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Vaccinations or Not

I only became aware of people opposed to childhood vaccinations a few months ago. Wired has an interesting article about the subject. (via The Angry Drunk) As with Nova‘s show about intelligent design, the piece is worth reading not just for its subject matter, but for its examination of science and pseudoscience, and how they each operate.

I wonder whether families who decide not to vaccinate their children are going to experience some natural selection over the coming decades. I just hope the effects don’t spill over to the rest of us.

(I hated getting shots when I was a kid, but I sure am glad now that I got them. I get a flu shot every year, too, mainly because they’re made conveniently available at work.)

Moon Memory

My earliest memory is of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which occurred 40 years ago this week. What’s remarkable about this is that I was barely 6 months old at the time. Yet I remember it with remarkable clarity, and I’m convinced that it’s a real memory.

My specific memory of the landing itself is only of footage of men on the moon on TV, and it’s somewhat fuzzy. We lived in Cleveland, Ohio at the time, so the landing occurred at 3:17 pm local time, and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface at 9:39 pm local time. Whether we watched his descent as it was originally broadcast or watched a later broadcast or a news summary the next day, I have no idea.

My more specific memory is of my Mom taking me out to the balcony of our apartment at night and directing my attention to the moon, saying “There are people up there!” I recall thinking that I could actually see them on the moon while we were out there, although obviously I was imagining that; I might have even thought that seeing them on TV was the same thing as seeing them directly. It’s hard to say.

It’s possible this is just a constructed memory, although there seems to be a little evidence to suggest that it could be a true memory. I recall details like the little balcony we had, and the metal railing around it, details which were later confirmed to be accurate, which makes it feel real to me, but that’s hardly conclusive. I’ll probably never know, and I’m not really interested in arguing about it.

About returning to the moon? I think Charles Stross addressed the practical obstacles to going back pretty well. More blunt was a cartoon many years ago by Tom Toles which pointed out that there’s nothing on the moon, and nothing on Mars, either. Going there has no evident practical rewards, so the primary motivations for going there are not practical ones – and it’s hard to get funding for that. What practical rewards there are seem to be long-term and rather speculative ones.

I remember as a teenager talking to my friend Rob, who told me that he was frustrated – maybe even angry – that our presence in space had been cut back so much, and that he was probably not going to go into space or walk on the moon in his lifetime. I’m not sure why it’s never bothered me very much. Would it be nice to go into space? Well… maybe. Space travel is a high-risk endeavor, and unlikely to become either cheaper or safer anytime soon. If there were really somewhere to go then I might feel more strongly about it, but just experiencing zero gravity and walking on a dusty rock doesn’t hold a strong appeal for me.

Someday maybe something will change and humanity will finally head out to the planets and the stars. But I think in my lifetime all we’re going to have are our memories.

Intelligent Design on Trial

After posting about Richard Dawkins on Expelled! I realized I ought to post the following review I wrote way back around the time of our trip back east last November:

While out there on vacation, I caught the Nova special Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, which as I mentioned previously is about the 2005 Dover trial in which parents sued the school board to prevent Intelligent Design (ID) from being taught in schools.

It’s a remarkable show. Inspiring, even. Watching it one really sees what the scientific community can do when it brings both barrels to bear on a pseudo-scientific idea like ID: Not only were the expert witnesses able to demonstrate the extent to which evolution has been repeatedly tested and found to be reliable (and thereby demonstrate the scientific method at work), but they neatly dissected ID and showed how useless it is as a scientific theory. The principle of irreducible complexity – a key tenet of ID – was shown to be reducibly weak through the demolishing of examples of it (supposedly) in action, and without that there just wasn’t a leg for ID to stand on. One commentator observed that ID is essentially a negative argument, summing it up by saying “Evolution doesn’t work, therefore we win by default.” But of course evolution does work – it’s passed test after test – and even if it didn’t, that doesn’t make ID a theory, it just makes it an idea: It doesn’t explain anything, it doesn’t provide a testable hypothesis, it has no practical benefits. It’s really just a pipe dream.

The plaintiffs managed to win an even loftier goal than that, though: Through savvy investigative research, they demonstrated a concrete link between the supposedly neutral Intelligent Design and the religious doctrine of Creationism, by tracing the history of Of Pandas and People, the ID book at the center of the trial. The smoking gun in the investigation is a beautiful moment, so I won’t spoil it for you, but it made my jaw drop. (There are several jaw-dropping moments on the science end of their arguments, too.)

The judge in the trial, John E. Jones III, came across as quite intelligent and perceptive, and his ruling against the ID proponents was sweeping, and his own commentary in the show made the wise point that in an era when we need good science and competitive educational systems as much as ever, teaching bad science to high school students seemed counterproductive.

Apparently only a few ID proponents were willing to be interviewed for the show. Two of the school board members who tried to introduce ID into the schools were an interesting contrast to each other: William Buckingham seemed utterly inflexible in his beliefs, unable to see where science and religion might be able to coincide, and thinking the judge to be a “jackass”. Alan Bonsell was more measured in his statements, saying that he only wanted to make the school district the best one it could be. Which is a fair enough goal, but it leaves open the question of what practical benefits teaching bad science – or, at the most, a simpleminded idea with negligible evidence to support it – would benefit students or society.

The other memorable ID proponent was Philip E. Johnson, an emeritus professor of law at the University of California Berkeley and a member of the Discovery Institute, an ID-favoring think tank. He says that he’d hoped the case would be a breakthrough in restructuring the nation’s educational system in his lifetime, but now he suspects it will be a lot longer. It’s baffling to me that he would have had such high hopes, since their case was based on nearly nothing – certainly nothing demonstrable or testable – so their hopes seemed mainly to lie in the Bush-appointed judge and the support the case received from the Bush administration. This just seems to underscore that the ID crowd are mainly pushing a political and social agenda without any rational basis underlying it. There’s nothing wrong with having irrational beliefs – the world would be a pretty colorless place if logic dominated every field of human endeavor – but such things are antithetical to science, and should not be presented as such.

Another take-home point to this show is how specious the argument that the fact that “many reputable scientists” believe or disbelieve in a theory is not a basis for arguing for or against that theory. “Many reputable scientists” may believe in ID or disbelieve in global warming, but how many of them there are, or what their reputations are, is irrelevant. Science is not a popularity contest, science is a quest to understand how the world works, and to validate or disprove theories through observation and testing. It’s those scientists’ results, not their numbers, which we should pay attention to.

And whether or not ID is long on numbers, it’s certainly short on results.

Naturally, Judgment Day is available on DVD.

Richard Dawkins on Expelled!

Richard Dawkins reviews the creationist film Expelled!, including recounting that he was able to view the premiere while his friend PZ Myers, who was Dawkins’ viewing companion, was, uh, expelled from the line to get into the theater (lots more links on this here, and Myers also wrote a follow-up).

Dawkins was even among the scientists interviewed by the filmmakers before he realized that their agenda was rather different than he’d understood.

Humanity Evolving Rapidly

Contrary to previous theory, it appears that the rate of human evolution has increased over the last few thousand years (via the San Jose Mercury News):

Until recently, anthropologists believed evolutionary pressures on humans eased after the transition to a more stable agrarian lifestyle. But in the past few years, they realized the opposite was true – diseases swept through societies in which large groups lived in close quarters for a long period.

Natural selection has affected humanity in many ways since the species appeared. My favorite concrete example from the article:

Although children were able to drink milk, they typically developed lactose intolerance as they grew up. But after cattle and goats were domesticated in Europe and yaks and mares were domesticated in Asia, adults with a mutation that allowed them to digest milk had a nutritional advantage over those who didn’t. As a result, they were more likely to have healthy offspring, prompting the mutation to spread, [University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist John] Hawks said.

Humans in certain parts of the world have evolved slightly differently due to local conditions, too. This is a tenet of natural selection which often seems to be ignored: If local conditions differ significantly in two regions over a long period of time, a species which exists in both regions will see its two populations diverge as the populations adapt to their local conditions. (This assumes the conditions don’t kill off the population in one region, and also that there’s not significant interbreeding between the populations.)

This is really neat. It’s also good news, because it indicates that the human species is still quite diverse. Why is that good? Because monocultures tend to be a bad thing for a species’ long-term survival, since it makes them more susceptible to individual contagious elements against which they have no defense (such a problem seen in bananas and Microsoft Windows).

The article indicates that the rate of human evolution has increased since we became “domesticated”:

In the past 5,000 to 10,000 years, as agriculture was able to support increasingly large societies, the rate of evolutionary change rose to more than 100 times historical levels, the study concluded.

I have my own idea to add to this: I suspect people have assumed that evolution slowed down because there we tamed many hostile environments, so there were fewer pressures exerting natural selection upon us. Instead, I think that civilization has made our environments more constant and consistent, meaning what pressures there are are more persistent, and so we evolve in more of a straight line due to those pressures, rather than meandering around due to conditions that change every few years (or decades, or centures). With less genetic confusion, what evolution that does occur can occur far more rapidly.

On another, related note, the common wisdom seems to be that language has tended to evolve more slowly since writing and writing became more widespread, since writing fixes spelling and grammar in the mind of the literate population. I don’t know if language is subject to something like natural selection, but there seem to be some parallels there, and this makes me wonder if we’ll find that (for example) English is also evolving more rapidly than we think, just in a more constant direction and a more systematic manner than it used to.

John Scalzi Visits the Creation Museum

If you’re not a regular reader of John Scalzi’s blog, nip over there to read his hilarious report about visiting the Creation Museum:

  1. Start with the photographic tour on Flikr.
  2. Then read the accompanying essay, which features liberal use of the word “horseshit”.

It’s well worth the time to read through it all, especially the photo set.

(For more hilarity, visit the Creation Museum’s web site, too.)

Then you can enter Scalzi’s LOLCreashun contest.

In related news, the long-running PBS science program Nova last night ran an episode about the 2005 trial involving the Dover, PA school board which rejected Intelligent Design’s claims to be a rational alternative to evolution. I unfortunately missed the episode (hopefully I can catch it some other time), but Ars Technica has some additional info about the Dover trial’s impact on the ID movement and what the ID people are up to these days.

It’s too bad we sometimes have to take these people seriously in order to refute their silliness. It’s much more fun to just mock them like Scalzi does. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to decisively and finally win a battle against what amounts to rampant (if not willful) ignorance.

The Creation Museum on Science Talk

Some of you may know that John Scalzi went to the Creation Museum and plans to post about his trip real soon now.

However, Scientific American‘s weekly podcast Science Talk ran an interview in their July 25 episode interviewing Stephen Asma of Columbia College, who also visited the Creation Museum and wrote about it for Skeptic magazine. It’s frightening stuff (albeit predictably frightening for anyone familiar with the religious right), describing how the Creation Museum’s proprietors see modern science as a direct cause of many of the perceived (by them) ills of western culture.

You can listen to the episode in MP3 format.