28 December 2005

The Liar, the Witless and the Warroom

The most problematic scene in the both the book and new cinematic versions of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe takes place early on, potentially poisoning the rest of the work. Fortunately for those who look forward to suspending disbelief, what follows makes for compelling storytelling and, in the case of the film, dazzling cinematography.

Nevertheless, a few days later, I found that one scene niggling at my brain. It's the one in which the kindly old Professor Kirke tries to help the children determine whether one of their own is telling the truth about the existence of an interdimensional portal at the back of the eponymous wardrobe.
"Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies, and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."
The old man's line of inquiry is the very same process of reasoning that led Lewis, who, though born into a Christian family, spent most of the first 33 years of his life as an atheist before rejoining the Church (of England). This he did after falling in with a pious set of writers at Oxford, including J.R.R. Tolkien. The Narnia fantasies are widely considered a poorly disguised children's guide to the main themes of his religion of choice: sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection.

The inclusion of Christian references in a children's fantasy has annoyed quite a few secular writers. The Narnia books may even be the only works of children's literature to have prompted the writing of another children's series in rebuttal. I refer here to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which also features alternative universes but in which the supreme being is trounced by reason.

Just how Christian the Narnia books really are has occupied a fair bit of the mainstream press these past few weeks. One bizarre essay in the New York Times Magazine even suggested that only two of the seven volumes in the series offer much in the way of Christian allegory. (The creation of Narnia in The Magician's Nephew and the apocalyptic Last Battle being too obvious to ignore, I guess.) But what really amazes me is the decison of most of those philosophical reviewers to ignore Prof. Kirke's truth-evaluating exercise, despite its centrality to Lewis' own faith.

Lewis' return to faith is based on the argument that Jesus Christ was either a liar, lunatic or Lord. As he clearly didn't fall into either of the first two categories, he must have been telling the truth, and is therefore ... a witch, I mean, the son of God.

It doesn't take much reflection to find the gaping flaws in this line of reasoning. For one thing, it assumes that the gospels are an accurate record of Jesus' words. In other words, you have to believe the Bible is the word of God before assessing whether it contains the word of a god. Second, the gospels could have been written not as literal history, but allegorical teachings. Sort of like the Chronicles of Narnia. Third, why can't a crazy person or someone with the tendency to lie be telling the truth in certain cases? And so on and so forth. It's all pro or ad hominem, rather than assessing the claim on its own merits. Classic logical fallacy.

But it only gets worse in the context of the book. To judge the integrity of a prepubescent child seems beyond foolish. Ask any parent whether they can comfortably compartmentalize their children into mad, mendacious or meritorious categories for more than a few minutes of any given day.

The pitfalls of the argument, which more recent wags have dubbed the "trilemma," are even more evident if you try to apply it to someone like, say, a president. Bill Clinton, for example, may have been less than straightforward with Hillary, Chelsea and the people of the United States when it came to his sexual habits, but few outside of Rush Limbaugh's loyal listening audience would argue that he was a particularly dishonest president on most matters of state.

Similarly, George W. Bush is easily dismissed as a witless wonder with next to no grasp of reality, but it's not his sanity, or lack thereof, that undermines the morality and legality of his policies on Iraq, civil liberties and tax cuts for the wealthy. Sorry, C.S., but it would appear the human capacity for cognitive dissonance means one can be a liar, a lunatic and a righteous evangelical all at the same time.

Then there's the case of Hwang Woo-suk, the South Korean biologist with a stellar repuation at home for integrity and brillance. It turns out he fabricated what was until recently hailed as groundbreaking research on cloned embryonic stem cells. Lewis' test would have been useless there.

Meanwhile, back in Narnia, the children make short work of sorting out the good guys from the bad. And that -- not the conversant chimeras, not the instant climate change, not even the incongruous meeting with Father Christmas -- is what makes the Narnia series a true fantasy.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe suffers needlessly from the intrusion of Lewis' own misguided venture into reasoning his way to Christ. Lewis' buddy Tolkien knew better than to mix logic and faith, and it is a shame that director Andrew Adamson didn't see fit to leave the trilemma scene on the cutting room floor.

I concede that I may be quibbling. Overall, the film deserves the positive reviews, and other than the trilemma, I would have no quarrel with those who want their young ones to experience its magic. I didn't get the references to Christianity when I was 10, and I doubt today's kids are that much smarter.

And while I still believe that Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy makes for superior reading at any age, I just can't get angry enough with Lewis to dismiss his literature and deny Narnia to my nieces and nephews, or riled up enough to write more than one blog column about his betrayal of reason.

27 December 2005

God's shrinking job description

If the deluge of coverage afforded Federal Judge John E. Jones III's trouncing of intelligent design in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board has sparked your interest in the philosophical underpinning of either creationism or evolution -- and if it hasn't, why not? -- the current issue of Spiegel Online has just the thing: an interview with one of the biggest names in the field, Daniel C. Dennett.

The interview includes a brilliant explanation of just why it is that intelligent design is so darn attractive to so darn many people and explores the big G's shrinking job description. Dennett doesn't have all the answers, but even when he comes up short, it's clear he's on to something:
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for why the belief in Intelligent Design is nowhere so widespread as in the United States?

Dennett: No, unfortunately I don't. But I can say, the alliance between fundamentalists or evangelical religion and right wing politics is a very troubling phenomenon and this is certainly one of the most potent reasons for it....
Dennett's written a number of books exploring the more subtle shades of the scientific method, and he's got a new one on religion, as seen through the lens of evolutionary biology. The Spiegel interview is a good place to start.

And I promise to have something pseudo-original to say Thursday. The subject: Narnia.

21 December 2005

Why I do what I do

Permit me to draw your attention to my most recently published essay, which appeared Dec. 16 in the News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C. It concerns the teaching of evolution in North Carolina schools. At the end of the piece is a link to a letter to the editor that appeared Dec. 20 in response to my essay.

That letter is why I do what I do. I am not usually given to naked displays of pride, but just this once I think it appropriate to share the warmth.

20 December 2005

Dishonesty revealed

Today's decision in the Dover, Penn., "intelligent design" lawsuit is going to make a lot people very angry. Very, very angry indeed.

Not only did Judge Jones rule four-square in favor of the parents who objected to the inclusion of a mere one-minute reference to creationism-in-disguise in their children's public high school science classes, but he specifically described as liars the former members of the Dover school board who tried to violate the secular sanctity of the schoolhouse.

The ruling, all 139 pages of it, should be required reading for any regular reader of this space. It approaches its devastating wrap-up with this stunning indictment:
The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.
It gets even better:
The breathtaking inanity of the Board'’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.
I, for one, was floored. We all expected the creationists to lose ... again (all eight members of the cabal were voted off the board in November's elections). But Judge Jones went out of his way to cast aspersions on their integrity in manner rarely heard from the bench.

Among the many examples of the disingenuous tactics of the creationist gang was their description of evolution as a "theory" and "not a fact." The judge concluded that the school board was taking advantage of the "colloquial or popular understanding of the term ['‘theory'’] and suggest[ing] to the informed, reasonable observer that evolution is only a highly questionable '‘opinion'’ or a '‘hunch.'"”

This, he wrote, is
"both misleading and creates misconceptions in students about evolutionary theory by misrepresenting the scientific status of evolution and by telling students that they should regard it as singularly unreliable, or on shaky ground."
While I agree wholeheartedly with the outcome, I fear those strong words may result in a backlash among the religious right. It could prompt some parents to withdraw their children from public schools in favor of private religious instruction or even (horror of horrors) home schooling.

We should all keep in mind that the decision is the product of a lawsuit, and so is binding only on Dover School Board. And it will have precisely zero effect on private Christian schools. We can hope that it will deter other groups with similar motives in the public realm, but I don't think we've heard the last of the Intelligent Design movement.

So let's celebrate, but keep the gloating to a minimum. We want to persuade, not alienate.

Meanwhile, lots of excellent analysis can be found at Panda's Thumb.

19 December 2005

Iced in

My apologies to those have been hoping for something new in this space over the past few days. I'm afraid my Internet connection is a casualty of the ice storm that crippled our neck of the woods last Thursday. Power was out from 2 p.m. Thursday to 2 p.m. Sunday, and Charter Communications has yet to reestablish its broadband service to Saluda.

I'll be back as soon as possible. I am doing my best to stay abreast of the latest dubious happenings, thanks to the WiFi hotspot at the Black Bear Cafe in Hendersonville., but it could be a while before I manage to get a new post of substance on the Island.

13 December 2005

The Holy War That Wasn't

If there really is a "war on Christmas," consider me a conscientious objector. My draft card from the ACLU/Secular Humanist Association/Pagans United Against Wal-Mart alliance went up in smoke this morning in our kitchen's wood stove.

The mainstream media is chock-a-block full of references to this nefarious campaign, which is supposedly being waged by liberals intent upon removing all references to Christianity from the public sphere. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and John Gibson et al., are convinced there's a progressive conspiracy that's tied into efforts to legalize narcotics, "abortion at will" and gay marriage.

All of which is a good idea, I might add. But that's not the point. The point is there really isn't evidence to justify their fears. And considering the long list of liberal campaigns that the Foxsters do have good reason to worry about (abolishing the death penalty, getting us out of Iraq, evolution, restoring the right to check out books from the library without the FBI's oversight), you might think they'd have enough paranoia on their plates without inventing a whole 'nother front in the culture war.

The weakness of the evidence they purport supports their case is astounding. Yes, the Whitehouse's recent "Happy Holidays" card makes no specific reference to Christmas. But have the neo-cons forgotten that more than one holiday turns up at the tail end of the calendar? Doonesbury is running a particularly apt online poll on the subject.

I, for one, can't think of any members of the alleged anti-Christmas jihad among my friends and colleagues, and that's including a bunch of hard-core scientist-atheists. We all detest one or more aspects of the affair, but those aspects -- commercialization, for example -- tend to be the least spiritual in nature. We all also look forward to many other festive elements.

This past weekend, for example, our little town of Saluda, NC, held a one-evening community "Hometown Christmas" celebration on Main Street, in which every storefront kept its doors open late, served up free snacks and drinks and gave space to local musicians to do their thing. Even the police station got in on the act.

It was great. As a relatively recent addition to Saluda's population, I got a chance to meet a good portion of the community I hadn't already come across. Everyone was in a right neighborly mood, the food and music were good, and I can hardly wait until next year's edition.

I also enjoy the annual task of getting a tree. This year my wife and I, along with her cousin and cousin's fiancé, wandered our forested property for an hour or two on a beautful morning before concluding that the best candidates were all outclassed by Charlie Brown's. So we headed into town to buy a farmed product (which looks magnificent and is at least carbon-neutral). We got in some quality outdoor family togetherness and still ended up with a damn fine tree for the living room.

Now, I will concede that in a perfect world, we wouldn't have to wait for the annual commemoration of the unsubstantiated birth of one of a number of self-anointed Jewish messiahs running around Roman-occupied Palestine circa 4 B.C. in order to generate some decent community spirit. But rituals can be useful, if for no other reason than they help us get off our behinds and start mixing the eggnog.

There may indeed be a few secularists out there who are uncomfortable with the religious roots of the occasion. But to them I say, remember that the Christians borrowed most of the imagery and mythology of Christmas from well-worn pagan stories and celebrations that came long before Jesus-come-lately.

So bring it on. Serve it up. Just because Bill O'Reilly can't get in the Christmas spirit, there's no reason the rest of us can't stuff ourselves silly.

The ultimate tooth

A marvelous example of how passion, curiosity and dedication can combine to produce stellar science can be found in today's New York Times' story on the narwhal's tusk and a segment on NPR's Morning Edition.

You don't have to love whales to appreciate the story, just an idea of what it means to have sensitive teeth. The lead researcher is Martin T. Nweeia of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. His work is great example of how investigations of the natural world often produce the opposite of our expectations -- a humbling reminder of our ignorance.

08 December 2005

Get off the fence

"Are you sure?" is a common enough question. But it's often the wrong question to ask, especially when the stakes are really high, as they are when it comes to climate change.

Responsible leaders, whether in government or business, demand the best available information from their advisers and experts before making consequential decisions. But knowing when to act in the absence of certainty is the true test of wisdom. Few issues illustrate this truism better than the threat of the collapse of the thermohaline circulation.

The THC is what keeps Europe, and much of the East Coast of the U.S., warmer than most other parts of the world at similar latitudes. The Gulf Stream, which carries warm, salty water up from the tropics to the vicinity of Iceland, is part of this "conveyor belt" of heat, although the full story is more more complicated.

Should the THC shut off, Europeans and, to a lesser degree, New Englanders would find life very uncomfortable. It would be a Very Bad Thing, probably wrecking entire economies, depending on how fast it happened, and possibily threatening global food supplies.

And climate change is threatening to do just that, by melting freshwater ice in Greeland and elsewhere in the north polar region. If enough cold, fresh water pours quickly enough into the North Atlantic, the warm, salty water from the south will no longer be warm and salty enough to sink when it gets to the Arctic. And it is the sinking of that water that drives the THC.

Scientists believe it has shut down in the past, most notably 15,000 years ago when, as the world warmed itself out the last Ice Age, a lot of ice in Canada melted and poured out through the St. Lawrence River valley, stopping the THC dead in its tracks, and preventing it from restarting for about 2,000 years.

So what are the chances of this happening anytime soon? Until now, few climatologists would dare say. A few months ago, the conventional wisdom was that the probability of a complete shutdown was extremely low. But not anymore.

A new study (pdf), based on six years of research of the THC, was carried out by a team of climatologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Wesleyan University and Princeton University. Not a shabby lot, I would say.

Lead author Michael Schlesinger, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Illinois, presented the group's findings to the global climate change conference in Montreal this week. It was well timed, coming on the heels of another report in Nature that describes a 30-percent decrease in the overall circulation of the THC in the North Atlantic. (Real Climate has a good summary of the Nature report here, and for the latest study, there's a good no-jargon story at Brightsurf News.)

Schlesinger et al. conclude that there is a 65 percent chance the THC will have shut down by 2200. Frightening, but still too far away to really scare anyone. The probability falls to 45 percent for sometime between the day after tomorrow and 2100. It might be possible to trim it down to about 28 percent, if we introduce immediate and severe economic countermeasures, such as a carbon tax of $100/tonne and a cap on emissions of all of fossil fuels, but given the resistance to such proposals evident at the Montreal talks ... well, you know how the US feels about that sort of thing.

The study's language is disturbingly blunt for a scientific paper:
One cannot but be taken by the fact that absent any climate policy, there appears to be a greater than 50% likelihood of a collapse of the Atlantic THC. Furthermore, even with the policy intervention of a carbon tax there appears to be a greater than 25% likelihood of a collapse. Such high probabilities are worrisome.
So: How much more confidence in their predictions will the climatologists have to supply before governments see fit to do something about this threat? When will we stop demanding the impossible 100 percent certainty of impending disaster?

Your guess is as good as mine.

06 December 2005

Religion takes it on the chin

Coming on the heels of Gregory Paul's paper suggesting that we can all get along just fine without religion (I wrote about it a few weeks back) is an even more detailed exploration of the value of a secular society.

Phil Zuckerman, an assistant professor of sociology at California's Pitzer College, contributes a chapter on "Atheism: Rates and Patterns Worldwide" to a forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin. The chapter
assembles and analyzes current data on rates and patterns of non-belief in God worldwide, country by country. It also correlates levels of non-belief in various countries with indicators of societal health, such as literacy rates, infant mortality rates, gender equality, life expectancy, homicide rates, and per capita income.
The conclusion is very much in line with Paul's -- the less religious the population, the better off the people are. And just for good measure, Zuckerman also claims, though less convincingly, that his results "render any suggestion that theism is innate or neurologically based untenable." So much for the god gene.

Paul, a self-taught paleontologist and illustrator with no formal training in sociology, says he wrote his paper largely to convince real sociologists to get off their behinds and do what they should have done long ago: carry out systematic and comprehensive tests of the widely held assumption that religion is a force for good.

Zuckerman, it would seem, rose to the challenge. And defending dogma just got a whole lot harder.

Ugliness in Kansas

A professor whose planned course on creationism and intelligent design was canceled after he sent e-mails deriding Christian conservatives was hospitalized Monday after what appeared to be a roadside beating.
Read the rest of this nightmare, courtesy the Wichita Eagle, here.

05 December 2005

Making a monkey out of me

I was betrayed as a young boy by Charles Berlitz.

No, I didn't blow my allowance on a failed attempt to learn an exotic language, although I strongly suspect others have been disappointed down that particularly avenue. In my case, it was the language-guru's other claim to fame, his 1974 bestseller, The Bermuda Triangle, that did the damage.

When you're 13, you'll believe anything set in type. At least, I did. And among the most intriguing tales from the paranormal genre on which I wasted countless hours was what happened to all those aircraft and boats that allegedly disappeared without explanation in a patch of the Atlantic roughly bounded by an imaginary triangle running from Miami to Bermuda to Puerto Rico.

Only years later did I learn that the word "non-fiction" doesn't necessarily mean what the dictionary says it does. Turns out Berlitz exaggerated, twisted or invented just about everything in his book. As one honest researcher put it, "If Berlitz were to report that a boat were red, the chance of it being some other color is almost a certainty."

Berlitz died two years ago. His lies are now out of print. And it's been years since anyone paid attention to the idea that anything out of the ordinary is afoot in "the triangle," which, as an unusually busy patch of ocean, is bound to produce a large number of sea-faring mysteries. (I'm also annoyed with Steven Spielberg for beginning "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" with the spooky reappearance of Flight 19, which vanished without the proverbial trace in the triangle 50 years ago today.)

But tonight the Sci-Fi channel is reviving the nonsense with a three-part, six-hour, Sam Neill-starring mini-series, "The Triangle." I've been exposed to repeating showings of the promo for the series, thanks to my penchant for another fantasy series, "The West Wing," which runs on a network owned by the same mythmakers responsible for the Sci-Fi channel.

The premise of this latest treatment appears to involve a billionaire, a scientist, a journalist, a psychic and the usual gang of unwitting adventurers and misguided black-ops government agents. There are references to "automatic writing" and a non-reflecting mirror. That's enough for me.

I can only hope that this silliness doesn't presage a revival of interest in Berlitz's fantasies. I wouldn't want his estate to benefit from a reprinting of his book.

Not all the fantastical news is bad, though. The Toronto Globe and Mail's Simon Houpt writes favorably today in his New York Diary column (subscription only) of the latest "King Kong" remake, which hits cinemas next week.

Houpt compares the educational value of a new Darwin exhibit at the Big Apple's American Museum of Natural History with Peter Jackson's version of Kong:
It's undeniably touching to see his enormous beastly face crinkle up with sadness... Kong laughs, he cries, he pouts, he is shamed, he is proud, he has childish temper tantrums, he takes his date skating in Central Park. He's us, and we are him.... Audiences may not realize it, but the movie is a forceful argument for shared traits, Darwin's notion -- the one that so disturbs creationists -- that we've evolved from other primates. Which means that, as good as the efforts are of the American Museum of Natural History, in the end that big monkey may do more to crush the creationists than a thousand intelligently designed Darwin exhibits ever could.
Houpt says evolution needs all the help it can get from the entertainment sector, what with neo-Kabbalist Madonna having "thrilling discussions about creationism with her husband, Guy Ritchie." Maybe. But wouldn't it be nice if scriptwriters could come up with way to humanize the lower primates without violating just about every known law of physics along the way?

If I had to choose between an unwanted revisiting of the Bermuda Triangle and an unnecessary remake of King Kong, I'd go with the monkey. Good thing I don't have to choose. I'm happy waiting until January for the return of Battlestar Galactica.

Frames, frames and more frames

If you're at all interesting in how science is used and abused by those behind the curtain, check out Framing Science, a new blog by journalist Matthew C. Nisbet. Thanks to Chris Mooney for drawing my attention to it.

"Framing" is an old idea that has found new currency thanks to linguist George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (A Progressive Guide to Action), a short treatise that explains why the neo-cons have been able to convince middle-class American voters to support policies that undercut their own interests. Now Nesbit is applying the frame analysis to science. To wit:
At FRAMING SCIENCE we track how political strategists, scientists, and the news media selectively define science in ways that shape policy decisions, public opinion, and political culture. We apply “framing analysis” to understand the social meanings behind technical controversies (and sometimes we will look at other areas of politics.) Frame analysis is an incredibly useful invention of the social sciences, diffusing across a number of academic disciplines. Frames are used on an everyday basis by political operatives, journalists, and average citizens (though they may not realize it.)

It looks promising.

01 December 2005

Keeping it simple

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.
-- Albert Einstein
Reuters has picked up Italian press reports that the fate of limbo is in (where else?) but limbo.

Apparently, a Vatican committee set up last year by the previous pope (whose fate would now appear, technically at least, to be a bit more uncertain than before) wants to do away with the whole concept of limbo. Karol Wojtyla asked the group to come up with "a more coherent and enlightened way" of describing the fate of anyone who dies before they've had the chance to be baptized.

Not having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I had no idea that the afterlife could be so complicated. In addition to good old heaven and hell, there's also purgatory and limbo, although whether all four existed before Jesus held the original revival meeting seems to be the subject of some uncertainty.

Consider this description of purgatory from the excellent Religious Tolerance website:
It has traditionally been viewed as a place of torment, where nearly all of us shall...have to pass a period more or less long in the excruciating fires of Purgatory after death.... The purpose of this pain is to cleanse the individual from the temporal consequences of her or his sins while on earth. Eventually, the person will be eligible to be transferred to Heaven.
And I thought the federal tax system was bureaucratic.

Limbo is even more so. It was the brainchild of 13th-century theologians who had been stymied by the problem of unbaptized infants. There's as good a summary of the history as any at The Scotsman, which includes some major milestones in the evolution of the concept.
  • First suggested by St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD), who believed that the unbaptized would neither be punished nor access the full glory of God.

  • Pope Pius X declares in 1905: "Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either, because having Original Sin, and only that, they do not deserve paradise, but neither hell or purgatory."

  • JP2 gives the commission the task of looking at the issue in 2004. There has always been speculation that he wanted to drop the concept after he wrote his own papal document which gave no clear answer to the question of what happens to children who die before being baptized.

  • Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would later succeed Karol W.), 1984: "Limbo has never been a defined truth of faith. Personally, speaking as a theologian and not as head of the Congregation, I would drop something that has always been only a theological hypothesis."
I can understand Ratzinger's unease with the whole idea. I mean, an interdimensional netherworld inhabited by zygotes, embryos, fetuses, babies, a few toddlers and everyone who ever lived before baptism was invented? As Warwick McFadyen of Australia's The Age newspaper writes, "It's lucky the universe is such a big place."

I'm glad someone brought up cosmology. It brings to mind the difference between science and Catholicism.

Scientists spend their working lives trying to reduce the chaotic and complex world in which we live to a few simple equations. Catholic theologians, it would seem, tend to spend theirs trying to make the simple complicated. So it's good to hear that, at least for once, the sacred is getting simpler.

But I fear Catholics still have a long way to go before they embrace Occam's famous razor: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, which is Latin for something like "Given two equally predictive theories, choose the simpler."