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

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.")

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.