The Impossibility of Re-Creating Religions

Dec 302011

I’ve never read Penn Jillette’s book God, No!, but I love this quote from it:

There is no god, and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

I’d make a stronger claim, namely that the myths of all major religions are so absurd that any new religions would be wholly different. The reason is simple: they’re fantasies based on the desire to believe. Science, in contrast, is based on observations of empirical facts. That’s the difference that makes all the difference!

The Oddity of the Falling Slinky

Oct 032011

This floating slinky effect is pretty awesome, but the discussion of it in terms of “information” and “knowledge” makes me cringe! There’s no knowledge involved whatsoever! Instead, the removal of the upward force of tension does not happen instantaneously, but rather requires some time to propagate, due to the structure of the slinky.

Via Gizmodo

Evolutionary Theory: Fact Versus Faith

Jul 252011

Should evolution be taught in schools? I can’t help but laugh as these Miss USA contestants answer that question… but then I want to cry.

Evolutionary theory is the integrating theory of biology. As such, it should be a major part of middle and high school biology. Alas, it’s not, and the result is the widespread acceptance of blatantly faith-based views like those expressed in this video.

When I taught introductory philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I’d spend a day discussing evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory explains the supposedly mysterious order and complexity of living beings cited by Paley’s analogical argument for God’s existence via purely natural law. Hence, the existence of a divine designer cannot be inferred from the complexity and order of life.

Before starting that class, I’d ask my students whether they’d studied evolutionary theory before. Only about two-thirds of them had done so. That was bad enough, but even worse, most of those students were utterly confused about evolutionary theory, usually thinking it to be nothing more than sheer random variation.

When young people aren’t taught the basic facts of biology, is it any wonder that they default to religious superstition and myth?

Doonesbury on Creationism

Jul 152011

I’m not a Doonesbury reader, but the July 10th strip on teaching creationism was just too perfect to ignore.

Also, be sure to check out this classic strip from 2005 on the real-life implications of creationism.

A Lesson from Horse Teeth

Mar 052011

Here’s a simple lesson from a new study: evolution is sloooooooooow.

[Evolutionary biologist] Nikos Solounias helped develop a methodology known as dental mesowear analysis to reconstruct the diets of extinct species by measuring food-related wear and tear on fossil teeth. He and [Matthew] Mihlbachler used the process to investigate wear patterns on the molars of thousands of fossil horses. They later analyzed their data alongside records of North American climate changes that would have shifted the animals’ diets from rainforest fruits and woody, leafy vegetation to the more abrasive diets found in grasslands.

“Lag time in the evolution of horse teeth in comparison to dietary changes is critical,” Mihlbachler explained. “We found that evolutionary changes in tooth anatomy lag behind the dietary changes by a million years or more.”

(H/T: Bil Danielson)

Cats Versus Dog in Zero-G

Jan 262011

These cats didn’t seem to enjoy zero-gravity:

In contrast, this dog seems totally fine with weightlessness:

(Via MeFi.)

Radiation Risk From TSA Scanners?

Nov 152010

A friend recently asked my opinion about the possible health risks from the new whole body “backscatter” x-ray scanners now being used by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) at many airports.

The short answer is that the radiation risk from the TSA scanners is minimal for a member of the general flying public. (This is separate from privacy concerns — or the fact that the bad choice offered to passengers between intrusive x-rays vs. an intrusive physical exam is a problem ultimately caused by our government’s inept foreign policy.) Hence, my personal approach when I fly will be to go through the full-body scanners rather than undergo the aggressive new pat-down searches.

The news media has recently given a lot of attention to the following letter sent several months ago by scientists/physicians at UCSF (Univ. California at San Francisco) to the federal government about the radiation risks: “Letter of Concern“, 4/6/2010.

This NPR story from last spring that covers the details more fully: “Scientists Question Safety Of New Airport Scanners“, 5/17/2010. The NPR story also includes a sidebar listing the radiation dose generated by a TSA scanner, and comparing it to the dose one receives merely from being on a transcontinental flight, regular environmental exposure, getting a chest x-ray, etc.

Basically, just getting on a transcontinental flight exposes one to roughly 1,000 times more radiation than undergoing a TSA body scan. (This is because there is less atmospheric protection from natural solar/cosmic radiation at high altitude.)

The FDA has posted its own response to the UCSF letter: “Response to University of California – San Francisco Regarding Their Letter of Concern“, 10/12/2010.

First let me note that I am philosophically opposed to the FDA and other such regulatory bodies, on the grounds that they do not serve proper functions of government. But to the best of my knowledge, the FDA’s scientific arguments in that specific response are essentially correct. And the FDA letter also addresses some of the technical issues raised by the UCSF scientists, such as the question of the TSA radiation being deposited mostly in the skin (vs. in the whole body).

Female passengers who are (or may be) pregnant while undergoing a TSA scan may also wonder about radiation effects on a developing fetus.

This web page from Duke University covers this topic nicely: “Fetal Radiation Dose Estimates.” As a point of clarification, the Duke website uses the older units (rems and millirems) for radiation dose rather than the newer units (Sieverts, milliSv, etc.). The conversion factor is:

1 Sievert = 100 rem or
1 milliSievert = 100 millirem

As the Duke website notes, if the fetus exposure to less than 1,000 millirem (10 milliSieverts), then there’s no known risk to the fetus.

If the fetus exposure is between 1,000 and 10,000 millirem (10-100 milliSieverts), then then the fetus is probably still ok. But, this is the range where bad effects to a fetus start to be observable in some studies, using the most conservative (cautious) statistical criteria.

So if a pregnant passenger wishes to take the most cautious approach and keep her fetal exposure below the 1,000 millirem (10 milliSievert) range, she could still undergo thousands of TSA scans per year. Again, the radiation exposure caused merely by flying would far exceed that caused by the scanner. Furthermore, most of the TSA scanner radiation would be stopped at the skin before it could even reach the fetus, as opposed to the various forms of natural gamma and solar radiation received during the flight which would penetrate deeper into the body.

A pregnant woman might naturally wonder how much radiation she’d be exposed to from the air travel itself?

According to this aviation news website, if she logged 1,000 hours in the air, then she’d be at the 5-10 milliSievert range (depending on the exact altitude/route), which is the level where one might begin to be concerned: “Radiation Exposure Aloft — Are You Being Nuked?.”

So if she took 10 flights during her pregnancy totaling, say, 40 hours of air time, then that should be no problem. But she were an airline pilot or a frequent business traveler logging 1,000 hours of air time per year, then it might become a genuine issue, using the most conservative estimates for fetal exposure.

This discussion makes two important assumptions, including:

1) The TSA scanners are actually functioning properly and operating within the limits claimed by the government. Of course, if a particular machine malfunctions in a way that it produces too much radiation, then all bets are off.

2) The passenger doesn’t have any special medical conditions that make him or her more sensitive to radiation than the general public.

Finally, this discussion applies only to the “backscatter” type of TSA scanner, which uses ionizing x-ray radiation. The other type of whole body TSA scanner uses “millimeter wave” technology, which does not involve ionizing x-ray radiation and does not have the same type of carcinogenic effect. Otherwise, I don’t have any specialized knowledge about that particular technology and thus can’t comment about any other health effects.

Conclusion: From a radiation safety perspective, it’s generally safe to go through the TSA “backscatter” x-ray scanner.

Open Thread on Induction

Oct 212010

In the comment thread on The Resignation of John McCaskey: The Facts, some people expressed an interest in discussing the questions about induction raised by David Harriman’s book, The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics. Yesterday, I said that people were welcome to discuss that in that comment thread. However, given that that post has over 200 comments, I realized that it would be better to simply create an open thread for that topic.

Hence, this post. As with the post on the facts of Dr. McCaskey’s resignation, I expect any commenters to adhere to high standards of civility, even when in violent disagreement.

Art, Say Hello to Science

Mar 152010

A Closer Look at Evolutionary Faces:

To recreate the faces of our early ancestors, some of whom have been extinct for millions of years, sculptor John Gurche dissected the heads of modern humans and apes, mapping patterns of soft tissue and bone. He used this information to fill out the features of the fossils. Each sculpture starts with the cast of a fossilized skull; Gurche then adds layers of clay muscle, fat and skin. Seven of his finished hominid busts will be featured at the National Museum of Natural History’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which opens March 17. They are perhaps the best-researched renderings of their kind.

Go check out the pictures here.

Science Contaminated by Government

Feb 052010

In prior posts, I’ve recommended this New Yorker article on the widespread problem of olive oil contamination: fascinating story about the possibility of massive government corruption of science might be a case when “toxic oil” was not to blame. In the early 1980s, a mysterious outbreak of illness in Spain left hundreds dead and thousands seriously injured. It was quickly blamed on contaminated cooking oil. In 1989, some oil producers were sent to prison, even though the supposed toxin in the oil was never identified. Similarly, as even supporters of the standard account admit, scientists haven’t ever been able to reproduce the symptoms of the supposedly toxic oil in lab animals.

Even worse, even the epidemiological data looks like it was corrupted by a young government determined to quell the panic. The article says:

In order to demonstrate that the oil had caused the illness, government scientists needed to be able to show, for example, that families who had bought the oil were affected, whereas those who hadn’t were not; that the aniline in the oil was indeed poisonous and that the victims were suffering from aniline poisoning; and, bearing in mind that such commercial cooking oil fraud had been widespread for years, just what had changed in the manufacturing process to cause the oil suddenly to become so poisonous. To this day, none of these basic conditions has been met.

You’ll find the details in the article. The most fundamental problem is simply that the cause and the effects don’t seem to match up: many sick people didn’t consume the supposedly toxic oil, many oil-consuming people didn’t become sick. And that’s just for starters.

Do I know what happened here? Of course not. The article might be mere conspiracy-mongering; the author might be twisting the facts to manufacture doubt and controversy where none should exist. Or perhaps the author’s complaints and doubts are completely justified. I can only say that, if the article is accurate in its basic information, the government’s story doesn’t merely smell fishy: it’s stinks to high heaven.

The simple fact is that governments cannot be trusted with science. Scientists at the government trough are often quickly wedded to grand theories based on political pressure rather than evidence. Then, because they seek to maintain public trust above all else, they cling to those grand theories as dogmas, even as contrary data accumulates. In the process, they often cause serious harm to people by preventing them from living as well as they might — or preventing them from living at all.

Essentially, to the extent that science is affected by political pressure, it works on the principle of stare decisis — meaning “maintain what has been decided and do not alter that which has been established.” To support their political paymasters, scientists must adhere to precedent, however wrong.

Of course, some scientists might be willing to buck political pressures, but they risk being marginalized or fired for speaking out. Others might be more remote from those pressures, and so able to do good work in quiet. But for any politically warm topic, I trust government science as much as I trust the State Science Institute on Rearden Metal — meaning, not at all.

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