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

Volcano Anniversary

30 years ago, Mount St. Helens erupted with catastrophic results, killing 57 people. The event was caught on camera, and the famous images are awe-inspiring...mother nature at her most violent:

There are a number of excellent features around the web commemorating the disaster. Boston.com's "The Big Picture" has a wonderful photo-essay showing the effects of the volcano, both then and now (I didn't realize that 1000s of fallen trees still float in nearby Spirit Lake). National Geographic - who documented the event in their magazine - have an article on their website as well as a heart-breaking video story. The Oregonian has a photo story on Harry R. Truman, the folk hero of Mount St. Helens. And for a really detailed look at the topic, make sure you check out the Nova documentary (sadly, complete video is restricted for non-US viewers).

Eyjafjallajökull has recently put us on notice that we're fairly insignificant compared to the natural processes of our planet, but Mount St. Helens walked right up to us and slapped us in the face.

Misty-Eyed Gorillas

Conservationist Damian Aspinall raised Kwibi, a lowland gorilla, at Howletts Wild Animal Park in England. When Kwibi was five, he was released into the forests of Gabon, West Africa as part of program to re-introduce gorillas back into the wild. Five years later, Aspinall went in search of Kwibi, now 10-years-old, and much bigger, stronger and unpredictable. Here's what happened:

An interesting insight into memory and emotion in our primate cousins.

Climate Change Conspiracy Controversy

I've been getting a lot of contact from readers asking why TDG isn't covering the 'Climategate' story, in which email messages from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit were hacked and released via the Internet. Firstly, I have to note that the story was covered in Kat's news briefs on Monday (a little hard to find perhaps, due to the amount of links). Secondly, the reason I don't mention the GW controversy much myself, is because I don't know what to think about it - I haven't done enough reading and research on the matter to really hold a valued opinion (and sadly, I'd apply that to 99% of the people currently going purple in the face on forums across the internet). So I'd prefer not to comment much when I feel rather uninformed (or at times, misinformed) on the matter.

What does interest me though is how this controversy mirrors so many other scientific debates, with individuals trapped in their own reality tunnel and reacting accordingly. So for some, the email leak is evidence of a worldwide conspiracy. To others it just shows that data and conclusions are being fudged. Alternatively, some seem to view it as a case of 'nothing to see here', and then I've even see some blogs pronouncing that a full viewing of the emails demonstrates how 'Global Warming Denialists' are wrong. And here lies my difficulty in making sense of it all - I have hardly read an essay, or seen a graph, in which I have not seen some manipulation of the reader (that includes both GW and anti-GW arguments) into accepting the author's particular reality tunnel.

Regardless of the truth of the matter, I do take issue with the way in which those challenging the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) theory are ostracized as 'Denialists'. The term itself is insulting (echoing Holocaust Denial), and squeezes everyone from some clueless idiot claiming a lizard conspiray to highly-qualified scientists mainly questioning the 'anthropogenic' aspect into one category to be dismissed as 'denying' Global Warming (very similar to the debate over the paranormal). While I understand the emotive nature of the debate (ie. "we need to stop arguing and act now to ensure our children's future!"), I also think it is a very dangerous thing to stifle debate on any issue. Given that much of TDG's ethos is about challenging orthodox knowledge, I therefore am more than open to hearing (intelligent) arguments against the AGW theory. Note, however - I care very little for people starting from their preconceived view and matching the data to their arguments, despite it's popularity.

So my interest in 'Climategate' is probably a little different to most - what fascinates me is the insight into how the scientific debate is taking place. When you can look at emails in which the peer review process seems more akin to turf wars then you get a better understanding of the skepticism we all should have towards any pronouncements of scientific concensus (n.b. 'skepticism', not 'blanket denial of').

Hyping the Missing Link

Been meaning to discuss this all week, but I've been real short on time. Last week I was a little bemused when the announcement of the discovery of Darwinius masillae (also known simply as 'Ida') sprang forth suddenly and overwhelmingly, fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Usually news on this level is either preceded by plenty of whispers and leaks, or otherwise is released and then builds into a snowball. But the 'missing link' news hit full force, with proclamations that the discovery would "change everything", that the fossil was the "mising link" in primate evolution and so on. Unbelievably, even Google modified its logo in celebration of the announcement. Then, when I saw that the History Channel already had a documentary on DVD and a book devoted to the discovery, ready for purchasing, I really became suspicious.

But then, I'm a goofy anti-science guy, so it's to be expected that I'd see a conspiracy here. So it was gratifying that other, more scientific types, also smelt a rat. Carl Zimmer, on his science blog 'The Loom', looked at the timeline of the release of information, with all roads leading to a PR event rather than a scientific announcement. P.Z.Myers then took umbrage at the hype and the P.R. control of the event (although, to be fair, P.Z. takes umbrage at seemingly everything). And Brian Switek than listed why the discovery was overblown (although still spectacular).

There's little of this criticism in the mass media though, and it would seem the iconic imagery of the Ida fossil has now burned itself into the public consciousness as the 'missing link'. I think though that most of that is down to some smart PR, rather than any conspiracy to bend people's minds. I still am wondering though why Google made the logo change...

Stephen Hawking Hospitalized

Recent news report that scientific celebrity Stephen Hawking has been hospitalized and is currently undergoing some tests.

According to his Cambridge collaborators, Hawking has been unwell for the past few weeks —he wasn't able to attend the past Origins Symposium on April 6 due to a chest infection, although he did manage to send a video lecture.

Hawking is arguably the most famous living scientist of our time. The degenerative illness he has been fighting against during most of his life, added to the incredible insight he's gained on the nature of black holes, have turned him into a popular celebrity. He has tried to make science accessible to all people, first with his best-seller book 'A Brief History of Time', and more recently by teaming up with his daughter Lucy in a series of children books.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Hawking and his family.

Science != Scientism

Interesting column from Vancouver Sun journalist Douglas Todd, titled "Scientism Infects Darwinian Debates." There are some good points in there, although I'd also suggest that there is a difference between Darwinism, physicalism and scientism - and the first two are probably more pertinent when it comes to discussions of evolution. Equally interesting is the reaction from Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait:

It’s all too easy to poopoo science, and to say that scientists are black and white automatons who go through the motions of the scientific method, rejecting anything with sparkle or color or surprise. But that conclusion itself lacks imagination. Science is full of wonder, of surprise, of leaps of imagination. If it were anything else, we wouldn’t have probes orbiting other worlds, we wouldn’t have vaccinations capable of wiping out scourges like smallpox, we wouldn’t have digital cameras, the Internet, ever-faster computers, cars, planes, televisions.

I think Phil, and most of the commenters over there, appear to have missed the point...and it's a common mistake. Attacking scientism is not an attack on science. Though if you think it is, then you might be veering into scientism yourself. Science is a wonderful tool, and we all embrace the advances that have been made through its use. However, just as you wouldn't tell everyone that they can do everything at home with a hammer, those who take on the task of defending science risk alienating people be trying to impose science on all other areas. That's scientism, it does happen, and that's what Todd is referring to.

Pharyngula Fail Redux

Who would have thought that my 5-year-old son could exhibit more mature behaviour than the biggest science blogger on the planet...

We made them cry!

We had a pointless poll post a while back where I pointed you at a silly site that asked what was the best evidence for the afterlife — and you people triumphantly emphasized that there was no evidence.

Amusingly, the guy who runs the site is now whining about the attention we gave him.

...Oh, and of course he has deleted all of your votes from the old poll. We are victorious!

What an advertisement for science and reason Pharyngula is.

(Update: I've attempted to discuss the topic in the comments to the Pharyngula story (#40 and #97 being the initial attempts at dialogue), but it appears the intellectual high ground these days is fairly low-lying and swampy. Please note that I'm not advocating TDGers post comments there, just noting that I have commented there and been responded to, if you wish to read through the 'discussion'. One day of that is enough though, so I'm moving on.)

Pharyngula Fail

After taking some time on the weekend, I noticed today that the recent poll I posted regarding evidence for an afterlife suddenly had a lot more votes, and nearly all of them apparently clicked "There is no evidence". Hmmm, I thought to myself, I wonder what obnoxious atheist blogger with nothing better to do than crashing polls could have linked to us? Sure enough, the only one I could think of: P.Z. Myers, of the biggest science blog this side of Charles Darwin: Pharyngula.

While I appreciate the attention from this Big Fish of the Intarwebs (and I thought Randi and the Bad Astronomer were big), I did find a bit of perverse irony in the situation. The biggest science blog on the planet, home site of one of the foremost 'defenders of reason', telling readers to go and vote on a topic which most of them have not read on at all?


Now that the thousands of 'voices of reason' have departed, in search of some other deep and meaningful activity, I've restored the poll to it's pre-vandalism figures.

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.")