31 October 2005

Ghost of Halloween past

It has never been easy for me to embrace this annual celebration of all things supernatural. Even we skeptics and secular humanists are expected to disguise ourselves as specters from the afterlife or some such ridiculous thing, and if we happen to be living in a sufficiently densely populated neighborhood, say goodbye to a perfectly good hour or two distributing nutrition-free snacks to children similarly attired. To devote an entire day, and in the case of the shopping displays an entire month, to the bizarre notion of an “All Hallow’s Eve,” when instead we should all be marking a much more auspicious event –- my birth -– always seemed grossly unfair to me a child, and even today I have trouble with much of the associated nonsense that revolves around what North America has done with the last day of October.

But I have recently reconciled myself with essence of Halloween. Not because I am getting older and therefore more tolerant of others’ points of view. Not because the kids (at least those not cursed by the demands of sharing their birthday with the event) seem to love it. And not because the day seems to drive fundamentalist Christians nuts (although it most certainly does, as this fact-deprived screed, a version of which appeared a few days ago on the bulletin board at the Saluda Post Office, attests).

No, I have grown to accept, even treasure, this day because it serves to remind even the most rational and cynical among us of the power and necessity of imagination.

Before I go any further, I must include one caveat. My definition of Halloween tends toward the traditional. Its origin in the shortening days of the harvest season, when the forces of decay and death brought broader swathes of the visible spectrum to the forest and fields, inspired the ancient mystics to describe a weakening of the walls between this world and that of the dead. Dressing up as clowns, film stars and superheroes, on the other hand, represents a modern, commercial corruption of the day, and I will make no concessions to such rot.

The true Halloween spirit embodies the power to imagine the disembodied. To step away from the here and now and consider the possibilities, however remote they may be, of the hereafter. In the context of psychological counseling (séances), medical diagnoses (evil spirits) or attempts to understand the troubles of the less fortunate (reincarnation), such musings can be dangerous in the extreme. But without at least some appreciation of flights of fancy, I doubt that life would be quite as interesting.

Imagination is not just a luxury. It is what powers science. It is what allows us to transcend the seemingly intractable, and find alternatives to the unacceptably grim status quo. Without imagination, we would not have powered flight, or powered anything for that matter. Without imagination, men and women of state would not have the ability to see beyond military solutions. Without imagination that dares to stray from the familiar, our literature would be as dry as a technical manual.

And you can’t put fence around imagination. You can’t restrict dreams to the tried and true. Because you can never know just how far-fetched an idea really is. While I am almost 100 percent certain that the universe of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (or even better, Philip Pullman’s Lyra) does not now and never will exist, I suspect millions of children would be spiritually poorer without it. Who would really chose to visit a library that doesn’t include Mary Shelley’s reanimated monsters, Edgar Allan Poe’s prematurely buried or Ray Bradbury’s long-dead Martians?

The trick to surviving as an individual or a species, as 3.5 billion years of biological evolution have shown us, is the ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Those that can better analyze sensory data and extrapolate the future from the present, thereby acquiring food and avoiding becoming food, are more likely to pass on their genes. Anticipating the future requires an accurate model of reality, not one hobbled by wistful notions of the occasional violation of the laws of thermodynamics.

But that’s only part of the story of the success of Homo sapiens. When it comes to explaining who we are and why we have come to dominate the planet -– just as important is our ability to imagine possibilities that other species cannot. If the price of that success is an annual festival honoring that which is not natural, I say, “Rise up, ye demons of the dark.”

By the way, I’m 41.

27 October 2005

Miers' mistake: thinking aloud

There can be no doubt that Harriet Miers was unqualified for the job. For one thing, nobody really wants a Supreme Court justice that writes cards to their boss declaring him the "best governor ever."

But what was the real reason the Republican establishment couldn't get behind her? More to the point, what was the straw that broke this camel's back? Corporate media types are already parroting the Bush administration line that it was about the Senate's demand for privileged documents from the White House. Of course, the senators argue they weren't asking for the privileged stuff. But I think that's all a smokescreen.

I ask, is it a coincidence Miers threw in the towel, either on her own volition or at Bush's request, less than a day after the Washington Post published a story on a speech she gave in Dallas 12 years ago? Within hours the neo-con and religious right bloggers made it clear that the one thing they really couldn't stand was someone who recognizes the limits of a constitutional government.

Among the more incendiary sections of the speech (PDF here) was this nugget:
Where science determines the facts, the law can effectively govern. However, when science cannot determine the facts and decisions vary based upon religious belief, then government should not act. I do not mean to make very complex, emotional issues too simplistic. But some of these issues do not need to be as complicated as they have become if people deal with each other with respect and even reverence.
That did it. Previous fence-sitters were falling like so many humpty-dumpties. See here, here and here, for a few examples.

Never mind that, as one of the bloggers rightly and correctly pointed out, "this speech is chock-full of clumsy, unskilled writing" and that "Supreme Court justices need to write with clarity and precision; they need to not only explain their decisions, but the better justices write to convince others of their wisdom as well." If Miers' inability to express herself succinctly and eloquently was really all that important to the neo-cons, they would have demanded her withdrawal weeks ago.

Some did. But the rest waited until Wednesday's revelation that Miers' isn't or, at least, wasn't 12 years ago, beholden to a fundamentalist ideology. And I'm guessing that the Bush gang feels the same way. It wasn't a lack of information about her thought processes that did her in, but the exact opposite.

25 October 2005

Meet the darkagers

First, let me be perfectly clear about this: I do not believe we are heading into another Dark Age. Been there, done that. But in case I'm wrong, I think it might be a good idea to start identifying those among us who seem to want to shove civilization in that general direction. I call them “darkagers.” A bit like New Agers, only with slurred pronounciation, lower cases and narrower minds.

Allow me to call attention to a few, using statements made within the past few weeks. Once you get the basic idea, you can play “spot the darkager” yourself. I'll begin with a tricky one.

A couple of weeks ago, evangelist extraordinaire Jerry Falwell showed up on the CBS Early Show. His comments were laced with the usual nonsensical observations and mischaracterizations of reality, such as referring to the “myth” of global warming. Apparently Falwell hasn't been paying much attention to the thermometer lately. No matter. It was in response to a question posed by host Harry Smith, concerning the recent attacks of hurricanes on American soil: “Is God mad at us?”

Now, you might be tempted to single out Falwell as an obvious darkager. But the real offenders here are Harry Smith and his producers at CBS. There can be no rational excuse for posing the question in the first place, and certainly not that early in the morning.

Now meet biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University, an otherwise respectable institution of higher learning located in the unfortunately named town of Bethlehem, Penn. He's one of the few degreed scientists who support “intelligent design,” the anti-Darwinian explanation for the diversity of life with the sole redeeming feature that its name pretty much obviates the need for further explanation.

Testifying last week as part of a lawsuit in Harrisburg, Penn., on the right of a nearby public school board to include intelligent design in its science curricula, Behe admitted during cross examination that his personal definition of a scientific theory “is used a lot more loosely than the NAS (National Academy of Sciences) defined it” and would apply to astrology. Just what we need. More horoscopes.

Another easy target is the president of these United States, commenting on the qualifications of his nominee to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court. According to the Washington Post, “Bush said it was appropriate for the White House to invoke Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers's religion in making the case for her to skeptical conservatives.” Never mind that pesky Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. You know, the one that says "no religious test shall ever be required as qualification" for federal office holders. After all, Miers doesn't appear to know much about the Constitution anyway.

I next nominate cosmic-self-help-guru-guy Deepak Chopra. Here's a typical snippet from the master: “I think we can think of evolution in terms of meta-biology, the evolution of our consciousness and the evolution of the consciousness of our consciousness.” Maybe he's just trying to confuse us into buying his books. Still, if any language qualifies as an attempt to undermine the Enlightenment, that's it.

Moving on to more conventional, and therefore more dangerous, characters, we have CNN mouthpiece and celebrity-worshipper Larry King. The other day he made a pathetic attempt to explore the creationism-evolution quagmire. His first question, to the philosophy professor and evolution stalwart Barbara Forrest, set the tone: “How can you out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?”


But wait, I have more. Can't forget the muddle-headed Bill Frist, leader of the Republican guard in the Senate. "I think today a pluralistic society should have access to a broad range of fact, of science, including faith," said Frist, whose MD from Harvard Medical School has never been adequately explained by his alma mater. He must have missed the lecture on the difference between fact and fancy.

And how about third-string science fiction author Michael Crichton, whose most recent work is an ill-informed attack on the entire field climatology masquerading as a novel. (A novel with footnotes? Come on.) He actually said, in a speech to an innocent audience, “There is at present no good public forum in which to debate and evaluate climate data, in an atmosphere of aggressive and penetrating inquiry, full of challenge and true debate.”

This is classic darkager strategy. Pay no attention to what the scientists are saying. I, the esteemed author of Congo, am far better qualified to hold forth on something as complicated as global carbon cycles and the effects of polar albedo than are the scores of tenured editors of academic journals devoted to the subject.

I could go on. Maybe I will next time. Feel free to send me your own nominations to the darkager hall of infamy.

The Onion Does It Again

Rarely do I bother duplicating myriad other bloggers' pointers, but this one is worth it.


19 October 2005


It used to be called “creation science.” But in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the concept wasn't science, and therefore couldn't be taught in the country's public schools, at least not in science class.

So the parents, the school board trustees and the clergy who want American children exposed to the Old Testament alternative to what has been described as “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” regrouped. It didn't take them long to embrace an idea far more dangerous than biological evolution. They call it “intelligent design.” And now they're using to betray those very same children.

That's the short history of the intelligent design, or ID, movement. The short description of the idea itself, as the students of Asheville Christian Academy, a private religious school half an hour north of my neck of western North Carolina, recently learned during a two-week section on the subject, is similarly straightforward. According to ID, there are some bits and pieces of the biosphere that are far too complex to be explained by the process of natural selection, the mechanism behind Darwinian evolution; ipso facto, something—or someone—intelligent must have created them.

The idea is so simple, in fact, I wonder how the academy's teachers managed to find enough material to fill two weeks of classes. That's the problem with ID. It's just too simple. It has no theoretical structure. It makes no predictions. It can't be tested. It calls for a halt to the intellectual investigative process.

In other words, it's not science. Not by any definition, Christian or secular.

Even the movement's most prominent supporter with genuine scientific credentials finds himself on the extreme outskirts of respectability. That would be Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, who testified Monday in a Pennsylvania lawsuit trial in support of the right of a public school board to include a single paragraph on ID in its science curriculum. He has so annoyed his fellow faculty members that they've issued a public reminder that they “are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory.”

So why are the students of Asheville Christian Academy learning about intelligent design?

For one thing, because they can. The constitutional ban on religion in the public classroom does not extend to private chools. Nor should it. Christian families have the right to have their children instructed in any way they see fit. And Christian-school teachers have the right to teach whatever the parents will allow.

But that doesn't let the parents or the teachers off the hook. It may be legal to teach privately schooled students about intelligent design, but it's not ethical. Not if we are interested in preparing our children for the possibility of a career in science.

Some, including Behe, argue that ID is not creationism, that the concept doesn't necessarily address the nature of the intelligent designer, only that something, or someone aliens? must have created as final products some of biological structures that seem to defy evolutionary origins.

But the truth is the intelligent design movement is intimately tied to creationism. The book that the Dover school board recommends as a text on ID, Of Pandas and People, was originally published as Creation Biology in 1983. But after the Supreme Court ruling four years later, it reappeared with the new name, with references to “creationism” simply replaced by “intelligent design.”

And then there's now famous “wedge strategy” document from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that has been the prime mover behind ID. The goal of the movement, says the strategy paper, is “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

But even if ID wasn't a surrogate for creationism, it still suffers from a complete lack of scientific merit. A century ago, long before the latest term cropped up, similar arguments revolved around the seemingly irreducibly complex eye. Surely, said those opposed to Darwin's then-still-new idea of evolution, the eye is proof of evolution's failings. Take away the lens, or the iris, or the pupil, or the optic nerve, and it's useless. So it couldn't have evolved.

Except that it did, repeatedly. Scientists now believe it may have evolved at least half a dozen times in different types of animals. In fact, an organism can lose the lens, the pupil, the iris and the optic nerve, leaving little more than a dark spot that casts a shadow. But that's still enough to provide a microscopic, single-celled organism with an evolutionary advantage over other microscopic, single-celled organisms with no eye at all.

Behe and his acolytes make the same argument about the flagellum, the little whip of a motor that moves sperm and other cells. Scientists haven't yet figured out exactly how it evolved. But they're working on it. And they're making progress. Intelligent design would have us give up at the slightest suggestion of a problem, and be content with “God/ET/what-have-you must have made it that way.”

That's not science. And we owe it to our children, whether we're raising them as Christians, Muslims, Jews, or atheists, not to pretend otherwise. Not if we really care about them.

18 October 2005


Following on my recent post on the postulated evolutionary advantage of religion, or at least, some kind of communal approach to faith, I offer this worthy read:

The Guardian excerpts another take on the "God Gene" theory, without actually mentioning Dean Hamer's genetics research. The book is
The Story of God by Robert Winston. Here's an excerpt of the excerpt:

It is possible that strong levels of belief in God, gods, spirits or the supernatural might have given our ancestors considerable comforts and advantages. Many anthropologists and social theorists do indeed take the view that religion emerged out of a sense of uncertainty and bewilderment - explaining misfortune or illness, for example, as the consequences of an angry God, or reassuring us that we live on after death. Rituals would have given us a comforting, albeit illusory, sense that we can control what is in fact ultimately beyond our control - the weather, illness, attacks by predators or other human groups.

However, it is equally plausible that the Divine Idea would have been of little use in our prehistoric rough-and-tumble existence. Life on the savannah may have been in the open air, but it was no picnic. Early humans would have been constantly on the lookout for predators to be avoided, such as wolves and sabre-tooth tigers; hunting or scavenging would be a continual necessity to ensure sufficient food; and the men were probably constantly fighting among each other to ensure that they could have sex with the best-looking girl (or boy) or choose the most tender piece of meat from the carcass. Why would it be necessary, in the daily scramble to stay alive, to make time for such an indulgent pursuit as religion?

13 October 2005


Establishing the existence of god(s) is beyond the scope of science. No debate there. But science should be able to weigh in on whether faith has any merit, at least so far as making the world a decent place to live goes.

Curiously, and despite centuries of claims that we all need religion to make society work, no one has ever tried to answer what should be a relatively simple question. Until now.

Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist, illustrator of dinosaur books and ardent rationalist, had long tired of hearing about how valuable faith was. He decided to look into the issue, only to discover there was no peer-reviewed study of the relationship between how religious a society was and how well it was faring, socially.

So, drawing on social data from the UN and other reliable sources on 17 developed nations, plus Portugal, he performed his own analysis, subjected it to a peer-review by sociologists, and had it published last month in the Journal of Religion and Society. Then all hell broke loose. So to speak.

Despite the title, "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" makes for compelling reading. If Paul is right,

higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion....
Or, as Paul told me in a telephone interview the other day, "I've established that you can run society without religion."

To say that this sort of thing doesn't go down well with the faithful would be a grand understatement. Although the study has received some positive (even over-credulous) media attention in England and Australia, coverage in the U.S and Canada has been spotty at best. The blogosphere is where you find the most interesting reactions. Atheists are pleased as punch. Christians not so much. But almost all commentators have one thing in common: a failure to understand what they're reading.

The Times of London, for example, completely misses the point, leading off with "Religious belief can cause damage to a society."

And then there's this introduction to an interview with Paul by the host of ABC Radio's Late Night Live, Phillip Adams:

It proves beyond reasonable doubt that religion is about the worst thing that can happen to a society ... and it's peer-reviewed.
To the contrary, all Paul's study does is show that the premise that societies are better off with religion is not supported by the evidence. The more religious countries do not have lower rates of things like teen pregnancy, juvenile mortality, STD rates and so on. In fact, they seem to have higher rates than the more secular nations.

Nowhere in the article does Paul say that religion makes life miserable. He's just saying that he's found evidence that the opposite is not true. It's a crucial distinction, but one that seems to have been lost on most amateur, and some professional, readers.

In fact, Paul's paper makes no reference to causation at all. He even points out that he didn't use a common technique called "regression analysis," which is typically employed to determine if one factor is caused by another, to avoid stepping into that minefield.

But that didn't stop academics who should know better from criticizing him for not using regression. Scott Gilbreath, who describes himself as a "perpetually perplexed 55-year-old Christian statistician," goes ballistic on his blog:

This is simply inexcusable in a research project involving statistical analysis. I have never seen anything like this -- either in my professional career or in my university studies of statistics and econometrics.
Gilbreath goes on to explain why he thinks regression should be used. I'm not an expert on statistical analysis, but my cursory understanding suggests regression would accomplish little, if anything, and because of the nature of statistics Paul is drawing on, may actually cloud the issue. (It has to do with errors in independent variables. If you care about this sort of thing, an excellent summary of when to use regression is on the Johnson Space Center website.)

A respectable attempt at finding flaws in Paul's statistical analysis can be found at Hypotheses Non Fingo. The blogger asks, couldn't it be possible that dysfunctional society leads to high levels of religious belief rather than the other way around?

Well, yes, it could. But again, that's not what Paul's study is concerned with. Remember, he's simply testing the idea that religion is required for communities to function properly. And even if religiosity is a result of social decay, that would only undermine the proposition that piety leads to happiness.

Some sociologists, as you might expect, aren't happy either. Serving as the requisite critic in an ABC (Australian Radio) item on Paul's paper, sociologist Gary Bouma says: "He hasn't provided the argument about how it is that religion might explain this kind of association." Which again fails to recognize that Paul is simply trying to test the notion that religion makes the world better, not explain mechanisms.

The non-scientific critique generally falls into the ad hominem argument -- because Paul is not an academic formally trained in sociology, we should ignore him. Some bloggers have pointed out that Paul is co-author, with one Earl D. Cox, of Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds, a book that champions some radical visions of the future involving merging mind and machine. To which I say, "So what?"

Others claim to be puzzled by Paul's failure to come clean on the fact that he is a self-educated dinosaur illustrator and not an expert on the matter at hand. More nonsense. Some even question his true identity, which only undermines their own credibility. I was able to find a valid email address and phone number for Paul within seconds, and can find no evidence he was trying to hide anything.

No, he didn't remind me that he's made his mark as an illustrator. But neither did he interrupt our interview to note that Scientific American has drawn on his paleontological expertise as author of Scientific American Book of Dinosaurs. See here.

Honest criticism of the paper would address the fact that sociologists have failed to conduct the necessary studies themselves, compelling Paul to give it a shot. And good on him.

I don't think his case is as airtight as he claims. It's good, just not that good. The paper also suffers from some unnecessary rhetorical flourishes, such as "The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."
But it certainly is solid enough to warrant further investigation. And that just happens to be his primary motive in writing the paper-- to encourage more comprehensive analysis by those who are better equipped to tackle it.

In Paul's words, from his paper:

This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health. It is hoped that these original correlations and results will spark future research and debate on the issue.
So come on, sociologists. How about it?