Books 19 to 21, and Roundup
More books, probably the last of the year.
Interesting juxtaposition in the US Presidential Election of Sarah Palin’s derogatory statements about science vs. Obama getting the endorsement of high profile scientists.
Palin, in that ‘loveable’ folksy way of hers (see also: George W Bush), decided to ridicule ‘wasteful’ scientific research on things like fruit flies: “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects – they really don’t make a whole lot of sense – and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” Since my own wife’s degree project focused on drosophila melanogaster, I’m well-versed in how incredibly useful these little insects are to science, but here’s a fairly scathing rebuttal to Palin.
Meanwhile 76 Nobel prize winners have written a letter endorsing Obama as “a visionary leader” and condemning Bush’s policies.
Also, as if Obama could become any more like Jed Bartlet, here’s a really fascinating speech of his about the role of religion in modern America. I hadn’t previously been aware of this speech but it looks like it was made back in 2006. I can’t help but be reminded of President Bartlet’s rant from The West Wing episode The Midterms (itself gacked from the interwebs) about selective adherence to the Bible to support bigotry. Obama’s speech (in selectively edited form) been seized on to argue that Obama ‘hates’ God, but it’s actually a very even-handed and astonishingly brave thing for a US politician to do. Brave even though he’s not claiming to be an atheist, merely arguing very cogently for separation of Church and State; a fairy uncontroversial view, you’d think1.
Speaking of YouTube, this video of Palin set to piano improv is deeply unfair, but very funny.
1 Bartlet is of course portrayed as a devout Catholic and his rant is not seen as coming into conflict with his beliefs, and there’s no reason Obama could not be a Christian and still make this speech.
Storm in a teacup
This atheist bus advert is funny, sensible and positive. Really the mildest, nicest of messages. Amusing, then, to see how divisive it’s proving on the very Guardian comments section that inspired it.
Books 10 to 14
My book-reading pace has picked up again since last time.
I’m greatly enjoying Prof Richard Dawkins’s current C4 series The Genius of Darwin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. All pretty basic and obvious stuff about evolution perhaps, but I’ve been hoping for some time now (in this world of lowest common denominator science programming) that someone would come along and just Explain This Stuff to a wide audience. Too often TV gravitates towards only the most controversial or biographical aspects of science, or assumes that everyone knows the basics when it’s sadly apparent that everyone doesn’t. It’s nice to see some basic facts set out clearly.
A lot of people seem to find Dawkins abrasive, but he’s generally at his most self-effacing in the series to date, perhaps because this time around its premise rarely seeks to pitch him into direct confrontation with those who oppose his views (unlike previous series The Enemies of Reason and The Root of All Evil?). I don’t find Dawkins particularly arrogant myself, but that’s probably because I agree with him. He makes few concessions, but although I personally might not call a book on religion “The God Delusion” a) my book wouldn’t sell many copies and b) I find it hard to argue with this title as a basic position.
So far the first episode has provided a whistle-stop tour of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, while the second has covered human evolution, and specifically the evolutionary roots of altruism, drawing on Dawkin’s own work in The Selfish Gene. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that humans are ‘designed’ for small family groupings and that much of our behaviour can, for good or ill, be explained by the rules for living in groups writ large. What’s pleasing is how optimistic a view of human nature Dawkins manages to convey even while explaining biological origins of human behaviour that many might find unpalatable. He’s obviously a liberal idealist who finds himself disgusted by the various political and capitalistic practices to which the word “Darwinism” has been metaphorically attached.
Next week it’s back to the shameless creationist-baiting with a (to my mind much-needed) attempt to examine and rebut the attempts of intelligent design to cast doubt on evolution.
My only source of puzzlement about the series is that the C4 website1 describes it as “polemical”, whereas it’s about as polemical as Earth: The Power of the Planet. It’s not an opinion piece, it’s the kind of straightforward explanation of accepted scientific knowledge that used to be commonplace under the banner of Equinox or Horizon . After all creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.
1 The C4 website has whacky floating banners that completely screw up the page in Firefox, but seem fine in Internet Explorer. Or rather, the IE tab plugin for Firefox which is about as close to Internet Explorer as I care to get these days.
Protected: And the results are…
Science: practical and theoretical.
Last night we laid on a rug outside and watched meteors. The rate was relatively low–at most one every five minutes with some longer lulls–but it was still great. Even the typically light-polluted city skies didn’t spoil the experience; indeed we probably saw as many stars last night as we’re ever likely to from this location, and the view was stunningly beautiful. The weather was absolutely clear for once. A really lovely prelude to my birthday.
Tonight we watched Richard Dawkins’s The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4. Despite agreeing with him in every way that counts I sometimes think that Dawkins is his own worst enemy, since he can come across as a strident, joyless naysayer. His recent polemic on religion fell a little foul of this. Here, although still preaching to the converted, he struck a good balance between singing the praises of reason (and, importantly, defining and demonstrating the beauty and relevance of science in everyday life) and analysing the failings of superstition and pseudoscience. Janet and I stopped the playback several times to debate the issues, but pleasingly there were very few things we raised that Dawkins didn’t himself address at some point in the episode. My only complaint is more of a wish: Derren Brown’s past contributions to debunking psychics and astrology have been so compelling that it would have been nice to see more of him than just a brief interview segment. My TV guide presented this documentary as something of an equal pairing between the two, and it intrigues me to think how much mileage could be gained from seeing Brown demonstrate before our eyes the ease with which apparently impossible phenomena can be faked. Even as it stands though I’m very interested to see part two next week.
Got up early this morning. We sat and drank coffee and watched the end of the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story “Carnival of Monsters” on UK Gold+1. Very creaky production values but quite entertaining, and a very civilised way to start the day.
Then we flicked over to the Heaven and Earth Show on BBC1, which was staging a small ‘debate’ between a Creationist, a Christian, and Geneticist Steve Jones. *bangs head on desk* It may take me several hours to stop ranting.
It was your typical example of the Creationist planting a few choice seeds of doubt over evolution which, while absolutely unscientific, are impossible to refute in an interview sound-bite. And since the Creationist only has to create specious doubt while the scientist has to summarise and prove the entire theory of evolution in one sentence, it’s really a no-win situation. Thankfully the CofE representative agreed that Creationism doesn’t belong in the science classroom, and Steve Jones chose to step back and argue that belief in divinity and the soul are not inherently incompatible with evolution.
Nonetheless, the Creationist was allowed to get away with all the usual tricks: saying that science is just another “competing” theory equal to any other, that “science” is interpreted through the context of our culture and so is not objective fact, that evolution is science’s version of a “Just So” story (oh the irony!), and this recent favourite – which I still don’t understand – that the mechanism for evolution by genetic mutation is apparently unupported by any evidence (!) and that evolution requires the spontaneous creation of genetic complexity out of nowhere. Apparently. Indeed, although the creationist admitted to not knowing much about genetics, well-informed people had told him that antibiotic-resistant viruses actually have less genetic complexity and therefore don’t prove evolution! I’m no expert myself, but I’m staggered that anyone can fundamentally (or wilfully) not understand the process of natural selection and mutation to this extent. Am I missing something that makes this whole ‘genetic complexity’ argument even remotely logical?
What really annoys me is that Creationists are always pitched against geneticists, yet Creationism by definition refutes not just evolution but also most other branches of science. After all, to say that the Earth and human life are only thousands of years old is contradicted by the evidence of plate tectonics, geology and erosion, radioactive decay and carbon dating, the stratification of fossils and other biological material in a geological context, cosmology and microwave background radiation from the big bang etc. etc. You can’t just cherry-pick evolution as being false without invalidating more or less every other branch of science.
Sigh. Why do I even get sucked in by these things?
Hey, I’m part of a distrusted minority. Finally! It may even give other minority groups something to be pleased about, relatively speaking, since: ‘From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.”‘
Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that strongly religious people distrust atheists. At some fundamental level you’d almost expect it, though it needn’t necessarily be the case. To be honest I’m perfectly happy with the notion that people with equally strong – if opposing – religious beliefs have more in common with each other than with atheists. It’s all about the way you view the world and your place within it, and religions do indeed have a great deal in common on that level.
I do wonder, though, whether this result isn’t influenced by other factors. Atheism is also one of those forgotten minority groups (and how sad that it’s a minority!) in that there’s no sense that denigrating atheists is discriminatory in any way; no sense of guilt at having transgressed a cultural boundary. People will tend to be honest about their feelings towards atheists where perhaps they would not towards Muslims.
But still – to distrust atheists on principle – as if they were a homogenous group defined solely by their scepticism about the Almighty – indicates some fundamental assumptions which go hand in hand with distrust of science. It’s that feeling that scepticism is the same as believing in nothing or having no moral values. The feeling that to demand scientific evidence for belief is to be contrary and closed-minded. That’s more worrying to me.
I’m also struck by those minority groups mentioned in the quote; particularly their incredible diversity. They are all regarded as “other” by some kind of majority definition, but they share almost nothing else in common. That implictly says a lot about the very limited definition of social normality used by the people participating in the poll (or possibly by those conducting it, depending on how the quotations were phrased.) It’s sad that there’s any question of whether minority groups share a vision of society in common with other people: after all, any group is composed of individuals with their own beliefs, people who are not solely or even mainly defined by some arbitrary notion of “minority”. And if there is any sense that those groups don’t agree with the mainstream vision of society, it’s almost certainly because that society treats them with suspicion and intolerance and seeks to disenfranchise them. So standing up for your rights leads you to be seen as a threatening outsider: talk about a vicious circle.
All of which is just the tip of the iceberg of a very complex issue, but there’s nothing like a ridiculous poll to get your brain working.