30 November 2005

Speaking in Columbus, NC

For my Western North Carolina/Upstate South Carolina readers only:
(Everyone else, skip the rest of this post, and read instead this fascinating account of the latest research into the tendency of the human brain to see evidence of design where none exists.)

I'll be speaking at the Polk County campus of Isothermal Community College (directions here)
on Sunday, 4 Dec 2005, at 2 p.m.
The topic is
No Uncertain Words:
The war on doubt and the need to resurrect Jefferson's Wall.

It will be a PowerPoint-illustrated, 40-minute presentation on the kinds of things I write about in this space. I will be provocative, may ruffle a few feathers, but hope to stay on the safe side of giving offense. Everyone is welcome, and it is a free event, hosted by the Friends of the Polk County Library.

29 November 2005

Scandal in Canada

Alert: the following will make sense to Canadian readers only
(Americans without a good grasp of late 20th-century skullduggery in Canada might as well click right on over to Dilbert, Doonesbury or Boondocks)

My old pal Derek Raymaker has posted a bang-on summary of the atrocious behaviour of the Canadian media in a story that should never have revolved around one of their own, but has.

Anyone who remembers Stevie Cameron should know she's one of the best dirt-diggers in the business. Before I left Canada, the country's two top papers, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star were in the business of lambasting her for doing her job better then any of their own staff. Now Raymaker, in his inimitable colorful prose, has taken them to task.

A sample:
This is when it gets ugly. I'm talking Starr Jones ugly. Forget that the RCMP could not manage the Dewey Freaking Decimal System, forget that the central figure, Karlheinz Schreiber, had just been found culpable in the biggest German political scandal since the Reichstag fire (and is still in Canada, out on bail fighting extradition). Forget that this preliminary hearing revealed Shreiber paid Mulroney $300,000 in consulting fees while he was still an MP to blow smoke for a dodgy pasta enterprise.
I urge you to read his rant, and perhaps fire off a letter or two to the offending editors.

And here's Ms. Cameron's relevant blog post. Now back to your regularly scheduled doubtful ramblings.

28 November 2005

Glimmers of hope

As part of my campaign to avoid acquiring the reputation of a curmudgeon -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- I offer here a brief list of good news from the front lines of the culture wars.

First, a word from the 14th Dalai Llama Tenzin Gyatso, born Lhamo Dhondrub: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change." (New York Times, Nov. 12).

It's always refreshing to come across a vote of confidence in the scientific process, especially from someone who not only harbors a personal belief in reincarnation, but bases his political legitimacy on it.

Fortunately, Mr. Tibet is not the only spiritual leader to embrace the realm of reason of late. Rev. George Coyne, chief astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, weighed in on Nov. 18 with a stinging rebuke of the latest version of creationism. “Intelligent design isn't science even though it pretends to be,” he said. “If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”

The good reverend goes much further down the path of materialism in a recent essay in the Catholic magazine, The Tablet. It's heartwarming to read such words from someone who takes his marching orders from the Pope:
Life began on the earth, which formed about 4.5 x 1 billion years ago, within about the first 400 million years, a relatively rapid transition to life. In fact, the search for life’s origins may be in vain. There may be no clear origin, no clear threshold as seen by science, between the non-living and the living.
Rationalism seems to be breaking out, or at least, speaking out, all over. Something called "The Clergy Project" has attracted, the last time I checked, 9,919 signatures from American clergy who believe in compatibility of religion and evolutionary biology. The letter states that
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.

Meanwhile, back in Kansas, the state with the Department of Education that just redefined science to include the supernatural, it appears a backlash is growing among those who understand the difference between fact and fancy.

Paul Mirecki, chairman of the religious studies departmentat Kansas University, announced the other day that he will be offering a course next semester on Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies. "The KU faculty has had enough," Mirecki told the Associated Press. "Creationism is mythology ... Intelligent design is mythology. It's not science. They try to make it sound like science. It clearly is not."

KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, for his part, said he had no problem with the new course. "If it's a course that's being offered in a serious and intellectually honest way, those are the kind of courses a university frequently offers." Glad you cleared that up, Bob.

[BAD NEWS UPDATE, Dec. 1: Mirecki was forced to cancel the class after word got out of an email he wrote "in which he referred to religious conservatives as 'fundies' and said a course depicting intelligent design as mythology would be a 'nice slap in their big fat face.'" (Wash Post, Dec. 1)]

The news from the public at large isn't quite as uplifting, but still, there is cause for optimism. According to a recent Gallup poll, fewer Americans hold paranormal beliefs. Mind you, three in four is still a disturbingly high number when it comes to ghosts, faith-healing and reincarnation. But I did manage to find a few nuggets of progress, or at least, lack of backsliding. From the accompanying analysis of the poll:
Several items show modest declines since 2001 in the percentage of people who profess to believe in them, though the overall percentage of people with at least one paranormal belief has declined only slightly -- from 76% in 2001 to 73% now. The largest declines since 2001 are found in the number of people who believe in ESP (41% now compared with 50% in 2001), clairvoyance (26% now, 32% in 2001), ghosts (32% vs. 38%), mentally communicating with the dead (21% vs. 28%), and channeling (9% vs. 15%).
Thats funny. I thought this list would be longer. Oh, well. I suppose it will have to do until next Thanksgiving.

21 November 2005

The lone gunman litmus test

In these simple times, it comes as no surprise that among members of the government and media, those charged with reviewing the qualifications of candidates for the most powerful court in the land would find it difficult to deal with something as complex as the law.

Which explains why analysis of a Supreme Court nominee's myriad interpretations of the Constitution is often reduced to a binary choice -- yes or no, up or down -- a litmus test, as the pundits say.

Like many of his non-Republican friends, Harold Meyerson at the American Prospect uses the "smoking gun" analogy this week in his analysis of Samuel Alito's position on abortion, but by default he's made it a litmus test. Sen. Joe Biden, meanwhile, appears to prefer reapportionment (one man, one vote). A more appropriate issue, perhaps, but still, a litmus test.

At first glance, the metaphor seems apt. The original litmus test of chemistry involves a strip of paper that changes color when dipped in a solution -- red for acid, blue for base. Given the current predilection for dividing American into red and blue halves (states, voters, issues), what columnist could resist using it? I mean, who would argue that those with the most acid of tongues don't tend toward the Republican end of the spectrum?

But like most political metaphors, this one breaks down on further analysis. Indulge me in a little science, if you will.

The litmus test employs the pH scale, which typically runs from 0 to 14.The lower the number, the stronger the acid. The technical definition of what pH represents is:
pH = -log[H3O+]
which means it denotes the concentration of hydrogen ions. Sounds straightforward, but the chemists who came up with this thing weren't as satisfied with simplicity as today's politicians and pundits.

First, what's really being measured is the molarity of the solution being tested, which translates to: What fraction of a mole (a very large number somewhat abitrarily derived from the number of carbon atoms in 12 grams of carbon-12) is equivalent to the actual count, on an inverse logarithmic scale?

So if there is one-millionth (10-6) of a mole (6.02 x 1023) of hydrogen ions in a liter of the solution, then the solution's pH is 6.

If that sounds way more complicated than it needed to be, it is. Why do scientists do things like this? Because they can. The complexity gulf between the chemical litmus test and the political version should be wide enough to dissuade anyone who understands the former from using it in the latter context.

Not convinced? It gets worse. Although the paper litmus test has now been supplanted, like most everything else, by electronics, the original paper would only turn blue in bases with a pH above 8.3. And it only turned red in acids with a pH below 4.5. That leaves a huge slice of the scale in the indeterminate category.

It is helpful to note that biology is extremely sensitive to pH. Humans will die, for example, if their blood pH, which is usually 7.35, drops much below 7.2.

Since, in a normal political operating environment, one would expect most candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court (we're back in non-scientific territory now), to exhibit ideological and philosophical characteristics somewhere between 4.5 and 8.3 on a 0-to-14 scale, that would make a litmus test useless.

I will concede that we are not now living in historically normal conditions. Judge Alito, for one, appears to reside somewhere south of 4.5, so perhaps a litmus test is appropriate after all. But I maintain that an ideal political litmus test should be a far sight more complex that abortion, which is usually reduced to the simplistic pro-choice or pro-life.

So, considering the date, how about: Do you believe Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman, or was there a conspiracy to assassinate the president?

Think about it. As anyone who has seen Oliver Stone's "JFK" knows, there are any number of theories concerning who killed the guy -- the Cubans, the mob, the CIA, the FBI, the military, LHO and a couple of other kooks, the list goes on. There is so little hard evidence that how one comes down on the issue says a lot about one's faith in, or skepticism of, the establishment. I mean, that's what it's all about, right? (That and the hokey-pokey, of course.)

A few days ago, the usually wise old man of NPR, Daniel Schorr, unwittingly took this test. While revisiting the JFK conspiracy issue he made it quite clear where his sympathies lie. He mentioned the (widely discredited) Warren Commission report that concluded Oswald acted alone, but failed to include any reference to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which found that a conspiracy was the most probable scenario.

Dead giveaway that.

Try it on your friends and family. It's fun, it's revealing, and it's timely. JFK died 42 years ago this Tuesday.

19 November 2005

What ever happened to all those UFOs?

Over at Tech Central Station, columist Douglas Kern suggests that we no longer have time for "chimerical mysteries and esoteric knowledge" because we're living in a time of war. Funny, I would have thought the opposite was the case. More than that, he argues that "the rise of the Internet taught the world to be more skeptical of unverified information."

Not sure I concur. But if you agree that this is an interesting line of thinking, here's the intro:
The UFO cultural moment in America is long since over, having gone out with the Clintons and grunge rock in the 90s. Ironically, the force that killed the UFO fad is the same force that catapulted it to super-stardom: the Internet. And therein hangs a tale about how the Internet can conceal and reveal the truth.
The rest of the article is here.

15 November 2005

You ain't seen nothing yet

Sometimes it seems like things can’t get any worse. State education officials are redefining science to include supernatural explanations, congressional leaders confuse fact and faith, the president of the most powerful nation on the planet believes religion is an appropriate criterion for selection of a Supreme Court justice, and leading evangelists say hurricanes are punishment from God for a lack of piety.

But I’ve just finished reading a book that implies there is a much bigger culture war on the horizon, one that will make the current struggle between science and dogma look like an English tea party.

If inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil is only half right, if his predictions exaggerate the pace of technology change by 100 per cent, then we are still in for a cataclysmic fight over the next 40 years. In The Singularity is Near Kurzweil says we are on the verge of revolutions that will not only remake the world around us, it will change the very essence of what it is to be human. Though the book is perhaps the most optimistic 500 pages I have ever read, it is also one of the most frightening. Scary or not, we have to start thinking about what lies ahead.

The basic thrust of Singularity revolves around recent baby steps, and future giant steps, in three technologies: genetic engineering, nano-scale machines and artificial intelligence based on reverse-engineering the human brain. Collectively, argues Kurzweil, these revolutions will soon allow humans to live forever, merge minds with computers and turn the entire universe into a single, god-like being. This will happen because the rate at which we are improving those technologies is exponential. By 2045 society will be unrecognizable.

For example, the kind of technological progress it took humankind 100 years to bring about in the 20th century would take only 20 today. What took 20 years (from 1980 to 2000) will only take us another 14, and so. What to us would be a 20,000-year research program our children will complete in a single year. Non-biological intelligence will supplement our own, our bodies will no longer require food, we will use all that new cleverness to undo the environmental damage of the industrial era, and no one will ever be poor again.

If it all sounds a bit on the wild side, it is. (It is perhaps fair to note that Kurzweil says he takes 250 supplement pills a day in an effort to extend his life long enough to be around when immortality technology arrives.) But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. For one thing, Kurzweil is a bright guy, one of the most successful inventors of all time. For another, his vision of the future is a well-footnoted one, with ample support for most (though not all) of his assessments of the state of the art in each of the three fields. There just aren’t a lot of logical or factual holes in his argument.

But I see a problem, one that stems from the same source of the objections that motivate so many anti-science fundamentalists.

Kurzweil goes to great lengths to remind the reader that all this incredible software and hardware will be human products. We’ll still be human, he says, just a better kind of human, one that’s not hobbled by biology. He repeats this point many times, perhaps because, as author of the controversial The Age of Spiritual Machines, he knows a lot of people aren’t going to like the idea of billions of microscopic robots crawling around their bloodstream, re-sequencing their DNA, cloning their organs, and establishing telepathic-like links to conscious computers and other humans.

If that vision doesn’t make you a least a little uncomfortable, then you probably haven’t given it enough thought. He’s talking about the human race turning itself into something entirely new, something that approaches what most people think of as gods.

And this is what really bugs those who can’t let go of creationism. It isn’t the science of evolution -- the knowledge that species change over time through natural selection of those varieties most fit for a particular set of environmental conditions – that they find objectionable. It’s what evolution implies about humanity. If humans aren’t designed directly by a god, then we’re not special.

For the same reason, the Roman Catholic Church resisted the Copernican model of the solar system. The bishops didn’t particularly care whether the sun orbited the Earth or vice versa. It was the consequent loss of a special place in the universe for the human race that they couldn’t abide. Similarly, if we build machines that are more intelligent than ourselves, machines that will then re-engineer us, right down to our DNA, what does that say about old-fashioned humanity (what Kurzweil calls Human 1.0)?

I suspect a lot of people are going to resist Kurzweil’s future. They will fight tooth and nail against many of the new technologies now beginning to come on stream.

And make no mistake – the times are a-changing. A few hours after finishing The Singularity is Near, I was at a dinner for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, for which my wife works. There I heard Duke University brain tumor researcher Hai Yan talk about his effort to genetically reconfigure cancer. The next day I read the cover story in last week’s New Scientist about reverse engineering the human brain. Nanotechnology (machines smaller than 100 billionth of a meter) is so popular that just about every university is setting up a research institute devoted to the field.

Fear of these technologies could drive people further into the arms of fundamentalist religions, whether it’s evangelical Christianity or Islam. I’m not sure I’m ready for Kurzweil’s future. But I’m not looking forward to a resurgence of Ludditism, either. The one thing we can’t afford to do is dismiss Kurzweil’s vision. We have to start thinking about it. Now.

09 November 2005

Not in Kansas anymore? Lucky you

Tuesday brought good news and bad from the front lines of the culture wars. In Pennsylvania, all eight seats up for grabs in the Dover school board election went to Democrats who opposed the previous board's efforts to sneak creationism back into science classes. (A ninth seat was not in contention.) The victors campaigned on a platform that included teaching intelligent design, but only in an elective comparative religion course, where it belongs.

That was the good news. The bad came in Kansas, where the state Board of Education gave final approval, by a vote of 6-4, to a new definition of science that would allow local school authorities to require the teaching of intelligent design. According to an Association Press report:
The new standards say high school students must understand major evolutionary concepts. But they also declare that the basic Darwinian theory that all life had a common origin and that natural chemical processes created the building blocks of life have been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology.

In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.

All of which prompted dissenting one board member, Kansas City Democrat Janet Waugh, to lament: "This is a sad day. We're becoming a laughingstock of not only the nation, but of the world, and I hate that."

My sympathies, Janet. I'll try not to laugh too hard next time somebody asks, What's the matter with Kansas?"

08 November 2005

The Bulgarian slight

From the "if you read one more web page today" department: journalist Jim Kunstler's speech to the PetroCollapse conference in New York last month. My favorite line: "We have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of."

07 November 2005

St. Joseph and the albatross

My wife and I see eye-to-eye on most things. Not every challenge produces an immediate consensus, of course, and considering how boring life would be if that was the case, I am glad of the occasional divergence of philosophies. Which explains how this weekend I came to be digging a hole in which to bury a tiny likeness of one of the Roman Catholic Church’s pantheon of saints.

I kid you not. I could justify my actions by emphasizing that it was my wife’s idea to buy a the little statue of St. Joseph and stick it, head first, into the front yard of a house we had been trying in vain to sell for many months. The house, which Mary bought before I came into her life and convinced her that Atlanta was no place for someone who knows how to appreciate that life, had become an albatross around our collective necks. We recently purchased her family’s home here in Saluda, and found it near impossible to afford two mortgages.

We had lowered our asking price to as low we thought we could go, had a couple of rooms painted, cleaned up the yard and replaced some of the roof, yet as of last Friday, had attracted not a single interested buyer. It’s a charming little bungalow in a great location, but no offers.

So on Saturday we headed down to the big city to perform a little more yard work and clean out the fridge (again). Along the way we stopped at the Notre Dame Book Store in Doraville, Ga., and picked up an honest-to-god “St. Joseph the Worker Home Sales Kit that consisted of the aforementioned icon and an nth-generation photocopy of an accompanying prayer. Total cost, including tax: $8.03.

Did you know that burying St. Joseph upside down in the yard of a property you’re trying to sell will attract buyers? I did not. But then, not having been raised in the confines of the Catholic Church, what I don’t know about such things could fill an entire cable television channel’s schedule.

Within three hours of replacing the disturbed soil above little Joe, our real estate agent called to inform us that an offer had been made. It wasn’t our asking price, naturally, but still, an offer. By noon of the following day, a contract had been signed for a compromise figure that was still lower than we had planned to accept, but still, a contract. Woo-hoo! (Treasure that exclamation mark; I use them, as rarely as I do semi-colons.)

Now, Mary was diplomatic enough not to sing a round of loud praises to St. Joseph in my presence, despite the enormous relief that the contract brought to our lives after so long without so much as a nibble.

For my part, I made a point of not dismissing the coincidence as just that, or trying to explain the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo procter hoc (after the fact, therefore because of the fact) at a celebratory lunch with her family, or getting into the notion that St. Joseph’s effect on the pending sale cannot be proved or disproved, and therefore isn’t worth even a passing thought. And we both know that the buyer saw the property hours before we buried the blessed little guy. (Although I suppose that saints should have no trouble effecting their influence retroactively, not being bound as we are by the unidirectional nature of the cause-and-effect thing.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is exactly the sort of thing that explains why so many people put their faith in the power of prayer. Not because it works most of the time – it doesn’t, as studies have shown – but because every now and then, just as probability dictates, success will follow right on the heels of prayer. And the exception that actually proves the rule of non-association is far more powerful that the rule itself.

I am not sure there is any way to shed our culture of such beliefs. Their emotional (spiritual?) impact is clearly transcendent. In the case of our own dalliance with the holy influence of St. Joseph, the worst I can say is it was harmless. I’m not trying to make a point here. I still think there are better ways to spend eight dollars. On the other hand, I can’t prove that St. Joseph didn’t have something to do with the freeing of the albatross.

So I’m not going to bother. I will draw the line, however, at digging him up and installing him in a place of honor in our new home.

03 November 2005

Scared of the bird flu?

Until this week, it was beginning to look like the biggest obstacle to a workable strategy to anticipate the day when the avian flu mutates into something that can spread among humans was the anti-intellectualism of the Bush administration. But the other day even Bush conceded that the scientists might have a point, and he announced a strategy to do something about it.

The plan has myriad shortcomings, but it turns out that there remains a much greater threat from those who remain skeptical of the value of the scientific method. Over in southeast Asia, where bird flu is now a serious problem, and the most likely site for that feared genetic mutation, the prevalence of superstitions could be undermining what little effort exists to "block bird flu at its source," as the New York Times reports today in a frightening article.

The Times only allows you to read its new stories for free for a week, so check it out now. The main thrust of the piece is Cambodian villagers, mostly subsistence farmers with next to no education, tend to rely on non-rational explanations for disease, rather than trust medical experts. Under most circumstances this would be a tragic, but local problem.

But, as reporter Keith Bradsher writes:
If the disease does make the jump from transmission by birds to person-to-person transmission, the crucial question will be whether the first few cases can be isolated quickly. If not, frightened people nearby could start fleeing, carrying the disease to big cities and then around the world by jet...
Then we would be big trouble. And Bradsher doesn't paint a very optimistic picture when it comes to that very scenario. He relates the story of a recent outbreak of what medics diagnosed as run-of-the-mill influenza, which can be deadly in poverty-stricken communities, but is not nearly as threatening as avian flu. He writes:
Some blamed bird flu and took their weakened children to a clinic in a nearby provincial city, where a medic diagnosed human influenza instead. But other residents said it was witchcraft by the only village resident not born here, 53-year-old Som Sorn, who moved here eight years ago when she married an elderly local farmer.When Mrs. Som Sorn's husband went into the jungle to cut wood one afternoon and she began cooking rice over a fire on the dirt floor of her hut, a local man with a machete took action and later collected $30 in donations from grateful neighbors, a month's wages.
The good news is the assassin was caught and sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison. The bad news is superstition still holds sway in rural Cambodia:
Besa Korn, a 51-year-old village resident who was not among those making donations to the killer, said the true cause of the summer illnesses might never be known. But life has clearly improved since Mrs. Som Sorn's death, she added. "Everyone in the village has been very happy since then," she said. "And we have had no more illness."
Nipping the avian flu in the bud will be nearly impossible if the first victims of a mutated strain react this way instead of seeking the help of those understand the true nature of the virus. But the fact is, the chances of wiping out the superstitious belief system is probably even less than the chance of eliminating the disease.

And let's not get smug about our own society. New Scientist just reported on attempts to take advantage of avian flu fears by those who prey on westerner's weakeness for snake oil:

Even worse are the herbal remedies claiming to "prime" the immune system to increase the effectiveness of Tamiflu, or to treat the symptoms of avian flu itself. "Show me the hard evidence for these claims and I might believe it," says Karl Nicholson, an expert in infectious disease at the University of Leicester, UK.
We have to get past this sort of nonsense. After all, we don't have decent stocks of the only vaccine that might prove effective. Even the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, on which Bush's plan relies, may not do the trick. And don't get me started on Tamilflu's sole manufacturer, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, which has until recently resisted calls to let other companies copy the drug because there's no money in it for them.

Clearly, we've got enough problems in the so-called developed world, without having to worry about sorcerers and curses.