Updates on the latest from the world of 'straight' science.

Dawkins' Wonders of the World

Over at RichardDawkins.net, you'll find a wonderful half hour video of Richard Dawkins offering his personal "Seven Wonders of the World" (filmed 12 years ago). It's a great look at some of the amazing things to be found in nature, such as the various uses of web by spiders, and the use of sonar by bats. And I agree 100% with his tip of the hat to David Attenborough, whom I consider a treasure (at least, as the figurehead for the complete production team who have created his documentaries over the years). He introduced me to the wonder of the natural world, as he is now introducing my children (Life in the Undergrowth would have to be my all-time favourite).

It would be refreshing to see more of Richard Dawkins in this mode, and probably more helpful to his cause as well.

Darwin Must Die

I think RPJ pretty much covered the gamut of Darwin Day stories today, but thought this New York Times article was worth pulling out of the crowd and taking a closer look at. "Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live":

Equating evolution with Charles Darwin ignores 150 years of discoveries, including most of what scientists understand about evolution. Such as: Gregor Mendel’s patterns of heredity (which gave Darwin’s idea of natural selection a mechanism — genetics — by which it could work); the discovery of DNA (which gave genetics a mechanism and lets us see evolutionary lineages); developmental biology (which gives DNA a mechanism); studies documenting evolution in nature (which converted the hypothetical to observable fact); evolution’s role in medicine and disease (bringing immediate relevance to the topic); and more.

By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.” The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The point is that making a master teacher into a sacred fetish misses the essence of his teaching. So let us now kill Darwin.

I thought there were some really good points in the article, though it seems P.Z. Myers does not agree with me. Interestingly, I think the fact that he and others take umbrage with this article (which in my opinion is a very sensible defence of evolutionary theory) - or perhaps, it's title - suggests that the name of Darwin *is* held as sacred in many respects. I think there is certainly something to the argument that Darwin is held above others (e.g. Newton) by materialists precisely because his theory acts as a rebuttal to fundamentalist religion). I think also that Safina is sensibly addressing the public perception of evolution, whilst his detractors can't see the forest for the trees.

(I also did enjoy a little laugh when reading Myers' rebuttal to the claim "that scientists are making Darwin into a 'sacred fetish', and creating a 'cult of Darwinism'. It's simply not true. I go through this every year, when I'm off to give a talks about Darwin around the time of Darwin Day, and there's no deification going on anywhere.")

Climatic Heresy on Boing Boing

Interesting happenings over at Boing Boing this week. Invited guest-blogger Charles Platt posted a series of posts (1, 2, 3 and 4) which dared to question the scientific soundness of anthropogenic global warming (AGW):

At the risk of stimulating outrage, I’m going to ask some questions about climate. No one disputes that planetary warming occurred during the second half of the twentieth century; the question is whether it was primarily anthropogenic (i.e. caused by human beings). The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that the debate on this issue is over. I’m not so sure anymore.

Here on TDG, we often talk about how defenders of orthodox science sometimes get quasi-religious in their fervency, and hundreds of comments that Platt's posts inspired are worth checking out to see some examples of this (of course, there are others worth looking at simply because they're very informative). One of the scarier trends that I found seems to be a conflation of someone who queries AGW with Holocaust denialism (with the lesser charge seeming to be a conflation with Creationists).

Things got even more interesting at Boing Boing though when co-editor Cory Doctorow suddenly posted a slew of pro-AGW posts within half an hour of Platt's last post (1, 2, 3 and 4). This rapid response led Platt to comment beneath one of Doctorow's posts, "I think it is a little odd that a principal of BB feels he has to rebut some posts that deviate from the party line. I've never seen that before."

Platt has since left the guest-blogging slot at Boing Boing early. Although he qualified his leaving by saying "of course I was not asked to leave!", his final words seemed to imply something had happened:

I was dismayed by the anger response from two of the people involved, which made me wonder what else I might say that would trigger a similar reaction. Since I couldn't predict it, and I didn't want to provoke it, and I didn't want to start censoring myself, it was easiest to stop.

By the way, I'm not arguing one way or the other on AGW - I've read both sides of the debate and there seem to be good points all round (as well as, on the flipside, nefarious influences and myth-making). My main point in posting is to look at the reactions to heresy against scientific orthodoxy.

Previously on TDG:

Science Anarchy in the UK

The religion-science debate has been in full swing this week in the UK, with Professor Michael Reiss - Church of England minister, and Director of Education for that bastion of science, the Royal Society - resigning his position with the Royal Society in the wake of supposedly controversial statements he made about Creationism in the classroom. Atheists/secular humanists/materialists of all descriptions got themselves in a tizzy over the weekend when Professor Reiss suggested that teachers should be equipped to discuss Creationism if students bring it up in class. The automatic assumption by many seems to have been that Reiss was saying that Creationism deserves to be part of the curriculum. However, that was obviously not his intention:

Teachers should take the time to explain why creationism had no scientific basis, Prof Reiss said. He stressed that the topic should not be taught as science. This was more valuable than simply "banging on" about evolution, he said.

Prof Reiss, a biologist and Church of England minister, said he now believed it was more effective to engage with pupils' ideas about creationism, rather than to obstruct discussion with those who do not accept the scientific version of the evolution of species.

Yes, that's right - he dared to suggest that we *talk* to kids about different worldviews, if the topic comes up. So top-level scientists, such as Sir Richard Roberts, showed their skill at reasoned thinking by saying things like:

I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates - which would be sent to the Royal Society - to ask that Reiss be made to stand down.'

Richard Dawkins, for his part, commented: "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch." Seemingly ignoring the fact that there are lots of very good scientists out there capable of doing, teaching, and discussing good science (Reiss himself is a biologist).

Dawkins has since backed away slightly from his original comments:

Although I disagree with him, what he actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take.

Scientists divide into two camps over this issue: the accommodationists, who 'respect' creationists while disagreeing with them; and the rest of us, who see no reason to respect ignorance or stupidity.

...Unfortunately for him as a would-be spokesman for the Royal Society, Michael Reiss is also an ordained minister. To call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prize-winning Fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste.

...Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society's Education Director to a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, thoughts of Trojan Horses are now disturbing many Fellows...

Nevertheless, even his qualified comments have been taken to task by some, such as this critique. Also, scientist and British media darling Lord Robert Winston has also gone out of his way to take a shot at Dawkins and other 'militant atheists', agreeing with Reiss's suggestions about engaging people in discussion, rather than belittling their worldview:

I would argue that the 'God Delusion' approach is actually very divisive because it is the one way surely of not winning over opposing views... Religious people can say, 'look these guys just don't understand us'."

We need to be much more sophisticated in how we handle these problems in our society and I don't think the propositions of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and a number of other writers have really furthered useful healthy debate. I think actually they've limited it – that worries me.

Remember that Lord Winston has previously given qualified support for other heretical topics being discussed - although I think still unfairly singling them out as needing special attention: two years ago he commented on the inclusion of a parapsychology session at the BAAS forum: "It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields. It’s something the BA should consider, whether a session like this should go unchallenged by regular scientists." While I think he was riding an intellectual high horse during that particular controversy, he was at least open to discussion - something that could not be said for numerous other 'scientists' in attendance...

The Unholy Trinity

Sixty-three years ago today, the Trinity Test changed the face of the world. Wired have a cool little anniversary feature filling you in on some of the background and interesting parts of history:

With gallows humor, the Los Alamos physicists got up a betting pool on the possible yield of the bomb. Estimates ranged from zero to as high as 45,000 tons of TNT. Enrico Fermi, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938 for his work on nuclear fission, offered side odds on the bomb destroying all life on the planet.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, was under no illusions about what he and his fellow physicists had wrought. The effects of the blast, the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT, moved the intellectual Oppenheimer to quote from the Bhagavad Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."

More prosaically, Dr. Kenneth Bainbridge, site director of the Trinity test, said: "Now we are all sons-of-bitches."

Also at Wired is a small gallery of related images.

For more in-depth historical background, check out the Atomic Archive pages on the Manhattan Project and Trinity Test, as well as Los Alamos National Laboratory's Trinity page, which features historical documents related to the test (in PDF format). You can also find footage of the Trinity shot (along with subsequent tests) on this page.

I've also seen plenty of good comments about Richard Rhodes' comprehensive book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Amazon US). A fascinating and awful (in the proper definition of the word) period of history, well worth digging in to.

Sci-Am Expelled

Following in the footsteps of the Dawkins-Myer 'gatecrash' of the anti-evolution movie Expelled, Scientific American has now posted a multi-part feature debunking the controversial film. Except this time, it was anything but a gatecrash, with the movie's producer actually approaching Sci-Am:

You wouldn't expect Scientific American to take a particularly positive view of a movie that espouses intelligent design over evolutionary biology. Then again, you wouldn’t expect the producers of said film — in this case, Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed — to offer the editors of said magazine a private screening.

Associate producer Mark Mathis showed up at our offices with a preview of Expelled in hand. That's right, the unexpected screening happened. The unexpected positive reviews did not.

Reviewers included the ubiquitous Michael Shermer (so much so, he's even in this film), Sci-Am editor in chief John Rennie (who attacks the movie's attempts to link the theory of evolution to the Holocaust), and Steve Mirsky who sums everything up with "Six Things in Expelled that Ben Stein Doesn't Want You to Know".

So all in all, another good day of publicity for the makers of Expelled...

Atheists at Ten Paces

There's been some interesting developments going on in the atheist/skeptic/rationalist community over the past year, with it all coming to a bit of a head last week. Science blogger Matt Nisbet posted a controversial story noting his concern over the high-profile involvement of mega-popular science blogger (Pharyngula) P.Z. Myers, and the iconic Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), in the debate over the upcoming Intelligent-Design/Creationist movie Expelled:

The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions.

...As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education.

Nisbet's article sent the Scienceblogs community into overdrive, and provoked this response from Myers:

I'm not exactly feeling pleasantly conducive to continuing the latest sanctimonious whine-fests from some of the people who share a server with me. I have been avoiding the various framing flare-ups around here, despite the fact that everyone of them seems to drag my name into the mix.

We appreciate your concern, it is noted and stupid.

Reading the comments beneath Myers entry, from his fan base, things get even more prickly. I do find it odd though, that we have this reaction now, when other more high-profile atheist/skeptics have been saying similar things over the past year. Most notably, Michael Shermer, who wrote a Scientific American column late last year titled "Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens".

I can't speak for everyone else, but I do have to say that I think Shermer is right on this one. I can't see Myers approach having any effect except to alienate people outside his fan base, and Dawkins - though he has some great ideas, and can explain them in great prose - similarly polarises the audience when he descends into intellectual snobbery and scientific bigotry.

Dawkins to Target Creationism

The Bookseller is reporting that publisher Free Press has bought the U.S. rights to Richard Dawkins’ next book, "for a reported $3.5m" and UK rights have gone to Transworld for a "substantial sum" (I think I'm converting to atheism before writing my next book...). The new book from Dawkins is said to explore creationism and the evidence for evolution:

The as-yet-untitled volume will be published in 2009, a year that will feature a double anniversary for Charles Darwin—the 200th anniversary of his birth in February, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species in November.

Gaminara said: "He is arguably the science writer most closely associated with Darwin and in my view it would be strange not to have a book by Richard Dawkins in this anniversary year.

"He feels that never in his lifetime has there been such a belief in creationism, in the US and also creeping into the school curriculum in this country, and as the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, he feels it is his duty to write a book that sets the record straight on the evidence for evolution."

Should be another good read from Mr Dawkins, who certainly isn't shy of expressing his opinion...

The Edge 2008

Settle down Rick, I'm not talking about the enormously gifted guitarist for that Irish band. Once again, The Edge Foundation has released its annual 'World Question', posed to some of the brightest and/or freshest thinkers around:

The Edge Annual Question — 2008

When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science.


Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?

163 contributors gave their answer, including Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Rupert Sheldrake, Michael Shermer. Sheldrake's comments are bound to cause some controversy, although he does have a central point worth making. And Susan Blackmore's commentary was 'interesting', considering the passages I've just read in Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics. Perhaps more on that later. Plenty of excellent reading all round though, so get over there and take a look.

Warming Battle and a Poll

An interesting "science" face-off yesterday, with a vote for the "Best Science Blog" on the web rapidly devolving into a partisan battle over Global Warming. Popular science blogger P.Z. Myers urged his readers to all vote for a particular blog (BadAstronomy.com), which was the highest-placed challenger to an anti-anthropogenic Global Warming blog leading the poll. From Cognitive Daily:

...Several influential political blogs are advocating voting for a denialist website ("Climate Audit") to win the award. Climate Audit is a pseudoscience blog that promotes political ideas as "science." Bad Astronomy has a slim lead, but Climate Audit is gaining. Even if you're not a fan of astronomy, you should still vote for this blog (a great blog, by the way). It's the best chance for a genuine science blog to win the award.

The voting has now finished, and somehow a dead-heat was announced (I think due to shenanigans from both sides). It's rather surreal, to see science blogs urging readers to manipulate the vote because they want to outdo an allegedly non-scientific blog. As one commenter wrote, "You are skewing the results of the poll in order to protect good science, which is supremely ironic."