Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

March 25, 2009

Questioning Evolution

Filed under: Education, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:55 am

One of the themes of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” was that there was a dogmatic rejection of Intelligent Design in academia.  There is, in fact, no dogmatic rejection of Intelligent Design on the part of academia.  An acceptance of Intelligent Design as an intelligible explanation for aspects of nature would signal that we had entered into a new dark age.  The most succinct reason Intelligent Design isn’t a good scientific theory is because it doesn’t explain anything.  It is consistent with any and all facts we could discover about the universe including incorrect ones.  We find a natural explanation for the bacterial flagellum, the designer moves on to explain some new mystery.  Intelligent Design is no more than dressed up ignorance and no better than saying “I don’t see how this could have come about naturally, so let’s say Fred did it.”  

Sure, animals look like they have been designed, in the same way the Sun looks like it goes around the Earth.  Darwin explained how we got it backwards.  Animals adapt to their environment through a combination of mutation, inherited traits, differential survival and reproduction.  Darwin presented a substantial amount of evidence to support this view.  Since his time, every piece of credible evidence we have found has supported the general framework he proposed making it one of the best supported scientific theories in history. 

When people say they don’t feel secure about questioning evolution in academia, I say good.  It means reason is still prevailing.  If you choose to question evolution, you better have something more than your ignorance, because if that is all you bring to the table, you have just proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, your incompetence.

Just like we wouldn’t want a detective who would throw up his hands at every mystery and declare a ghost must have done it, we don’t want to institutionalize ignorance with Intelligent Design.  Making the best decisions possible is contingent on having an accurate view of reality.  Science has proven itself to be the unmatched leader in enhancing our understanding of nature.  It is unfortunate consequence of our limited capacities that scientific knowledge has become so vast that it requires specialization to continue to make rapid progress.  Still, it is criminal to deny children a broad, basic and accurate understanding of what scientists have discovered even if we can‘t present every last detail.  

So, no, it isn’t dogmatic.  It is having standards.  Evolution meets a incredibly high standard for evidentiary support.  The reason why Intelligent Design can’t compete with evolution isn’t because of bias or discrimination, it is because it is remarkably inferior and if you can’t understand that then you have no business in the education system.

March 12, 2009

Liberty University Students Test Their Indoctrination Against Reality

Filed under: Education, politics, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:54 am

The Washington Post has an article on students from Liberty University taking a trip to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, presumably as a test of their religious indoctrination. Yes, they could claim that it is, I, who is indoctrinated with “Darwinism.” But, see, there is this little thing that I like to call reality. Evolution is true for the same reason the theory of gravity is true, they were arrived at by the same method. Believing in creationism requires a complete distortion of cosmology, astronomy, biology, geology, physics, along with countless other scientific fields. Steve Hendrix, the author of the piece, calls this “challenging the conventional wisdom.” I call it being in denial.

It seems to pass Hendrix without additional mention that at one moment DeWitt bemoans that some of material in the museum was out-of-date, pointing to a 1980’s-era introductory video, while one of his students is taken aback at Grandma Morgie.

Now, I’ve been to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum recently. The morganucodon is at the end of the exhibit on the dinosaurs. The overall point, which seems to have been entirely missed by this student, is that the dinosaurs go extinct, and when they do, mammals, like us, take their place.

This is not a trivial point. Evolution says that you share a common ancestor with all other forms of life on this planet. Yes, there is a common ancestor between us and chimpanzees, which usually draws the most attention. But, there is also a common ancestors between us and dogs, dinosaurs, fish etc. Richard Dawkins wrote a book examining our connections with this “Tree of Life” in The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Neil Shubin wrote more specifically about our fish ancestors in Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

Somehow, I don’t feel the education of these students is lacking because they don’t have access to the latest information. Instead, it seems that they have no mastery over the basics.

I could be extrapolating too much, but the course is titled “Advanced Creation Studies” so it is more likely that this is just the tip of iceberg on nonsense that would spew forth from the mouths of these students upon a little more prodding. In the end, it is just a travesty that Liberty University is an accredited institution.

August 25, 2008

From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

Filed under: Education, politics, religion, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:06 am

The New York Times has a story of a biology teacher in Florida trying to teach evolution.  Obviously it is an uphill battle.  PZ Myers asks whether or not we will ever stop running away from the source of the problem?  The source of problem, in Myers’ opinion, is religion.  I can’t help but draw parallels to Eugene V. Debs who wondered if we ever going to tackle the source of social inequity, which was in Debs’ opinion, capitalism.

Both capitalism and religion are entrenched power structures, in many cases reinforcing.  This is evidenced by the United States adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance to stave off communism.

The goal of science education has to be in honing a certain sensibility.  A sensibility whereby people who examine the same set of evidence draw roughly similar conclusions.  If we draw vastly different conclusions, then it should be on a general acknowledgment among the informed that there is a lack of evidence one way or another.

The fact that religion falls on geo-political fault lines, as Richard Dawkins demonstrates, tells us something.  Namely, religious belief is antithetical to scientific sensibility previously described.  As long as superstition exists, including its institutional manifestation in the form of religion, there will continue to be a culture war.

I will say again, superstition is a terminal disease.  Humans are too clever.  We’ve built weapons that are too dangerous.  We made it these last 50 years by the skin of our teeth.  In case one has been paying attention, the situation is significantly worse today.  Nuclear proliferation has increased, meaning the possibility of a loose nuclear weapon is more probable.  September 11th demonstrated the resolve of religious extremists to kill scores of innocent civilians.  Population has increased.  We are having a measurable effect on the climate of the planet via our use of fossil fuels.  There are vast oceanic dead zones due to pesticides.  We are poisoning the environment, and there is an increasing probability that we will use the most lethal environmental poison we have developed so far, nuclear weapons.

We can no longer afford to entertain ignorant delusions.  It will be the undoing of civilization as we know it.    We must challenge idiocy.  We must also push aside the concern trolling reformers.  One is either for the continued survival of the human species or against it.  Either god is going to save us, or there is no help in sight.  With our collective survival at stake, do you want someone who believes in an invisible man in the sky or someone who will carefully examine the evidence and reach a reasonable conclusion?  Not teaching evolution means we will have more of the former than the later.

I say we must deal with the inconvenient truths of existence instead of shrouding them in fanciful myths.  Having a crippled intellect is no longer a matter of personal vice, but rather a moral failing.  The future depends on the choices we make today.  Failing to educate oneself or hampering the education of others is a dereliction of duty to the species.

April 17, 2008

Ben Stein Gets What He Asks For

Filed under: film, politics, religion, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:31 am

With the upcoming release of Expelled, someone found some time to take Ben Stein up on his challenge and blow him out of the water with his claims about evolution.

Stein wraps his criticism as an exercise in honest skepticism against a big science establishment. Evolution is not a scientific theory about how life arose, it explains the complexity and diversity of life. We could fill volumes about what Charles Darwin didn’t know about biology, along with Ben Stein and myself. Why Darwin is revered is that the theory he first proposed, which has been subjected to intense scrutiny and further testing, has remained essentially intact. At this point, the theory really isn’t Darwin’s; he’s dead afterall. It now belongs to mankind and it is a key to understanding modern biology. Evolution is the theory that allows us to make sense biology much like how atomic theory allows us to make sense of chemistry.

Intelligent Design doesn’t make it in biology because the establishment fears it. It is because it isn’t science. Science is not the conglomeration of all human thought and belief. It is a body of knowledge built up by physical evidence, testing, open inquiry and logical integration with the existing body of knowledge based on this method. There is a barrier to entry in science: one needs evidence. Scientists have listened to what Intelligent Design has had to say, have investigated it, and have found it lacking. The most essential complaint with Intelligent Design seems to make no other prediction other than we will find more things that we will not initially understand, however it provides no insight into understanding them. What Stein is asking for is not to allow Intelligent Design to be considered on its merits. He is engaging in special pleading.

The question is not what “big science” fears. It is what Ben Stein fears. Maybe not Ben Stein specifically, but a segment of the world that is receptive to Ben Stein’s message. The important thing is not that what Stein says in Expelled is true, but rather that what Ben Stein says is plausible.

It is hard to believe in the Bible. It has a talking snake, a man made out of mud, a talking burning bush, global floods, virgin births, resurrections, transmutations, along with countless other stories that are way outside ordinary human experience. A natural thing to do is start to doubt them. The church recognizes this and has all sorts safeguards to guard against doubt. In Christianity, chastising Thomas the Doubter is common. However, the fact remains that believers need constant reassurance. This reassurance tends to be social. They need other people to believe. They need to know that there is some problem with the thinking of people who see a godless world. However, the key underpinning of religion is probably not its message about life, but rather people’s fear of death.

The role of the fear of death in religion can be understood indirectly by Pascal’s wager. What if god doesn’t exist, what happens after you die? No one can say for certain, but most likely it be like the time immemorial before one was born. My personal experience of that time was oblivion. What if god does exist and you don’t believe? Again this depends on which ancient myth one believes, but for the sake of argument let’s say it just so happened to be Jehova? Well, eternal damnation. If it happens to be Cthulhu, I think one is screwed either way. Pascal argued that one should believe any afterlife myth, because in the slim hope the belief turned out to be right, the benefits would vastly outweigh the consequences of being wrong.

The flaw in Pascal’s expected values are that the value of something infinitely large multiplied by a value infinitely small is undefined. And yes, Jehovah’s probability of being real is infinitely small in an honest evaluation. However, what one gives up by believing in a god like Jehovah is tangible. It is not seeing the world for what it really is: an utterly amazing place. Not because god made it that way, but because we made it that way. Not just human beings, but all our extraordinarily distant relatives who have existed on this planet for 3.5 billion years. Now we, human beings, are the only beings currently known that are smart enough to start to comprehend and become aware of the vast complexity of the universe. It is a unique gift, a fortunate circumstance of timing to be brought into the world in this era. Yet, here we are, poisoning and trashing the only home we’ve ever known and endangering our own survival.

Science is a threat to religion because it is the antithesis to religion. At the outset, it doesn’t incorporate religious belief into its body of knowledge. To the believer, this is disconcerting. More alarming, it proceeds to function perfectly fine without incorporating religious notions, and finally starts contradicting some tenets of faith, exposing them for what they are: ridiculous.

When Nietzsche declared god is dead, this is what he meant. Educated men could no longer logically accept religious tenets and known facts of the natural world. Expelled is an expression of denialism to this truth. At the end of the day, the only humane treatment for religion will be ridicule. In the meantime, the death of Hypatia warns us to be wary. However, if we truly believe science is a worthwhile pursuit, then we must demonstrate that commitment by defending it. It may be our best hope for the survival of the species.

February 9, 2008

On the Importance of an Evolutionary World-View

Filed under: culture, politics, religion, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 12:25 pm

The theory of evolution is one of the most profound discoveries in human history.  It tells us that the human race is but one species that evolved on this planet.  Life on this planet developed billions of years before the first human ever developed.  While we are the current masters of the planet, we are intimately interconnected and part of the ecosystem.

This world-view has particular implication for modern industrial society, in particular our dependence on fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels are vast pockets of stored solar energy in the form of chemical bonds from the remains of plants and animals that existed millions of years ago.

Fossil fuels were not placed in the ground by a benevolent creator for our eventual benefit.  It is merely a historical artifact which happens to have benefits and some potential issues.  In the long-term, the most pressing issue is whether burning this vast reservoir of energy too quickly will poison the ecosystems the human species depends on for our survival.  There is evidence this is precisely what we are doing.

This is one of the reasons why evolution is important to internalize.  It shows us that we are the masters of our own destiny.  There is no benevolent hand guiding our development.  Our actions can have disastrous consequences not only for ourselves but on the entire planet.  No one will come down from the sky and save us from our folly.

Our ability to shake off the myth of a paternalistic and benevolent creator is not just an issue of scientific rectitude, but may very well essential to our collective survival.

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