook format any book that exists as a digital file throughout the world.

And just think, those of you regularly attending conferences may actually get reasonable copies of the proceedings.

See also: Borderlands bookstore owner recalculates; Espresso not so expensive after all.

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How to write a best-seller! Ken Perrott Jun 20

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If you haven’t heard of Deepak Chopra you may not  appreciate this – the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator. It enables you to manufacture a “quote” – generated from a list of word in Deepak’s Twitter stream.

Like his normal utterances it will be “indistinguishable from a set of profound sounding words put together in a random order.”

Here’s a few I got (click on “Receive more wisdom”).

  • “Evolution experiences ephemeral reality”
  • “The world heals an expression of happiness”
  • “The universe comprehends humble space time events”

Hell – you could just about write a popular book using this generator.

Thanks to Jerry Coyne at Deepak generator!

Sharp increase in “nones” Ken Perrott Jun 19

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The American Values Survey Question Database  from the Pew Research Centre suggests that with the new century we may be seeing a marked change in the beliefs of Americans.

On the statement “I never doubt the existence of God” the number of people who disagree jumped from 10% in 2000 to 18% in 212. That is after being constant for the previous 15 years (see figure below).

But the data is even more dramatic when broken down into age groups. The numbers disagreeing have increased in all age groups, but the increase is most marked for the younger ages. The increase for the 18-29 years group was about 100% (from 18% in 2000 to 31% in 2012). And most of this increase occurred since 2005.

Perhaps those horrible Gnus have been having an effect after all.

The data for New Zealand is not so detailed. However, the figure below shows data from the last 3 census results – 1996, 2001, 2006. Here we see what appears to be a steady increase in those choosing “no religion” on the census form in all age groups. Again the effect is larger for the younger groups. About 45% of people below 40 years old now have no religion.

Last year’s census was delayed because of the Christchurch earthquakes. But I suspect we are going to see some barriers broken in the results it produces.

See also: Belief In God Plummets Among Youth (CHART) for US data presented in terms of “generations.”

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A disciplined discussion Ken Perrott Jun 18

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I have commented several times that the debate format is very unsatisfactory and have favoured a discussion format for public discussion. Richard Dawkins has tried out a number of such discussion formats, I think successfully.

But I think this one is actually quite ambitious – four personalities in discussion, on stage, in front of an audience of 4000. It actually comes out very well. With no chairperson or moderator, everyone seems to get a fair go. No one dominates. And the discussion is fascinating. I would love to have been there.

It’s the panel discussion between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali which occurred at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention
held in Melbourne last April.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris & Ayaan Hirsi Ali – YouTube.

It’s an hour-long – but very interesting.

What did Galileo ever do to you? Ken Perrott Jun 17


Statue of Galileo outside the Uffizi, Florence

I ask this because some of those who write about Galileo on the internet seem to have a  real grudge against the guy. A personal grudge – judging from the emotion in their writing.

Now I am not saying Galileo was perfect – he was as human as anyone else, perhaps more so. I read a few biographies of famous scientists these days and I am really pleased modern biographies are not hagiographic. They generally present the subject “warts and all.” The scientists are human – often very human. Personally ambitious, spiteful and jealous. (Just like scientists today – I have often said we could make an excellent soap opera based on the day-to-day life in a New Zealand scientific research institute).

These human presentations really do underline the fallacy of considering scientists and science as somehow inhuman, lacking in emotion. Like robots. They help make the science, and their discoveries, real, human and interesting. Science is actually a very messy process and the more readers get presented with this reality in these biographies the better they will understand the process.

But why should the reader of today personally feel a grudge against Einstein because of the way he treated his first wife and child, or against Newton because of his ambition, superstitions, jealousy and other personal failings?

Even worse – why should the historian of science bear such a personal grudge – especially as this distorts presentation of their subject? Yet when it comes to Galileo this seems to be the case. Some self-proclaimed historians of science are taking sides. They wish to blame the victim for his persecution by the Inquisition. They will present Galileo’s human faults at great length, while ignoring completely the very human interactions within the school of cardinals, within the Vatican and inquisition. They ignore the political realities of the Catholic church of the time which influenced Pope Urban’s reaction to Galileo and his judgement by the inquisition.

Taking sides on past arguments

And the same thing with the science. Almost inevitably these people concentrate on Galileo’s scientific mistakes (eg his tides argument). Instead of objectively presenting the facts of the controversies over the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the solar system at the time they insist on taking sides. They rehearse the arguments of Galileo’s opponents (eg “we don’t feel the earth moving,” there was no orbital parallax observed for the fixed stars – interpreting this as “non-existent” parallax, and not “not yet observed”) while completely ignoring Galileo’s often extremely informative replies to specific criticisms. They present a picture implying that supporters of geocentricism had undeniable evidence. Accepted by everyone except Galileo. And implying that Galileo had no worthwhile arguments supporting a heliocentric model at all.

In these discussions I have been told that geocentrism was the scientific consensus at the time and was well supported by the existing scientific knowledge. Even told that a committee of “scientists” had ruled so – see Historical fiction. (The “committee of scientists” turned out to be a panel of consultant theologians asked by the Inquisition to make a judgement – see Historical fiction for the text of the brief consultant’s report and members of the panel).

Another claim is that geocentrism was a “well established and strongly empirically supported theory” – implying Galileo had no business arguing against it. When I pointed out that was actually not so, that the geocentric model required a number of ad hoc adjustments, not empirically supported, to achieve its ability to predict planetary motions I get told that it was not meant to be an “explanatory” model. Well, yes. We know about its instrumental success for navigators and astrologers. But why attribute “strong empirical support” to the model when this was not the case? Well, obviously so that any minor problems of the alternative heliocentric model could be used to discredit it.

I have even been told that the heliocentric model had been “falsified” because orbital parallax (detecting displacement of a star against its background at the 6 monthly orbital extremes of the earth) had not been observed. As Galileo said at the time on this issues:

the adversaries of this opinion rise up, and take what Copernicus has called ’imperceptible’ as having been assumed by him to be really and absolutely non-existent.’

And then these modern critics also ignore Galileo’s demonstration of the over-estimation of stellar sizes due to an optical delusion in naked eye observations and how reduction of these effects produced much more distant stars and hence minimisation of parallax.

Emotional hostility to Galileo

Did I mention the emotional commitment to this anti-Galileo grudge? In recent debates where I have attempted to explain Galileo’s position, or ask for specific references to claims against Galileo, I have been called a “tool,” and a “fanboy” with “cherished notions of Galileo’s intellectual immaculacy.” Accused of “hand waving” and using “a minimal amount of dubious or inaccurate facts” and being a “tone-deaf fundamentalist.” Even “despicable, self-righteous and deluded.”

All because I argued Galileo’s case!

These reactions seem to result from the protagonists having a mission – the “demythologizing of history!” They appear consider the current understanding of Galileo and his contribution to science has raised him to the status of a saint, rather than a scientific hero – and a human scientific hero at that. One of my opponents claimed:

” . . . the convoluted details and scientific problems associated with the transition from geostatic to heliostatic math models has been simplified to the archetypal culture hero Galileo performing the iconic deeds that validate our Modern way of life.”

You sort of wonder where that has come from? And what exactly about “Modern way of life” is Galileo being blamed for?  From my perspective it seems to come from within their own mind and ideology because I certainly don’t pick up those messages from current biography’s of Galileo or descriptions of his scientific contributions. It seems to me rather than “demythologising history” they are in fact attempting to create a myth – Galileo as the dishonest fraudster. Perhaps even highly immoral. Suppressing and distorting data, ignoring the arguments against the Copernican model. And even seeming to argue that the geocentric model should really not have been displaced.

Historical debates

Last year in Bias in the history of science I discussed Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s book Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. This provides the history of the Galileo Affair as it has been debated over the last almost 400 years. And these presentations have certainly been controversial. Partly because of limited access to documents in the early days. But also because of ideological positions (for and against the church).

Some of the ideological controversy continues – just do an internet search for Galileo and his persecution. See how much of the electronic space is taken up by religious apologists. Their blaming the victim approach is alive and active today and probably is responsible for diffusion of some of their arguments into the academic discussion of the history of science.

Finocchiaro also saw some others motives – such as Koestler’s emotional commitment to mystery which lead him to be very negative about Galileo – the cold, logical scientist, who ‘did not exemplify ’the unitary source of the mystical and scientific modes of experience.’’ In contrast Koestler was much more flattering of the “mystical origin and sleepwalking character of Kepler’s discoveries.” Finocchiaro called Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe a “popular libel against Galileo.”

One certainly has to be aware of ideological and emotional commitments when judging the statements of those writing on the history of science.

Whatever – the long history of the Galileo affair controversy, and the different sides taken, certainly provide plenty of ammunition for anyone wishing to find apparent authoritative support for their own prejudices today.

But why should they have the prejudices they do?

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Gnu bashing once again Ken Perrott Jun 14

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The latest Gallup poll on American’s beliefs about creationism and evolution has predictably raised some comments among bloggers. As expected, there have not been any big changes – most still support either creationism (46%) or a god-guided form of evolution (32%). Although it is heartening that there is a long-term trend of increasing acceptance of normal evolutionary science (no god-guidance) – see below.


Among the commenting bloggers, one stands out – Robert Wright, writing for the Atlantic (see Creationists vs. Evolutionists). Because he is raising that old myth – Richard Dawkins is responsible for the strength of creationist belief in the US!! He even raise this old myth to a status of “theory”, but then retreats to a hypothesis.” Come on Robert – a bit more humility is in order – even hypothesis need some sort of supporting evidence, and the above graph is not providing any.

How the hell does he support the idea that “biologists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact” which has lead to the current situation. Where’s the sudden jump when Richard publishedThe God Delusion inb 2006 or PZ started blogging (2002).

Have a look a blog posts by Jerry Coyne (Robert Wright blames creationism on atheists) and PZ (My vast powers transcend space and time!) ridiculing this little “hypothesis of Wright’s. I will just take this issue a little further to cover a similar myth – that these horrible “new atheists” (gnus), and Richard Dawkins in particular, are responsible for the lack of support and respect for science in the US. I mentioned this myth in my review of Ecklund’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think  (see Are scientists hostile to religion?)

Ecklund had referred to statistics on public attitudes towards science to support her mythical thesis that prominent scientists were causing people to turn away from science because they criticised relgion! But again, the statistics just didn’t support her claim. The plot below shows there has been no effect of  “new atheists”  activity (starting in 2004/2006) on the attitude of the public toward scientists.

%age of US public considering professions of “very great prestige.”

In fact, the data shows that there had been a downturn in respect for religious professions after 2001. Was that due to the “new atheists?” Are PZ’s blog (2002) or Sam Harris’s first book (2004) responsible for the dip in 2002 – 2004?

Or is this just a sign that the public was turning away from religion because of its involvement in the New York terror attacks of 2001? Or maybe a comment made by many people may just be  relevant. We had just got fed up with the hypocritical morality (think of all the choir boys) and interference of religionists? Perhaps even reacting to the religious interference in the teaching of science – even the practice of science?

Oh well, you can make you own interpretation of the statistics to fit your own prejudices.

Robert Wright does raise an issue which corresponds to one blip in the first graph. He says:

” Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion. “

But perhaps ID is to blame?

Again, I say, Wright’s propensity for Dawkins’ bashing is confusing him. He can’t see the alternative explanations of that blip (if it is even real). What about the effect of propaganda by the intelligent design (ID) protagonists, who are very hostile to theistic evolution (usually mean god as the guider). You just have to watch bits of the videos of the ID  conference on theistic evolution held at Biola University in October 2010 (see Videos from an ID conference at Biola University,  Biola God and evolution conference now on YouTube and Seven videos from the Biola University conference on God and evolution).

They hate theistic evolution and really dug the knife into Francis Collins. They make it clear that they won’t tolerate any bit of this ideas that you can accept evolution and still believe in a god. They will just not compromise. (Although even then, dear old Casey Luskin manages to really transfer the blame to the gnus because he claims theistic evolution cannot stop the war of the gnus on god – he’s a funny guy.)

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