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Balancing Basic & Applied Research

Posted by jns on April 26, 2011

The transistor, the LED, and the medical isotope technetium-99m are important applications of science, yet as far as I know none of them was invented as the result of a government initiative to fund industrially relevant research.

The transistor was invented at Bell Labs. The LED was invented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and technetium-99m was discovered—and its usefulness to medicine recognized—at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

My short list is not meant to buttress an argument that governments shouldn’t fund applied, goal-directed research. They should. The challenge lies is striking the right balance between basic and applied research. If a government overemphasizes applied research, it risks depriving basic researchers of the funds they need to make discoveries and inventions that could prove industrially important.

[from Charles Day, "Striking the right balance between basic and applied research", The Dayside, 21 April 2011.]


In Court : Science vs. Creationism

Posted by jns on September 15, 2010

Someplace in my reading recently I happened upon the “memorandum opinion” in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982). My attention was drawn to it because of a remark about how it “defined science”. Well, I wouldn’t go so far as “defined” although the characteristics of the scientific enterprise are outlined, and that may have been a first for American jurisprudence (but I haven’t made a study of that history yet).

Judge William R. Overton summarizes the case succinctly in his introduction:

On March 19, 1981, the Governor of Arkansas signed into law Act 590 of 1981, entitled “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act.” The Act is codified as Ark. Stat. Ann. &80-1663, et seq., (1981 Supp.). Its essential mandate is stated in its first sentence: “Public schools within this State shall give balanced treatment to creation-science and to evolution-science.” On May 27, 1981, this suit was filed (1) challenging the constitutional validity of Act 590 on three distinct grounds.


The grounds were 1) that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution; 2) that it violates a right to academic freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment; and 3) that it is impermissibly vague and thereby violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs, enjoining the Arkansas school board “from implementing in any manner Act 590 of the Acts of Arkansas of 1981″. So, there is where so-called “scientific creationism” was pushed back out of the scientific classrooms, and the reason creationists began–yet again–with rebranding and remarketing creationism, this time as “intelligent-design” creationism, to try to wedge it back into the scientific curriculum.

The opinion is refreshingly brief and to the point. It’s difficult to avoid the impulse simply to quote the whole thing.

In his discussion of the strictures of the “Establishment of Religion” clause, Judge Overton quotes from opinions by Supreme-Court Justices Black and Frankfurter

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or what ever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause … was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”
[Justice Black, Everson v. Board of Education (1947)]

Designed to serves as perhaps the most powerful agency for promoting cohesion among a heterogeneous democratic people, the public school must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects. The preservation of the community from divisive conflicts, of Government from irreconcilable pressures by religious groups, or religion from censorship and coercion however subtly exercised, requires strict confinement of the State to instruction other than religious, leaving to the individual’s church and home, indoctrination in the faith of his choice. [Justice Frankfurter, McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)]

The phrases that jump out at me are “means at least this” and ” the public school must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects”. He also quotes Justice Clark (Abbington School District v. Schempp (1963)) as saying “[s]urely the place of the Bible as an instrument of religion cannot be gainsaid.”

Put them together and it’s quite clear, as Judge Overton wrote, that “[t]here is no controversy over the legal standards under which the Establishment Clause portion of this case must be judged.” Of course, this doesn’t keep certain christianist sects from repeatedly trying to assert that their version of a holy book is somehow an American historical and cultural book and not an “instrument of religion”. To the objective observer, of course, those repeated attempts merely underscore the importance and continuing relevance of vigilance in keeping schools “scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects”.

Judge Overton begins section II this way:

The religious movement known as Fundamentalism began in nineteenth century America as part of evangelical Protestantism’s response to social changes, new religious thought and Darwinism. Fundamentalists viewed these developments as attacks on the Bible and as responsible for a decline in traditional values.

He continues with more brief historical notes about “Fundamentalism” (NB. his remark that it traces its roots to the nineteenth century) and its renewed concerns with each passing generation that America is finally succumbing to secularism and its civilization is at last crumbling, paralleling the conviction of millennialists that their longed for second coming of Jesus is forever imminent. Perhaps needless to say, since I am a scientist, I’d like to see predictions about the second coming and the end of civilization given a time limit so that, when said events fail to materialize in the required time, we can consider the parent theories to be disproven.

In particular he notes that fundamentalist fever was pervasive enough that teaching evolution was uncommon in schools from the 1920s to the 1960s; sentiment and practice only changed as a response to Sputnik anxiety in the early 1960s, when curricula were revamped to emphasize science and mathematics. In response, the concepts of “creation science” and “scientific creationism” were invented as a way to repackage the usual anti-evolution ideas. As Judge Overton says

Creationists have adopted the view of Fundamentalists generally that there are only two positions with respect to the origins of the earth and life: belief in the inerrancy of the Genesis story of creation and of a worldwide flood as fact, or a belief in what they call evolution.

It’s a false dichotomy, of course, but is an idea heavily promoted (usually implicitly) by modern creationists. Of course, it’s a double edged sword: when creationists work so hard to instill the idea that it can only be creationism or Darwinism, they are perceived as losing big when creationism is, yet again, crossed off as a viable “science” option by the courts.

In the remainder of this section Judge Overton examines in some detail the testimony and evidence of “Paul Ellwanger, a respiratory therapist who is trained in neither law nor science.” It’s revealing stuff, demonstrating that “Ellwanger’s correspondence on the subject shows an awareness that Act 590 is a religious crusade, coupled with a desire to conceal this fact.” It’s an arrogance on the part of creationists that we’ve seen over and over again, his recommending caution in avoiding any linkage between creationism and religion and yet continually using rhetoric about Darwinism as the work of Satan. There’s more that I won’t detail here. His conclusion for this section:

It was simply and purely an effort to introduce the Biblical version of creation into the public school curricula. The only inference which can be drawn from these circumstances is that the Act was passed with the specific purpose by the General Assembly of advancing religion.

In a nice rhetorical flourish, Judge Overton echoes this conclusion in the opening of section III:

If the defendants are correct and the Court is limited to an examination of the language of the Act, the evidence is overwhelming that both the purpose and effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion in the public schools.

Section 4 of the Act provides:

Definitions, as used in this Act:

  • (a) “Creation-science” means the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences. Creation-science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate: (1) Sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing; (2) The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism; (3) Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals; (4) Separate ancestry for man and apes; (5) Explanation of the earth’s geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood; and (6) A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.
  • (b) “Evolution-science” means the scientific evidences for evolution and inferences from those scientific evidences. Evolution-science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate: (1) Emergence by naturalistic processes of the universe from disordered matter and emergence of life from nonlife; (2) The sufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds; (3) Emergence by mutation and natural selection of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds; (4) Emergence of man from a common ancestor with apes; (5) Explanation of the earth’s geology and the evolutionary sequence by uniformitarianism; and (6) An inception several billion years ago of the earth and somewhat later of life.
  • (c) “Public schools” means public secondary and elementary schools.

The evidence establishes that the definition of “creation science” contained in 4(a) has as its unmentioned reference the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis. Among the many creation epics in human history, the account of sudden creation from nothing, or creatio ex nihilo, and subsequent destruction of the world by flood is unique to Genesis. The concepts of 4(a) are the literal Fundamentalists’ view of Genesis. Section 4(a) is unquestionably a statement of religion, with the exception of 4(a)(2) which is a negative thrust aimed at what the creationists understand to be the theory of evolution (17).
Both the concepts and wording of Section 4(a) convey an inescapable religiosity. Section 4(a)(1) describes “sudden creation of the universe, energy and life from nothing.” Every theologian who testified, including defense witnesses, expressed the opinion that the statement referred to a supernatural creation which was performed by God.

Defendants argue that : (1) the fact that 4(a) conveys idea similar to the literal interpretation of Genesis does not make it conclusively a statement of religion; (2) that reference to a creation from nothing is not necessarily a religious concept since the Act only suggests a creator who has power, intelligence and a sense of design and not necessarily the attributes of love, compassion and justice (18); and (3) that simply teaching about the concept of a creator is not a religious exercise unless the student is required to make a commitment to the concept of a creator.

The evidence fully answers these arguments. The idea of 4(a)(1) are not merely similar to the literal interpretation of Genesis; they are identical and parallel to no other story of creation (19).

Judge Overton continues to draw connections between the act’s definition of creation science, coupled with testimony, and it’s undeniable connections to religious doctrine and its lack of identifiable standing as anything that might conceivably be identified as “science”. He also examines, and denies, the creationists’ false dichotomy that I mentioned above that the origin of humankind must be described either by Darwinism or creationism.

And then he makes these exceptionally straightforward assertions:

In addition to the fallacious pedagogy of the two model [false dichotomy] approach, Section 4(a) lacks legitimate educational value because “creation-science” as defined in that section is simply not science. Several witnesses suggested definitions of science. A descriptive definition was said to be that science is what is “accepted by the scientific community” and is “what scientists do.” The obvious implication of this description is that, in a free society, knowledge does not require the imprimatur of legislation in order to become science.

More precisely, the essential characteristics of science are:
(1) It is guided by natural law;
(2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
(3) It is testable against the empirical world;
(4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
(5) Its is falsifiable. (Ruse and other science witnesses).

Creation science as described in Section 4(a) fails to meet these essential characteristics. First, the section revolves around 4(a)(1) which asserts a sudden creation “from nothing.” Such a concept is not science because it depends upon a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law. It is not explanatory by reference to natural law, is not testable and is not falsifiable (25).

If the unifying idea of supernatural creation by God is removed from Section 4, the remaining parts of the section explain nothing and are meaningless assertions.

Section 4(a)(2), relating to the “insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism,” is an incomplete negative generalization directed at the theory of evolution.

Section 4(a)(3) which describes “changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals” fails to conform to the essential characteristics of science for several reasons. First, there is no scientific definition of “kinds” and none of the witnesses was able to point to any scientific authority which recognized the term or knew how many “kinds” existed. One defense witness suggested there may may be 100 to 10,000 different “kinds.” Another believes there were “about 10,000, give or take a few thousand.” Second, the assertion appears to be an effort to establish outer limits of changes within species. There is no scientific explanation for these limits which is guided by natural law and the limitations, whatever they are, cannot be explained by natural law.

The statement in 4(a)(4) of “separate ancestry of man and apes” is a bald assertion. It explains nothing and refers to no scientific fact or theory (26).

Section 4(a)(5) refers to “explanation of the earth’s geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood.” This assertion completely fails as science. The Act is referring to the Noachian flood described in the Book of Genesis (27). The creationist writers concede that any kind of Genesis Flood depends upon supernatural intervention. A worldwide flood as an explanation of the world’s geology is not the product of natural law, nor can its occurrence be explained by natural law.

Section 4(a)(6) equally fails to meet the standards of science. “Relatively recent inception” has no scientific meaning. It can only be given in reference to creationist writings which place the age at between 6,000 and 20,000 years because of the genealogy of the Old Testament. See, e.g., Px 78, Gish (6,000 to 10,000); Px 87, Segraves(6,000 to 20,000). Such a reasoning process is not the product of natural law; not explainable by natural law; nor is it tentative.

“Creation science…is simply not science.” Now, there’s an unequivocal statement! This was a very clear death knell for creationism in its guise as “creation [so-called] science” and the beginnings of the ill-concealed attempt to rebrand religious creationism, this time as “intelligent design”.

Please note that the five “characteristics of science” given above by Judge Overton are in no way a “definition” of science, which only reinforces my own impression that Judge Overton was thinking very, very clearly on the subject. I am quite ready to agree with him that the five things he lists are indeed characteristic of science. It is not a comprehensive list, and it doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive list–another thoughtful and precise step on Judge Overton’s part–but they are correct, precise, and enough in this last section of his opinion to counter very thoroughly the claims of creationism to being a science.

This gets us about halfway through Judge Overton’s opinion and this listing of some “characteristics of science”, and I’ll stop here. Before I read the opinion I feared, based on the evidently casual and inaccurate comment that led me to it, that the Judge may indeed have tried to “define” science, a difficult task that I was convinced hardly belonged in court proceedings. I was delighted to discover that Judge Overton instead developed careful and precise “characteristics of science” that served the purpose of the court and are undeniably correct.


Equality Advances, Pie Charts Decline

Posted by jns on April 28, 2009

Via Joe.My.God I learn that a new CBS News / New York Times poll shows an amazing 42% of those polled in favor of legal marriage for same-sex couples. That’s amazing because the previous poll by the same group only one month ago found only 33% in favor of legal marriage. This increase of 9 points lies well outside the sampling error of the poll and must represent some significant fall-out from the addition of Iowa and Vermont to the growing list of states with marriage equality.

That’s interesting enough, but this graphic from CBS (source for graphic and poll results) is also interesting:

One thing to note is that fully two-thirds of those polled support some sort of legal recognition for same-sex couples.

The other thing to note is that there is a 5% wedge missing from the pie chart. Add up the percentages and you get 95%. Now, while it is not at all unusual to have some 5% of those asked who are undecided or who wish to give no opinion, it is not kosher to leave them out of the pie chart and sort of fudge the other wedges around to fill in the space.

Does this chart make it clear that there is a 5% wedge unaccounted for? Not at all. Somehow the wedges are made to look as though they fill 100% of the circle and yet they should not. You might think that 5% is small and wouldn’t be visible, but it amounts to one-fifth of the “civil unions” wedge, an amount that would be quite noticeable. So, the chart is inaccurate and misleading. I wonder which wedge, or wedges, got the undecideds?

Shame on CBS. I hate it when big corporations who could have science and math consultants without even noticing the cost can’t be bothered.
[Updated a few minutes later:] In thinking about the poll results and the remarkable shift since the previous poll, Timothy Kincaid at Box Turtle Bulletin (“Americans Shift Sharply in Favor of Marriage“) gives a long list of significant steps that have been taken towards marriage equality in the interval between the polls.


Endangered Species Act Less Endangered

Posted by jns on April 28, 2009

More signs today of a return to policy supported by science rather than science perverted to the will of policy.

Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced that the two departments are revoking an eleventh-hour Bush administration rule that undermined Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections. Their decision requires federal agencies to once again consult with federal wildlife experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the two agencies that administer the ESA – before taking any action that may affect threatened or endangered species.

“By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law,” Salazar said. “Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments.”

["Salazar and Locke Restore Scientific Consultations under the Endangered Species Act to Protect Species and their Habitats", NOAA Press Release, 28 April 2009.]


Our Spotless Sun

Posted by jns on April 8, 2009

Last week (on 4 April 2009, to be precise), this item came from SpaceWeather.com:

SPOTLESS SUNS: Yesterday, NASA announced that the sun has plunged into the deepest solar minimum in nearly a century. Sunspots have all but vanished and consequently the sun has become very quiet. In 2008, the sun had no spots 73% of the time, a 95-year low. In 2009, sunspots are even more scarce, with the “spotless rate” jumping to 87%. We are currently experiencing a stretch of 25 continuous days uninterrupted by sunspots–and there’s no end in sight.

This is a big event, but it is not unprecedented. Similarly deep solar minima were common in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and each time the sun recovered with a fairly robust solar maximum. That’s probably what will happen in the present case, although no one can say for sure. This is the first deep solar minimum of the Space Age, and the first one we have been able to observe using modern technology. Is it like others of the past? Or does this solar minimum have its own unique characteristics that we will discover for the first time as the cycle unfolds? These questions are at the cutting edge of solar physics.

There was a notable period of near sun-spotless activity between 1645 and 1715 known as the Maunder Minimum. There is a description in my posting “On Reading The Little Ice Age“.

The Maunder Minimum more or less coincided with one long cooling period in Europe, making it a darling of climate-change deniers who naively want to blame every climate shift on changes in solar activity.

What dire warnings will accompany the realization of the current solar minimum? Will the threatened climate disasters rival those due to god’s wrath over gay marriage? Only time will tell.


Meteoroids, not Space Debris

Posted by jns on February 16, 2009

SpaceWeather.com (operated by NOAA) reports that people all over the US are seeing meteors and are concerned that it’s space debris from that dramatic orbital collision between Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251. Apparently there was also a large meteor seen over Italy that led to similar thoughts.

I’ve also seen reports that the FAA has warned pilots to be on the lookout for space debris, although it’s not clear to me what they’re supposed to do if they see some streaking by except get hysterical.

It’s easy to understand why people will have this reaction, so it’s also useful to note that meteoroids and space debris enter the atmosphere in different–and distinguishable–ways.

Anyway, here is what Spaceweather (for 16 February 2009) had to say about those fireballs:

WEEKEND FIREBALLS: A daylight fireball over Texas on Sunday, Feb. 15th, triggered widespread reports that debris from a recent satellite collision was falling to Earth. Those reports were premature. Researchers have studied video of the event and concluded that the object was more likely a natural meteoroid about one meter wide traveling more than 20 km/s–much faster than orbital debris. Meteoroids hit Earth every day, and the Texas fireball was apparently one of them.

There’s more: On Friday, Feb. 13th, people in central Kentucky heard loud booms, felt their houses shake, and saw a fireball streaking through the sky. This occurred scant hours after another fireball at least 10 times brighter than a full Moon lit up the sky over Italy. Although it is tempting to attribute these events to debris from the Feb. 10th collision of the Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251 satellites, the Kentucky and Italy fireballs also seem to be meteoroids, not manmade objects. Italian scientists are studying the ground track of their fireball, which was recorded by multiple cameras, and they will soon begin to hunt for meteorites.

Videos, eye-witness reports and more information about these events may be found at http://spaceweather.com.


McCain’s Dangerous Science Illiteracy

Posted by jns on October 10, 2008

At the most recent presidential so-called “debate” (that would be debate #2, the “town hall meeting” format), John McCain, trying to score cheap points against rival Barack Obama, referred to earmark money Obama voted for that included “$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois”.

Of course, as many of us knew at the time, and as many, many more now know, that “overhead projector” was actually a sophisticated piece of optical equipment, a Zeiss Mark VI star projector, the programmable star projector that recreates a view of the heavens on the ceiling of planetariums. These instruments are slightly different from an “overhead projector”.

The Adler Planetarium even felt the need to defend its honor with a press release commenting on the issues. From that press release:

To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support – which was not funded – to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere. The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector – not an overhead projector – is the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential planetarium experience. The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It is only the second planetarium projector in the Adler’s 78 years of operation.

Science literacy is an urgent issue in the United States. To remain competitive and ensure national security, it is vital that we educate and inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue careers in science, echnology, engineering and math.

My bold, of course, to highlight why you should support Ars Hermeneutica’s mission.

McCain’s science illiteracy, as illustrated by this remarkably foolish gambit, is dangerous enough. (Either he didn’t know, or he did know and willfully used this tasty sound-bite about the “overhead projector” to prey on the electorate’s illiteracy.) However, I’m sure that he didn’t come up with this earmark tidbit–someone on his staff did. Someone on McCain’s staff should have been able to say “Wait a minute, John. That’s not an overhead projector–that’s one of those really expensive, complicated planetarium thingies!”

We can’t afford scientifically illiterate leaders, nor can we afford scientific illiteracy among their staff.

As we are inclined to say at Ars: “C’mon, it’s not as if it’s rocket science we’re talking about!”


Lightning Safety Awareness Week 2008

Posted by jns on June 24, 2008

Yesterday I had a press release from NOAA letting me know that this week, 22-28 June, is “Lightning Safety Awareness Week”. Apparently it is the seventh such declared week. The motto of LSAW comes from the mouth of Leon the Lion: “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!”

The National Weather Service, operated by NOAA, maintains a Lightning Safety Website that is filled with useful information and other interesting lightning-awareness stuff. For instance, there is a nice gallery of photographs of lightning, whence came the dramatic photograph at right, taken by Harald Edens near Socorro, NM, 2003 (used by permission).

On the home page, towards the bottom, there is a near real-time map showing lightning strikes in the continental US (and bits north and south) over a two-hour time period (delayed, they say, about 30 minutes after the data were collected).

We learn that each year in the US an average of 62 people are killed by lightning. Of those,

  • 98% were outside
  • 89% were male
  • 30% were males between the ages of 20-25
  • 25% were standing under a tree
  • 25% occurred on or near the water

We are told that lightning can strike from storms as far away as ten miles, which is why the NWS advises “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!” There really are no safe places to be outdoors. Either go inside a “safe building” or get inside a completely enclosed car (with metal roof). A “safe building” has walls with electrical wiring and plumbing, the latter being conductors that can get charge from a lightning strike into the ground instead of into people. Open shelters in parks, for example, are not “safe buildings”. Naturally, there’s more complete information around the NWS website.

Needless to say, perhaps, but my attention was drawn by two pages: “Lightning Science” and “Statistics and More“. Woo hoo!

From “Lightning Science”, lots of fun lightning facts:

  • At any given moment, there are 1,800 thunderstorms in progress somewhere on the earth.
  • There are lightning detection systems in the United States and they monitor an average of 25 million flashes of lightning from the cloud to ground every year!
  • Ice crystals in a cloud seem necessary lightning, which may result from charge separation that takes place in collisions of ice crystals.
  • Lightning is a rather complicated process for discharging negative charge in the cloud.

“Statistics and More” has several interesting sounding things like interesting lightning events in history, details on lightning deaths, policy statements, factsheets, and guidelines. Links can be so much fun sometimes.

My own awareness was increased this week by the rather dramatic thunderstorms we had last Sunday night, and again on Monday night, when Isaac and I were out and we both saw a brilliant stroke of lightning.


Park’s Leap-Day Look at Science & Non-Science

Posted by jns on February 29, 2008

Bob Park seems reinvigorated by all the science-silliness and some non-silliness going on that he reports in the latest (29 February) edition of “What’s New“. (Subscription information here.) Between feeling lazy and amused, I decided to include it all!

Technology makes us arrogant. A 28-mile pilot project for a high-tech “virtual fence” south of Tucson, which cost $100M, is now acknowledged to be a failure. The history of the world is a story of fences that failed: the Great Wall of China, the Red Sea, the Berlin Wall, Robert McNamara’s electronic wall dividing Vietnam, followed by the horror of Agent Orange. Securing the 2,000 mile border was expected to cost $7.6B; the estimate will now go up. But desperate people will find a way in spite of obstacles. By contrast, the border with Canada remains unsecured. Why would Canadians want to come here? About 200,000 illegal immigrants enter from Mexico each year. For $7.6B we could pay them $38,000 each to stay in Mexico. We would all be better off.

Last week WN reported the happy news that the Board of Education had approved science standards that call for teaching “the scientific theory of evolution.” As Harold Kroto, 1996 Nobel Prize and professor of chemistry at Florida State, put it, “The phrase ‘scientific theory’ gives us the leverage to differentiate between theories that are supported by evidence and those that aren’t.” It also pleased a conservative legislator who was happy it wasn’t called a “scientific fact.” Scientists should make it a point to distinguish between “scientific theory” and biblical revelation, which is “not even a theory.” It never ends; legislation is now being considered that would allow criticisms of evolution to be taught.

A strong editorial in today’s issue of Nature warns that the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), which moved from San Diego to Dallas last year, has applied to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the right to grant online master’s degrees in science education. An advisory board has recommended acceptance. Founded by Henry Morris in 1972, the ICR regards the Bible as an inerrant source of scientific and historical fact. The Board had been expected to vote on the application in January, but requested additional information. The vote is now expected at the boards 24 April meeting. Steven Weinberg, Physics Nobel 1979, who five years ago defended the rights of Texas school children to learn the natural laws that govern our existence http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN03/wn091903.html , has urged the board to deny accreditation to the Creation Research Institute. Every Texas scientist should do the same.

Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older, the Pew survey finds a changing landscape. More than a quarter of Americans have left the faith they were born in. Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result. Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses. Is there any indication that Americans are becoming more rational? Perhaps. About a fourth of those who are unaffiliated describe themselves as atheist or agnostic.


Reason vs. Faith, Again

Posted by jns on June 3, 2007

This week Bob Park (What’s New for 1 June 2007) revisits presidential candidate Sam Brownback’s positive response when asked during a debate whether he was one who did not “believe” in evolution:

A month ago at the Republican Presidential debate, there was a show of hands of those who don’t believe in evolution. One who raised his hand, Sam Brownback, was moved to explain why in yesterday’s New York Times: “I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between faith and reason.” Which faith does he have in mind? Different faiths are often at war with each other, but no wars are fought over science. Science relies on Nature as the sole arbiter. There was much more, all in the language of the intelligent design movement, including the substitution of “materialism” for “naturalism.”

The op-ed in question is “What I Think About Evolution” (Sam Brownback, New York Times, 31 May 2007). In it he, apparently, tries to soften his position and find a way to say that he doesn’t not believe in evolution, mostly by trying to deny most of what evolution is and is all about, and then claiming that he doesn’t not believe in that. It’s not a successful tactic.

In matters of conflict between science and theology, there is a famous aphorism of the late John-Paul II: “Truth cannot contradict truth”, which is to say that if there is an apparent conflict between theological truth and scientific truth, it must be apparent only and due to incomplete understanding, because “truth cannot contradict truth”. Not so long ago I wrote an essay on the matter (“Evolution and the Vatican“), in which I ended up tracing the “truth cannot contradict truth” idea back to Pope Leo XIII, and then following forward papal writings and attitudes about evolution. In the context of mature Catholic theology it makes clear sense. Once again, it reminds me of my feeling that a mature theology like that of the Catholic church makes what passes for fundamentalist theology seem juvenile and exceedingly simple-minded by comparison.

Unfortunately, Mr. Brownback misunderstands and perverts the deep significance of “truth cannot contradict truth” — quite knowingly, I suspect — by offering in his op-ed “clarification” this updated fundamentalist version:

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two.

In other words: “faith cannot contradict reason”. Or, I suspect, he’d prefer “reason cannot contradict faith”, because he goes on to say that “Faith seeks to purify reason…”, which does not indicate a comparison of equals. He seems to assert that reason and faith are equally reliable except when there’s a contradiction, then faith wins — of course.

“Faith” is not interchangeable with a concept like “theological truth”. Faith, claimed as a revelation by the faithful, has virtually no connection to theological debate — debate is not necessary — and no connection to the use of reason which, in the context of a mature theology, is a God-given faculty provided to assist in the discovery of “truth”. “Faith” is a personal matter, but hardly the foundation of doctrine or theology.

Is this a naive misinterpretation of the John-Paul II aphorism, or a willful bending to suit Brownback’s own purposes? Either one is deplorable and neither does much to bolster Brownback’s claim that he doesn’t reject evolution, well, not reject entirely. In my opinion Brownback has only dug his hole deeper, but I’m sure his supporters will have faith that it brings him closer to heaven.