— Science —

January 9, 2013

The Great Thinning?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Anyone want to attempt some big-picture speculation about what the numbers presented by Jeff Wise in Slate Magazine imply for a society that has baked the assumption of a growing population into its institutions and basic perceptions of the future...

Instead of skyrocketing toward uncountable Malthusian multitudes, researchers at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis foresee the global population maxing out at 9 billion some time around 2070. On the bright side, the long-dreaded resource shortage may turn out not to be a problem at all. On the not-so-bright side, the demographic shift toward more retirees and fewer workers could throw the rest of the world into the kind of interminable economic stagnation that Japan is experiencing right now.

And in the long term—on the order of centuries—we could be looking at the literal extinction of humanity.

That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.)

July 11, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 3: Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, "What Can Genomic Science Tell Us About Adam & Eve?"

Justin Katz

The Portsmouth Institute conference on "Modern Science, Ancient Faith" closed in spectacular fashion with Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, who teaches both biology and theology at Providence College. With the ease and humor of somebody used to speaking before college students, Austriaco explained what genomic science tells us about our ancestors and speculated about the timing and historical environment of the common ancestors whom the Bible calls Adam and Eve.

In brief, Austriaco said that, mathematically, one would have to have had between 1,000 and 2,000 mating pairs 50,000 to 70,000 years ago in order for everybody alive today to have common ancestors and yet to be as diverse as we are. That is, Adam and Eve were not the only human beings (or matable humanoids) alive at the time, but they did something to displease God (I would say something having to do with the choice of self-awareness and related knowledge) that made them distinct, and their ancestral lines blended with others as time went on.

(That would certainly ease quite a bit of the discomfort with which the modern is likely to read the first few generations described in the Bible.)

He elaborated that anatomically modern human beings date back about 100,000-150,000 years, but behaviorally modern humans go back only 50,000.

During the question and answer portion (which ran beyond what the schedule had initially allowed), Austriaco spoke about original sin and its application to all of nature, not just the children of Adam and Eve. He referred back to Aquinas, suggesting that before the Fall, "eagles were eagles and lions were lions," but they killed in a somehow "ordered way," meaning with the proper alignment of things... material to spirit, man to God.

It doesn't take much effort to connect this thread with the idea articulated by William Dembski about two forms of information: one internal to nature and one entailing some form of creativity and intentionality. The information inside an acorn that leads it to "build" a tree can be seen as ordered; access to the disordered information that a material creature such as a human being applies to the creation of which he's a part fits very well with the Old Testament's description of events.

From there, one can see the accomplishment of Christ as being the reintroduction of the proper perspective for use of human beings' capacity for knowledge, with the emphasis on that which is outside of nature, in the same way that God is outside of His creation. The cross is the symbol of this proper alignment of material life and spiritual existence.

But as the various speakers at the conference illustrated by their own talks, one needn't go quite this far in order to see that science and religion can coexist, even as they press against each other along the uneven border between regions of human thought.

July 10, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 2, Session 4: Dr. Michael Ruse, "Making Room for Faith in an Age of Science"

Justin Katz

With a joke about philosophers and theologians (he being the former), Michael Ruse used the dinner speech of day two of the Portsmouth Institute conference on "Modern Science, Ancient Faith" to take up the ostensibly neutral (mutually skeptical) approach to arbitrating between religion and science.

He referred to both approaches to knowledge as "symbolic" — presenting metaphors to explain reality. For its part, science long ago became wedded to the metaphor of the universe as a machine. The human brain, for instance, is "a computer made out of meat." (That made me wonder whether they could be seen as accessing a spiritual Internet.)

Ultimately, he suggested, if your area of interest is investigating the clockworks of the world, then you're "just not talking about" things like ultimate causes, morality, and the point of it all. Of course (I'd interject), a great many people who see science and religion as opposed and incompatible insist that it can and should dabble in such philosophy.

Because they see science as potentially providing "ultimate causes," and they "worship chance" as Kevin O'Brien put it, in the character of Dom. Stanley Jaki, they do claim access to moral discernment. That, for instance, has been the core cause of push-back against evolution in the classroom. As misplaced as they may be, those religious believers aren't imagining that evolution as presented has given the faith of materialism a way around the otherwise iron-fisted separation of church and state.

July 9, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 2, Session 3: Kevin O'Brien as Dom Stanley Jaki

Justin Katz

At each of the Portsmouth Institute's conferences (except the first, as I recall), Kevin O'Brien of Theater of the Word has had some sort of performance. Last year, being on Catholicism and Shakespeare, his troupe performed scenes from Shakespeare with accompanying commentary.

O'Brien's other two performances, however, were self-composed biographical lectures given in the character of some notable religious figure. This year, it was Dom. Stanley Jaki, a priest who wrote voluminously on science.

As a performance art collection of various writings by Dom. Jaki, the talk stood as a collection of insights toward the broad statement of a particular case. Two related quotations illustrate well: "Science is the quantitative study of things in motion," which can lead to the fallacy that "what cannot be measured exactly cannot be exactly."

July 7, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 2, Session 2: Dr. William Dembski, "An Informative-Theoretic Proof of God's Existence"

Justin Katz

From an entertainment standpoint, the most interesting aspect of Bill Dembski's talk at the Portsmouth Institute conference on "Modern Science, Ancient Faith" was the continuation of what is apparently a long-standing head-to-head with the previous speaker, Ken Miller. Dembski is a notable personage on the intelligent design side of the public debate, and at one point issued a throw-down for a sort of public trial pitting Miller's crew against his own.

Most interesting from an intellectual standpoint, though, was Dembski's step away from the heat of a politically charged issue to his substantive argument with respect to evolution. In an echo of Miller's suggestion that organisms collect information from their environment, Dembski pointed out that "natural selection is a non-random search." How, then, did nature find that process?

Think of a time when you've done some tedious project. Eventually you may have come up with a process, or series of steps, that was more efficient than that with which you began. That took observation and analysis.

Dembski divided processes into two types of information. There is the information inside an acorn that tells it how to make a tree, and there is the information that a shipwright brings to bear when following a blueprint. Both forms of information exist, but only one is interior to nature and available for natural processes.

He told the story of an artist hired to make a bust of Beethoven. The client was none too impressed when the artist arrived with a large, untouched stone and explained that every particle of the Beethoven bust was inside the stone. Therefore, he had delivered exactly what he had promised.

I'd go a step farther with the analogy. What's critical about the fable is not that the artist didn't have a point; modern art is full of such gimmicks. The point is that the particular client did not like the statement made and, indeed, considered it to be a lazy scam. It's not just the material information contained in the particles of a statue, and it's not just the intellectual information contained in an artist's sketch (or even his too clever argument about the bust).

Rather, what we seek in art is that which speaks on another plane of existence: communication. The client did not like the message that he felt the artist had communicated.

This clearly, is the reemergence of the running, unspoken theme of the conference. That which makes suffering out of mere pain and beauty out of mere material coincidence is communication and the conscious sense thereof. Slippery and prone to misinterpretation as it may be, it is as real as the subatomic particles in our atoms and indicates an abstract space outside of the material universe.

July 5, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 2, Session 1: Dr. Kenneth Miller, "To Find God in All Things"

Justin Katz

Brown University biology professor Ken Miller opened the second day of conferences at this year's Portsmouth Institute conference, "Modern Science, Ancient Faith." Readers may find his name familiar, inasmuch as he was a central figure when the teaching of evolution was big news a few years back. He also stood out, among the academics for evolution in that he remains a practicing Catholic and does not present evolution as counter-evidential to God.

As a professor and one who has spoken on the topic many times, Miller's presentation was very enjoyable, and he handily won over the audience. Of course, it was clear from the beginning of the conference, that the audience was far from creationist in its general viewpoint. It is descriptive, rather than derogatory, to say that one would expect such a view from educated Catholics.

That said, Miller still had the pique of the heated public debate days, as evident in his insistence that the decisions of a school district in Pennsylvania was nearly an existential battle over "the place of scientific inquiry itself." That may be true, if one believes that scientific inquiry ought to be the pole star of all society, without variation across the vast landscape of the United States, but conservatives (at least) ought to worry about the implications of dictating even that.

Surely, in the mix of considerations that society must integrate for the health and happiness of its members, other principles can be higher than scientific inquiry. That, one can't help but feel, explains some of the uneasiness even among evolutionist believers with the terms of the evolution versus intelligent design debate (and has a familiar feel, the day after Independence Day). Perhaps there are higher ideals that supersede the narrow debate about evolution, just as God supersedes the observable natural process itself.

Most significant, though, was Miller's tacit continuation of the theme that underlay the entire conference, manifesting in two points that he made. Describing the relatively rapid evolution of bacteria in the lab to be able to break down a pesticide, he explained that "living organisms harvest information from the environment." One could pivot on the point (and the experiment) to note that shaping the environment is precisely a tool for designing life, but it's the idea of information that leads toward new discussion, as opposed to returning to the battles of the past.

The second appearance of the theme arose when Miller highlighted fire rainbows as so beautiful as to constitute a religious experience, yet entirely explicable through the material processes. As with John Haught's reference to suffering, though there appear to be two types of information in play: one involving the instructions within nature about how material things must respond to their environment, and one involving a higher perspective of conscious subjectivity.

The former explains ice crystals' treatment of light and a living organisms reaction to painful sensations. The latter is what elevates pain to suffering and refraction to beauty.

July 4, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 1, Session 3: Dr. John Haught, "Evolution and Faith: What Is the Problem?"

Justin Katz

Georgetown University theology professor John Haught firmly established the theme of the Portsmouth Institute conference on "Modern Science, Ancient Faith" with his talk on the reconciliation of religion and science — even if he arguably did so without explicitly stating it.

Dr. Haught did so by taking up several of the philosophical objections to Christian theology, where it touches on the observable world. How, one question asks, could a good God have created a world with so much suffering?

Haught's entire presentation was in some ways an answer, but one of the key concepts that he offered was that life has a "narrative character"; it's a story, which is after all the "medium of meaning." He asked, rhetorically, "Would you try to make the world nice and safe?" Beginning a world with that requirement would sure produce a different outcome, but by many human measures (and probably most divine measures) it would be inferior.

Another rhetorical question that Haught poses inspired his most memorable image: If the point of the universe was intelligent life, why did it take so long? To illustrate argument, he showed a picture of 30 books of 450 pages each. Human life would appear on the very last page of the very last volume.

His answer was that the universe is in the process of becoming "something other than God in creation." We're experiencing that process..

One might also inquire of the rhetorical asker (somewhat whimsically) how long he could play in the sandbox of the universe, with full view of the tiniest particle and the largest galaxy, before interest demanded a new features, like life. But the idea at the next intellectual step after Haught's argument is much more satisfactory: As a Being in some sense beyond creation, God may be considered outside of time, as well as material. That being the case, creation was instantaneous from His perspective; we're just within it as it unfolds.

The idea of God — of spirit — beyond the material universe also provides answer to the argument about suffering, as would come into focus as the conference proceeded the next day.


This paragraph, from a New York Times article about the official "discovery" of the Higgs boson, seems supremely relevant to the above:

Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. And it reaffirms a grand view of a universe ruled by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws, but in which everything interesting in it, such as ourselves, is due to flaws or breaks in that symmetry.

July 3, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 1, Session 2: Abbott James Wiseman, "A New Heaven and a New Earth"

Justin Katz

Among the truly fascinating aspects of the entire 2012 Portsmouth Institute conference, "Modern Science, Ancient Faith," was the pervasive appearance of an underlying theme. That, in itself, is not surprising; the fact that nobody took its appearance as opportunity actually to state it is.

In retrospect, in the second lecture of the series, Brother Wiseman was most explicit on the point. His talk had much to do with the proper relationship of science and religion and the translation of revelation into terms consistent with the material world. Revelation, as he said, does not give exact knowledge of the world, present or future, but rather a sense of how things are and ought to be.

Of particular interest was the time that Wiseman spent on eschatology, or the religious expectation of the end of this world. In this regard, he spoke of past theologians who held that we could not separate the material and the spirit in our hope for "a state beyond decay and suffering." Indeed, and here's the hint of that which grew to be fascinating later, he spoke of the end days as a "conversion of energy into pure information."

It appears that the theologians were conspicuously reluctant to translate that vision into concrete predictions, but when combined with the notion — expressed by Wiseman and repeated throughout the weekend — that one must look beyond science for a full explanation of reality, it begins to transform into a workable model for ultimate questions.

July 2, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 1, Session 1: Dom Paschal Scotti, "Galileo Revisited"

Justin Katz

It was fitting that the the 2012 Portsmouth Institute conference, "Modern Science, Ancient Faith," held at the Portsmouth Abbey school, opened on the topic of Galileo.

Brother Scotti addressed the ways in which other factors brought about the Catholic Church's blunder with respect to Galileo. There were internal politics. Factional rifts between the Jesuits, who were more friendly to Galileo, and the Dominicans. Personality conflicts and ego-driven attacks, including on the part of the "academic superstar" scientist himself.

The bottom line, however, as Scotti told an audience member after the speech, is that the Church has actually done very well with respect to integrating science into its worldview and presentation. But when it got things wrong, with Galileo, it got them spectacularly wrong.

One particularly interesting point arose when an audience member asked whether our intelligence has arguably returned mankind to status as the center of the universe. Scotti replied that, in the old Ptolemaic view, Earth wasn't the pinnacle of the universe, but "the lowest place, the worst place," the place to which frailty sank.

May 14, 2012

Science and Religion Winding Through a Summer's Day

Justin Katz

According to the Chinese calendar, 2012 is another year of the dragon. By the cyclical calendar of the United States, it's another year of the campaign, and early indications are that it will be a fierce one. No doubt, when the post-election chill deadens the flames this winter, we'll all be very relieved to see it over.

Already, we news consumers have been treated to institutionalized schoolyard taunts. Apparently, as a young father, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney built a shielded crate for his dog, to transport the pooch on top of the family car. President Barack Obama, for his part, dined on canine meat as a boy. We can be assured that these automotive and culinary anecdotes are a mere foretaste of the potluck fare to which we'll be treated as the months advance.

Whatever the personal aftertastes with which voters are left, few can doubt that ballots will be cast with larger matters in mind. The economy loiters in the neighborhood between stagnation and depression. As a matter of political philosophy, secular healthcare advocates mix shouts across the intersection of human rights with those espousing freedoms of conscience. Such are the substantive topics of our day.

Still, history may show even these battles to be the seasonal oscillations of a society too comfortable that existential questions have either been answered or are immaterial. Even as we have heated debates about whether elite law-school students ought to have to pay for their own contraception, the expanding capacity of science to do is making ever more immediate the discussion about whether to do.

It will, therefore, be a welcome diversion into weightier matters to attend the Portsmouth Institute's conference addressing "Modern Science/Ancient Faith" in the waning days of June. Every summer for the past three, the institute has hosted speakers and audiences on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey School, but this is the first that centers around a topic rather than a personality.

As its first election-year event, too, the institute experience will contrast all the more with the rancor of daily life. While in the midst of such decisions as drive us haphazardly through each day, the notion that we can choose what air to breathe feels frivolous, and that is what a brief pause for intellectual pursuits is like. Away from the challenges of making a living is the space to consider subtle ideas with the gravity that they deserve.

The topic of the year illustrates the point very well. How we individually balance science and faith (consciously or implicitly) will affect how we choose to live. It is not irrelevant. It should not, moreover, be a mere marker of our philosophical tribe or political party.

Yet, that is what we tend to do. It is the Sciencers versus the Faithers, like warring gangs in dancing knife duels. Pick a side.

The other option is the passive version of the same tendency: dismissing the debate as an attempt to pit apples versus oranges when no overlap should be acknowledged. The error, here, is in failing to see that science and religion really do collide, at least in their practical application in the hands of human beings.

Despite its many innovations, science has not freed humanity from our inclination toward bias, in particular the bias for one's own will imposed upon another. Just as those who've abused people's natural religious impulses have sold their own personal interests as God's will, "the science shows" can be a key phrase in the demagogue's arsenal.

It is to the benefit of such would-be demagogues to place excessive emphasis on the "ancient" in "ancient faith." Thus, they give the impression that religion, particular religious doctrines, emerged once, long ago, in perfectly expressed fashion. In this view, if the Bible, for one, applies only obliquely to a modern situation, it must therefore be a fad of the past.

A faith frozen in its state millennia ago is juxtaposed with a fresh new science, full of modern comprehension of the world around us. It would be more true to suggest that what is ancient, in religion, is the framework around which we've ever since draped human experience, giving form to a reality that we are too limited in our vision to see.

The dragons winding their way through Chinese New Year parades have evolved in the materials used to create them. Their form remains largely the same, however.

Their import, well, that's another matter, as is the appropriate balance of technology and tradition — one that is well worth considering for an enjoyable few days in June, in the terms of science and religion.

January 11, 2012

The Market Can Only Do What It Can Do, and We Can't Know What Nature Will Do

Justin Katz

Fred Schwartz highlights two stories related to Environment Protection Agency (EPA) dictats. First, it turns out that Americans are still disinclined to spend money on electric and hybrid vehicles. Second, the EPA has now put companies in the position of being fined for not including an additive that they simply can't get.

Both articles reflect the EPA’s "make it so" mindset, in which the agency enacts rules in the belief that the mere act of doing so will make the necessary technology become available.

Schwartz notes that the EPA lucked out, with such a declaration, when the catalytic converter appeared in the '70s and was actually able to meet fuel economy standards at a reasonable cost. The problem is that bureaucrats are not particularly well suited to determine what technologies are similarly just around the corner awaiting a little push. Of course, they no doubt think themselves luckier still when they're able to collect money from businesses for not doing what cannot be done.

In other environmental news, the phenomenon of global warming may have the effect of holding off another ice age:

"(Analysis) suggests that the end of the current interglacial (period) would occur within the next 1,500 years, if atmospheric CO2 concentrations do not exceed (around) 240 parts per million by volume (ppmv)," the study said.

However, the current carbon dioxide concentration is of 390 ppmv, and at that level an increase in the volume of ice sheets would not be possible, it added.

Personally, having been scheduled to work outside pretty much all of this winter, I'm inclined to choose the latter between freeze and fry.

November 5, 2011

Oh, Great - Now Just SITTING is Tied to Cancer

Monique Chartier

From the Los Angeles Times.

... researchers estimated that up to 49,000 cases of breast cancer and 43,000 cases of colon cancer each year are tied to lack of physical activity.

“Sitting time is emerging as a strong candidate for being a cancer risk factor in its own right,” Neville Owen, the head of behavioral epidemiology at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Australia, said in a statement. “It seems highly likely that the longer you sit, the higher your risk. ..."

And those of us who might be feeling a little smug at this point because we work out semi-regularly can forget it because we are not exempt.

"... The phenomenon isn’t dependent on body weight or how much exercise people do.” ...

Even someone who starts her day off with a vigorous 30-minute workout still has to worry about how she spends the other 15 1/2 hours of her waking hours, said Alice Bender, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Fortunately, ameliorating this newly discovered factor is relatively easy, if not 100% conducive to business.

What can you do? Just getting up for a minute or two each hour would offer some protection, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Instead of sending an email, walk over to a colleague’s desk and chat in person, the experts suggest. Or head to the water cooler for a drink.

September 14, 2011

HIV Being Used to Cure Cancer

Patrick Laverty

I first heard of this through the comic strip XKCD and thought that it was the author exaggerating a research trial a little. Turns out, he was spot on.

The New York Times wrote about a recent study where doctors are able to used an attenuated HIV-1 to infiltrate and destroy cancer cells. The nutshell version of what HIV does is it attacks the body's immune system, particularly the T-cells, and leaves the body unable to defend itself. HIV doesn't directly kill people, but it does leave a body in such a weakened state so that any little cold or infection is then life-threatening.

In their normal state, T-cells are unable to fight off cancer cells and tumors. However, scientists have figured out a way to reprogram the genes of HIV in a way that helps T-cells destroy cancerous cells. The HIV-infected T-cells are then re-introduced to the patient and the battle is on.

The first trial only included three leukemia patients, all of which had reached the limits of chemotherapy. Today, two of the three are currently in complete remission, the other is in partial remission. Doctors are not completely certain of the reason for the partial, as many variables come into play.

So is there a tradeoff between having terminal cancer and instead choosing to infect oneself with HIV that later becomes AIDS? Researchers say no, because

"the virus used by his team was 'gutted' and was no longer harmful."
There is one minor drawback to the treatment, the T-cells do completely destroy all of the body's B-cells, another major component of the immune system, but a periodic infusion of other infection fighting substances can help that.

This seems like a major breakthrough in the field of cancer research. I'm guessing just about everyone has been either directly or indirectly touched by the effects of cancer, or they know they are genetically predisposed to the disease.

This research is still in its early stages, but hopefully within a few years, the trials can be successfully repeated and this will become another tool in the fight against cancer.

February 3, 2011

The Godlessness of the Gaps

Justin Katz

Philosophy Professor John Haldane adds his own commentary to the list addressing Stephen Hawking's lately released The Grand Design. If the subject catches your interest, you should certainly read the whole essay, but one point attracted my attention in particular:

[The authors] then go on to note, however, that "it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life but also the characteristics of our entire Universe, and that is much more difficult to explain." The forces of nature had to allow the production of carbon and other heavy elements, and allow them to exist stably; they had to facilitate the formation of stars and galaxies but also the periodic explosion of stars to distribute the elements needed for life more widely, permitting the formation of planets suitably composed for the evolution of life; and the strengths of the forces themselves and the masses of the fundamental particles on which they operate had to be of the correct orders of magnitude, and these lie within very small ranges. ...

In short, and sparing the detail, ours is but one of an indefinite number of universes with different laws and forces, each universe being a spontaneous creation out of nothing: "Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe [that is, ours] can and will create itself from nothing."

What's striking is that the philosophy that emerges from Hawking's work is almost a precise mirror image of the accusation of last resort for secularists belittling believers. They say that we are always seeking a "God of the gaps" — a divine force that explains the shrinking list of natural phenomena that mankind has yet to decipher. While protesting that such theology is hardly the most sophisticated available for debate (let alone universal), I'll concede that some folks do take that short cut.

But even so, what Hawking produces is an assumption of ever larger schemes of chaos and chance to explain all of that which appears ordered. That, ultimately, is no less a matter of faith, and it shares with the "gaps" religiosity the attribute of wholly missing the point: That we understand the method of the artist's craft does not disprove the artist, and we shouldn't allow it to suck the wonder right out of the work.

January 3, 2011

In the beginning was the Word

Justin Katz

Scientists are speculating that gravity is actually a force caused as part of the universe's tendency toward entropy. Furthermore, the effect may have something to do with the way in which spacetime erases information on its march in that direction. The broader relevance of information is the interesting part:

Over recent years many results in quantum mechanics have pointed to the increasingly important role that information appears to play in the Universe.

Some physicists are convinced that the properties of information do not come from the behaviour of information carriers such as photons and electrons but the other way round. They think that information itself is the ghostly bedrock on which our universe is built.

Gravity has always been a fly in this ointment. But the growing realisation that information plays a fundamental role here too, could open the way to the kind of unification between the quantum mechanics and relativity that physicists have dreamed of.

Metaphysics would seem to enter the unification, as well, leading through worldviews and religion. Think how easily the statement that "information carriers" come from information about them, rather than generating information, translates into a contradiction of the belief that human consciousness is a coincidental consequence of our biology.

January 1, 2011

The Foundation for Everything You Know

Justin Katz

It doesn't diminish the fields of history and science to express fascination that it's entirely possible for some bones or fragments thereof to reorder the entire history of man:

A Tel Aviv University team excavating a cave in central Israel said teeth found in the cave are about 400,000 years old and resemble those of other remains of modern man, known scientifically as Homo sapiens, found in Israel. The earliest Homo sapiens remains found until now are half as old. ...

The accepted scientific theory is that Homo sapiens originated in Africa and migrated out of the continent. Gopher said if the remains are definitively linked to modern human's ancestors, it could mean that modern man in fact originated in what is now Israel.

The article goes on to note that it could still prove to be the case that the remains are of Neanderthals, not homo sapiens, but the finding still serves as a healthy reminder that relatively little of our knowledge of the past comes from rigorous documentary evidence.

November 21, 2010

How Little We Know About How We Know

Justin Katz

This is fascinating:

They found that the brain's complexity is beyond anything they'd imagined, almost to the point of being beyond belief, says Stephen Smith, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and senior author of the paper describing the study:
One synapse, by itself, is more like a microprocessor--with both memory-storage and information-processing elements--than a mere on/off switch. In fact, one synapse may contain on the order of 1,000 molecular-scale switches. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth.

Our understanding will expand, of course, but at each step, there will be another mystery, another surprise at the intricacy of reality. It's speculative to suggest that, one day, we'll reach a point at which mathematics simply can't describe what's happening and science can't replicate it, but we're already able to see, if we allow ourselves to do so, that science can never adequately describe the totality of reality; such an accomplishment is simply not within the scope of its language. Indeed, much of what's regrettable, even horrific, in recent history has derived from attempts to reduce life to terms that science can accommodate.

Our brains are able to tap into ranges of knowledge that are wholly unscientific, yet no less true or accurate.

November 14, 2010

Toward Order

Justin Katz

Further to this morning's post about cultural expectations for geniuses, I offer the suggestion that true revolutionaries aren't creating innovations, but discerning them in the patterns of the reality into which they've entered. Physicist Stephen Barr notes the corollary in science:

As we turn to the fundamental principles of physics, we discover that order does not really emerge from chaos, as we might naively assume; it always emerges from greater and more impressive order already present at a deeper level. It turns out that things are not more coarse or crude or unformed as one goes down into the foundations of the physical world but more subtle, sophisticated, and intricate the deeper one goes.

Barr uses the example of marbles in a box: When the box is tilted to one side, the marbles take a hexagonal pattern implied by their inherent shape. The order that we see in the packed marbles was, in a way of looking at it, part of the genius in the invention of the sphere. Such are the building blocks of all of reality.

Two responses are common from atheists or mere secularists to the species of notions of which Barr's is a member, that reality is, in fact, a divine thought: Either we happen to inhabit the one universe (of some unknowable number) in which these rules apply, thus de-necessitating God, or we happen to be privileging concepts of order and beauty that we prefer, given the universe that we inhabit. The first rejoinder doesn't actually address the argument; it merely pushes it to another level. After all, even if it took some number of universal false-starts to create our universe, the possibility of our universe must have existed within the initial concept of the multiverse.

To answer the second objection, I'll return to Barr:

Some might suspect that this beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or that scientists think their own theories beautiful simply out of vanity. But there is a remarkable fact that suggests otherwise. Again and again throughout history, what started as pure mathematics--ideas developed solely for the sake of their intrinsic interest and elegance--turned out later to be needed to express fundamental laws of physics.

For example, complex numbers were invented and the theory of them deeply investigated by the early nineteenth century, a mathematical development that seemed to have no relevance to physical reality. Only in the 1920s was it discovered that complex numbers were needed to write the equations of quantum mechanics. Or, in another instance, when the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton invented quaternions in the mid-nineteenth century, they were regarded as an ingenious but totally useless construct. Hamilton himself held this view. When asked by an aristocratic lady whether quaternions were useful for anything, Hamilton joked, "Aye, madam, quaternions are very useful--for solving problems involving quaternions." And yet, many decades later, quaternions were put to use to describe properties of subatomic particles such as the spin of electrons as well as the relation between neutrons and protons. Or again, Riemannian geometry was developed long before it was found to be needed for Einstein's theory of gravity. And a branch of mathematics called the theory of Lie groups was developed before it was found to describe the gauge symmetries of the fundamental forces.

This is where this afternoon's topic ties in with this morning's: Pure mathematics are logic crystallized, and sometimes that logic leads to peculiar and seemingly irrelevant rooms, but those who discover those rooms needn't be nonconformist radicals. What's required for effective exploration of reality, in any field, is not a bumbling and callous rebellion, but a respect for the universe and human society as we find them, and what's required for a lasting and profound change in the physical and social order is not wholesale rejection of standards, but long-seeing comprehension of the paths that they naturally take.

October 24, 2010

The Universal Nothing That Is Something

Justin Katz

So, you might have come across the minor splash that physicist Stephen Hawking recently made by publishing a book that declares the concept of God unnecessary. Physicist Mike Flynn notes some need for specificity of terms, in such conversations:

... to say that a space-time manifold came from "nothing" is a stretch. The "no-universe state" is not nothing. It is a particular quantum state in "an intricate rule-governed system" and has "specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws." IOW, there is a whole pre-existing system of quantum physics from which it comes. And this is why Hawking can talk about physical laws before there is anything physical to obey them. See item 2, above. IOW, he has not conceived of Nothing. There is always Something pre-existing.

Barr draws an analogy to the banking system budding off savings accounts. There is a difference between an account with no balance and no account at all. And even when there is no account, there is an "intricate rule-governed system" of banking laws that allows an account to come into existence. That isn't nothing.

Applying this clarification to the argument on the table, Flynn finds Hawking to be rephrasing the explanation for the origins of the universe offered at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John. It's a very interesting dynamic of atheistic science that the farther it advances in search of non-religious causes, the closer it brings our understanding to God — if one just steps back from the equation and incorporates the fact of being.

October 21, 2010

Happiness by the Numbers

Justin Katz

It is most definitely consistent with a religious conservative's worldview to argue that experience of happiness is a cocktail of biological, financial, cultural, social, and psychological factors, but I question whether the sort of scientific differentiation that University of Mary Washington Psychology Professor Holly Schiffrin attempts in a recent syndicated column is really all that useful, or even plausible:

So, if about 50 percent of happiness is explained by our genes and 10 percent by our life circumstances, what accounts for the rest? The activities that promote happiness are those we have resorted to during the recession because we haven't had as much disposable income as usual, such as staying at home for game or movie nights with family and friends.

The No. 1 predictor of happiness across cultures is good relationships.

Schiffrin goes on to mention the possibility of using the little boosts of an expenditure high (in the life circumstances category) in such a way as to assist relationships. In that little concession, though, she pokes a hole in the veneer of categories. Circumstances can make quality time more difficult; moreover, I, for one, certainly have ample experience with the ability of economic hardship to prevent engagement in fulfilling activities, thereby increasing frustration and decreasing happiness. If life circumstances negate good relationships, which category is to blame?

We can go a step farther, though, and question whether even genes can be considered a one-way contributor. My general reading leads me to believe that genetic makeup can change, based not only on environmental and other experiences, but also on the attitudes and beliefs that we internalize. To the extent that that's the case, genetic factors are more like biological indicators of where we are as organisms, and that is inextricable from where we are as spiritual beings.

September 18, 2010

The Origins of Orientation

Justin Katz

I suppose it's generally been taken differently, coming from a politically and theologically conservative traditionalist like me, but it looks like the thinking about the origins of homosexuality are moving toward what I've long contended to be the case (here presented by research psychologist Jesse Bering, who is, himself, gay):

Another caveat is that researchers in this area readily concede that there are probably multiple—and no doubt very complicated—developmental routes to adult homosexuality. Heritable, biological factors interact with environmental experiences to produce phenotypic outcomes, and this is no less true for sexual orientation than it is for any other within-population variable. Since the prospective and retrospective data discussed in the foregoing studies often reveal very early emerging traits in prehomosexuals, however, those children who show pronounced sex-atypical behaviors may have "more" of a genetic loading to their homosexuality, whereas gay adults who were sex-typical as children might trace their homosexuality more directly to particular childhood experiences. For example, in a rather stunning case of what I'll call "say-it-isn't-so science"—science that produces data that rebel against popular, politically correct, or emotionally appealing sentiments—controversial new findings published earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior hint intriguingly that men—but not women—who were sexually abused as children are significantly more likely than non-abused males to have had homosexual relationships as adults. Whatever the causal route, however, none of this implies, whatsoever, that sexual orientation is a choice. In fact it implies quite the opposite, since prepubertal erotic experiences can later consolidate into irreversible sexual orientations and preferences, as I discussed in a previous piece on the childhood origins of fetishes and paraphilias.

It is fashionable these days to say that one is "born gay," of course, but if we think about it a bit more critically, it's a bit odd, and probably nonsensical, to refer to a newborn infant, swaddled in blankets and still suckling on its mother's teats, as being homosexual. I appreciate the anti-discriminatory motives, but if we insist on using such politically correct parlance without consideration of more complex, postnatal developmental factors, are we really prepared to label newborns as being LGBT?

There is no "gay gene," although there are probably collections of heritable traits that make predisposition and socialization toward homosexuality so likely as to be indistinguishable from a biological certainty. But there are also a range of routes toward the same adult sexual preferences, spanning from what I've just described all the way to young (and not-so-young) adults who do, in fact, choose the lifestyle and identity group.

If it weren't for the current emphasis on identity politics, though, it'd all be a moot point. Discrimination against homosexuals is socially evaporating, and if we thought of public policy on its merits, rather than as a political football or battle ax, the question of whether the emotions and ways of life are "natural" would barely be relevant.

July 27, 2010

When Scientists Became Scolds

Marc Comtois

Kenneth P. Green and Hiwa Alaghebandian think they have identified why Americans seem to have less regard for science--and scientists--than they used to.

Our theory is that science is not losing its credibility because people no longer like or believe in the idea of scientific discovery, but because science has taken on an authoritarian tone, and has let itself be co-opted by pressure groups who want the government to force people to change their behavior.

In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.

But then they started telling us what we had to do.
So, objective statements about smoking risk morphed into statements like “science tells us we must end the use of tobacco products.” A finding of elevated risk of stroke from excess salt ingestion leads to: “The science tells us we must cut salt consumption in half by 2030.” Findings that obesity carries health risks lead to a “war on obesity.” And yes, a finding that we may be causing the climate to change morphed into “the science says we must radically restructure our economy and way of life to cut greenhouse gas emissions radically by 2050.”
As Green and Alaghebandian put it, this "authoritarian" turn doesn't sit well with Americans. They wondered when it all started and did a search on "authoritarian" sounding phrases in science stories.
[A]round the end of the 1980s, science (at least science reporting) took on a distinctly authoritarian tone. Whether because of funding availability or a desire by some senior academics for greater relevance, or just the spread of activism through the university, scientists stopped speaking objectively and started telling people what to do. And people don’t take well to that, particularly when they’re unable to evaluate the information that supposedly requires them to give up their SUV, their celebratory cigar, or their chicken nuggets.

The public’s trust is further undermined by scientific scandals, such as the recent ClimateGate affair, when it became apparent that climate scientists, if not overtly cooking their books, were behaving as partisans out to create a unified perception of the climate in order to advance a policy agenda. The climate community is probably the biggest user of the authoritarian voice, with frequent pronouncements that “the science says we must limit atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million,” or some dire outcome will eventuate. Friends of the Earth writes, “For example, science tells us we must reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous climate change.” America’s climate change negotiator in Copenhagen is quoted by World Wildlife Fund as saying, “China must do significantly more if we are to have a chance to solve the problem and to arrive at an international agreement that achieves what science tells us we must.” Science as dictator—not a pretty sight.

So go back to objectivity in reporting your findings. Less advocacy, more science.

July 15, 2010

Time Traveling in Their Minds

Justin Katz

Scientist priest Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk explains that a recent scientific achievement in the news was not so much the creation of life as a rebuilding of a fundamental component, citing a Princeton microbiologist:

"Every cell is a microcosm of life, and neither the Venter team nor anybody else has come close to recreating the cell from scratch. If anything, the new report underscores how dependent biologists remain on its encapsulated power. Bonnie L. Bassler, a microbiologist at Princeton, said, "They started with a known genome, a set of genes that nature had given us, and they had to put their genome into a live cell with all the complex goo and ingredients to make the thing go."

What's interesting about some responses, though, is the authors' eagerness to dispel that which one can assume they've already managed to disprove to their own satisfaction:

Nevertheless, a number of commentators have managed to miss the point. Bioethicist Art Caplan, writing on the Scientific American website, suggests that Venter's "synthetic cell" dispels the notion that life "is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding."

Faye Flam muses in a similar vein in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "What's shocking about the new organism isn't that it breaches a boundary between inanimate matter and life, but that it shows that no such boundary exists. Life is chemistry." Her article gets even more outlandish when she suggests that chemicals "have the power to assemble themselves into organisms -- even complicated ones that can contemplate their own place in the universe..."

You know, I don't know that I've ever heard anybody claim that scientists could not possible learn to build cells from scratch. There are plenty of reasons to worry about the quest to do so — philosophically and practically — but the probability that it could be done is not seriously in dispute. No doubt, the likes of Caplan and Flam have long expected that day to come and have already drawn their conclusions about material and spiritual life.

It's an odd thing, that in acknowledging miracles and mysteries, religious people tend not to be concerned about mankind's peeks into the machine, while those who seek to make a religion of disbelief often seem desperate to declare the matter proven, even as they clearly believe that it already has been.

June 19, 2010

It's the Authority, not the Debate

Justin Katz

Further to this morning's post about the use of science as an irrefutable cudgel in moral debates, I'd like to draw your attention to Eric Cohen and Yuval Levin's comparison of the Bush and Obama treatments of the President's Council on Bioethics. In effect, Bush's version was designed to have an authority of its own and to ensure that significant policy debates became public debates, while Obama's might more appropriately be compared with a hospital's ethics board: the objective is known and supported, and the board lies somewhere between rubber stamp and safeguard against excess.

The problem, rather, is that the commission seems designed to keep bioethics out of the news. Its members are a far lower-profile group than those in Bush's commission (or, for that matter, Bill Clinton's). Its charter, which the president signed in November, repeatedly insists that the commission should focus on specific and programmatic policy questions. The president stressed the same point in the statement the White House released at the time: "This new commission will develop its recommendations through practical and policy-related analyses."

The idea, no doubt, was to distinguish the focus of this commission's approach from the broader and deeper approach of the Bush council, whose own charter said its foremost task was "to undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology" and whose work (including an anthology of readings from great works of literature called Being Human and a report that reflected on the meaning of human-enhancement technologies but did not offer policy proposals) was sometimes described as too ethereal.

As its designers surely recognized, the likely effect of directing the new commission to take up narrower policy questions will be to keep it from taking up the most basic questions underlying our approach to science and technology.

If the primary question guiding the commission is not what but how, the range of topics it may examine is constrained--as so much of bioethics in recent decades has been--to utilitarian concerns and matters of procedure. As with the president's implicit assertion that there is no debate to be had about embryo research, the idea is to treat the basic ethical questions as closed and to relegate the questions that remain to the judgment of experts. These remaining questions involve, for instance, not whether we should pursue the destruction of nascent life for research but how; not what advances in biotechnology mean for our humanity but how they can be made available to all.

One could suggest that our supposedly deep-thinking president apparently believes that all of the actual deep thinking has already been done. In electing him, we've freed ourselves of the need to consider difficult questions of morality and identity, because he's already figured out what's best and will impose it as necessary.

I can't help but think back to President Bush's Oval Office broadcast banning federal funding of new embryonic stem cell lines. Whatever one might have thought of his intellect, his approach was to lay out the issues as he saw them, including competing arguments, and explain his decision. Frankly, I've yet to see Obama say anything half as thoughtful.

It's the Authority, not the Science

Justin Katz

Jonah Goldberg spotted in the news an instance in which the Obama Interior Department appears to have misrepresented the opinion of some scientists whom it consulted regarding a possible ban of offshore drilling:

The draft these experts saw was substantively different from the document that bore their names. The draft called for a moratorium on issuing new permits, not stopping existing drilling (a move many experts believe would be unsafe).

One of the experts, Benton Baugh, president of Radoil, told the Wall Street Journal that if the draft had said to halt drilling, "we'd have said 'that's craziness.'"

As Goldberg writes, "there is something ugly and hypocritical about glorifying the absolute authority of scientists and sanctimoniously preening about your bravery in 'restoring' that authority" — only to ignore what they say when it's "politically expedient." Actually, I'm sure Goldberg would agree that progressives' periodic lauding of science is primarily, if not entirely, all about political expedience.

When candidate Obama said he would "restore science to its rightful place," he meant that he would treat it as an unassailable, procaimedly "objective," conversation-ending weapon in philosophical debates. The prerequisite, of course, is that science must agree with his own views on a particular issue.

The very necessity of politics arises because there is no objective measure when it comes to policy decisions that must balance competing interests and complement subjective considerations like religion and ethics with practical needs and objectives. Tyranny lurks behind the elevation of any particular input as if it alone settles the question, especially when determination is handed to a limited group with information beyond the comprehension of everybody else.

April 21, 2010

Two Choices, Neither Science

Justin Katz

Robert Chase restates a recurrent theme in a recent consideration of science fiction and religion:

... Starting with Fred Hoyle, himself the author of such science-fiction novels as The Black Cloud, scientists have realized the universe is exquisitely fine-tuned to produce life. If protons were just 0.2 percent more massive, they would be unstable and decay into simpler particles. If gravity were a bit stronger, stars would burn up before life had a chance to evolve. If the strong force, which binds nuclei together, were a touch more powerful, there would be no hydrogen and therefore no stars, no water, and no us. All these coincidences seem to indicate the presence of an Intelligent Designer.

Hoyle certainly became convinced that they did. Moreover, a number of physicists have proposed that our universe is but one of a multitude, and with enough universes the odds tip in favor of having one with the right set of laws and constants to produce us. There is a long tradition of science-fiction stories dealing with alternate worlds and parallel dimensions—Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium, for instance, and Roger Zelazny's Amber series—and it is likely that this sort of theorizing will spur the production of more. Yet the whole enterprise has an air of desperation about it. We are asked to believe in the existence of myriad universes for which we have no direct evidence and that must always be unobservable because the alternative, God, is emotionally disagreeable to the theorists. The multiverse may even be true, but until it can be shown to be a necessary result of established physical laws, or somehow submitted to proof, it will never be science.

As it happens, C.S. Lewis's Narnia series pulled the two themes, which Chase presents as opposing, together. As described in The Magician's Nephew, which followed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in composition but preceded it in the plot, Narnia and Earth existed in different dimensions reachable through a sort of portal dimension. And yet, Lewis concluded the series with the affirmation of Christianity overarching all dimensions.

That's more or less my conclusion when it comes to reality. Rather than parallel dimensions, though, I believe that all possible moments exist as spaces on a cosmic game board, as it were, connected into a great mesh. The continuity that we perceive occurs as our souls move from one moment to the next according to certain rules defined more or less in accordance with our sanity. Within the infinite number of possible sequences, God defines the True path that tells the story of reality from start to finish.

And, yes, a science fiction-ish novel on this topic is among the dozens of story lines that I've stored away to write someday... perhaps in another life. Of course, in some other dimension, I've already written it.

April 18, 2010

Defining "Objectionable" as "Not This"

Justin Katz

People don't like the idea of human cloning, and large constituencies aren't comforted by proposals that would require scientists to kill the humans whom they create through that process. Fr. Nicanor Austriaco notes that the supposedly pro-life Congressman Jim Langevin has come across a curious means of skirting objections:

The proposed legislation permits cloning-to-kill by redefining the scientific definition of human cloning. According to Langevin's bill, "[t]he term 'human cloning' means the implantation of the product of transferring the nuclear material of a human somatic cell into an egg cell from which the nuclear material has been removed or rendered inert into a uterus or the functional equivalent of a uterus." In contrast, the scientific consensus defines cloning as the creation and not the implantation of a cloned embryo. By manipulating the definition of cloning, Representative Langevin and his congressional colleagues want to reward scientists who would derive stem cells from the cloning and killing of human embryos, by giving them federal monies to fund their research with these embryonic stem cell lines. This bill would lead to the creation and the destruction of innocent human beings, and thus, like the President's executive order, is immoral and unjust.

It's always been my approach to seek agreement on the terms of the debate and argue from there. Whoever wins the debate wins, and whoever loses the debate has a lot of work to do persuading, developing new arguments, and then moving through the process of changing policies. There's not much room for fair debate, though, when people attempt to define the very points of contention out of the discussion.

March 10, 2010

Scientists Right by Association

Justin Katz

This line of reasoning is increasingly irksome, here from a Peter Lord column about University of California History and Science Professor Naomi Oreskes:

Oreskes said modern science has sent men to the moon, cured diseases and predicted tsunamis after the earthquake in Chile. Why do people believe science can't get it right when it comes to climate change?

Frankly, it only makes me more suspicious when ostensible supporters of science speak of it as more of a philosophy than a process. Actually, what happens is the successes are attributed to the philosophy — Science has done great things, so you should believe in Science! — and wrong-turns are just part of the process.

Medical science has taken many wrong turns, as theories have been tested and tried. Expressing skepticism that a sick person just needed more of the earth element in his system, some hundreds of years ago, should not have been taken as distrust of the capacity of science to find the solution, but as a distrust that a particular group of scientists had come up with the right one.

Similarly, it isn't a mark of theological fundamentalism to note that predictions of tsunamis (After a coastline earthquake? No way!) varied in their accuracy. A common phrase, after the last one, was that "Hawaii dodged a bullet." Well, isn't Peter Lord's claim that science had told us where the bullet was headed?

Climate alarmists have been making claims about changes of a few degrees projected out over a century. The daily weather isn't even that accurate. That's not to say that the process of science doesn't turn up generally correct answers in cases such as the weather forecast and the tsunamis, nor that scientists will never find a way to incorporate all of the necessary variables into their models in order to be close enough about the climate. But when globalist bureaucrats take up the torch of major manipulation of the world economy, "close enough" had better be pretty darn close.

February 8, 2010

Lancet Retracts Article Linking Autism to Vaccine

Marc Comtois

In case you missed it, the medical journal The Lancet has retracted it's oft-cited study that purported to find a link between the Mumps/Measles/Rubella vaccine and autism:

[T]he study by British surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues appeared in 1998 in The Lancet, “the arguments were considered by many to be proven and the ghastly social drama of the demon vaccine took on a life of its own.”

...Ten of Wakefield's 13 co-authors renounced the study's conclusions several years ago and The Lancet has previously said it should never have published the research.

“It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield ... are incorrect,” the internationally renowned scientific journal said in a statement Tuesday. “We fully retract this paper from the published record.”

It has also, perhaps, started some media navel-gazing (h/t) regarding how they report preliminary scientific findings or theories as new "facts"....or, dare we say, consensus?

February 6, 2010

When "Consensus" Is a Weapon Word

Justin Katz

A post-email-revelation tack being taken by global warming alarmists has been that we skeptics, as we're called, have no qualifications to judge the science, and the scientific controversies that have filtered out to our ignorant outskirts are really just minor complaints against a vast body of knowledge all pointing to the truth of the alarmists' claims.

That point of view would be acceptable, perhaps even correct, were the environmentalist Jeremiahs standing as lone voices in the city square. But they're not. They're professionals funded largely by the world's public sectors and insisting that limited global resources be allocated toward their particular area of concern. Under those circumstances, it is the duty of the people who comprise the relatively esoteric field and who wish to command the allocation of trillions of dollars in global wealth to persuade the owners and creators of that wealth (i.e., us) that their claims merit attention, not to mention historic expenditures.

Part of the process by which they might accomplish such persuasion is an open an honest dissemination of their information, honed in as untainted a forum as human nature allows and conveyed through an ostensibly neutral system of news media. In the particular case of mankind's relevance to climate change, it has been precisely through the sorts of claims that are being questioned — melting high-altitude glaciers, disappearing rain forests, rising tides — that the "consensus" is formed about the dire necessity for action. Additionally, appeals to authority and pre-modern methods of peer pressure and ideological exclusion have constrained public discussion.

William Anderson argues that the content of the surreptitiously distributed emails from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia rightly undermine the entire enterprise:

In the case of climate science, corruption of the peer-review process appears to have taken place. Communications among some of the principal investigators suggest a conspiracy to prevent the publication of work at variance to their own. In addition, they attempted to take action against editors and journals that published the work of their rivals.

Worse, these same investigators refused to disclose their original data and their methods of analysis, threatening to destroy data rather than comply with freedom-of-information demands, as required by law. This action constitutes scientific malfeasance of the gravest type. Alone it is sufficient to discredit their entire enterprise. ...

So we will never know, with adequate confidence, what the temperature trends were thought to be by those who have been charged with custody of the many years of data on which, they insist, the future of humanity depends. Although there are four main foci of such data (the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, NASA, NOAA, and Darwin, Australia), they share some sources, remain unavailable to independent assessment, and show the same casual approach to integrity of the data. Requests for disclosure have been refused. This is a curious posture for publicly funded organizations.

On the matter of tracing the way in which falsehood becomes scientific common knowledge, Mark Steyn provides an excellent example:

But where did all these experts get the data [regarding the ostensibly rapidly melting Himalayan glacier] from? Well, NASA's assertion that Himalayan glaciers "may disappear altogether" by 2030 rests on one footnote, citing the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report from 2007. ...

And the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for that report, so it must be kosher, right? Well, yes, its Himalayan claims rest on a 2005 World Wildlife Fund report called "An Overview of Glaciers." ...

... they wouldn't be saying this stuff if they hadn't got the science nailed down, would they? The WWF report relies on an article published in the New Scientist in 1999 by Fred Pearce. ...

Oh, but don't worry, back in 1999 Fred did a quickie telephone interview with a chap called Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. And this Syed Hasnain cove presumably knows a thing or two about glaciers.

Well, yes. But he now says he was just idly "speculating"; he didn't do any research or anything like that.

It is precisely by these minor matters' snowballing into the eye-and-headline-catching lines of authoritative studies that the "consensus" is formed. They are constitutive, not incidental. They form the point — the explanatory "therefore" for political action — that imposes an a priori theme to a vast body of scientific findings that indisputably conclude that the climate changes... a point that even we dabblers are not inclined to challenge.

January 6, 2010

In a Spiritual Dimension

Justin Katz

One hears, from time to time, statements that suggest that advancements in neurological science will negate belief that the self is anything other than an illusion created by electrical and chemical processes. I've always thought such a view to be astonishingly wrong-headed and, in some cases, deliberately misleading.

Stephen Barr takes up the topic in a review of a book about the related science and religion:

It is no less reasonable to accept the existence of both mental and physical aspects of reality and to say that they do in fact affect each other in predictable ways that can be described, without having in hand or even supposing that there exists a “mechanism” for that interaction. Indeed, this is really all that neuroscience itself can do. For instance, it can tell us that a lower than normal concentration in the brain of a molecule called dopamine (a certain arrangement of eight carbons, eleven hydrogens, one nitrogen, and two oxygens) leads to the subjective experience of boredom or apathy. It can find that the electrical stimulation of a certain tiny region of the brain produces mental states ranging from mild amusement to hilarity. It can report, as Jeeves and Brown do, that “damage to a certain small area of the cortex serving vision (called ‘V4’) can strip color” from one’s visual experiences.

But in none of these cases can it explain the connection between motions of material particles and mental experiences any better than Descartes was able to do. For neuroscience, in effect, the entire brain is just Descartes’ pineal gland writ large.

But there is one key difference. Neuroscientists, unlike Descartes, tend to see the action as one-way: Matter can affect mind but not the other way around. Some justify this by saying that any effect of mind on matter would violate the laws of physics. Nothing that is known about physics, however, compels that conclusion.

What's amazing? That the application of chemicals and electricity to an organism that runs on chemical and electrical reactions can elicit a physical and emotional response, or that some well-chosen squiggles on a piece of paper can do the same thing? The former merely offers a shortcut for something that we've always had the power to accomplish.

We would be foolish to dispute that there is some mechanical process for the entirety of an exchange of humor, for example. There's an economic reason, rooted in biological need to support one's self, for a comedian to make jokes. There's a culture and a society through which he knows what makes something funny. There are mental processes by which his brain coordinates that information, mechanical processes whereby his mouth enunciates its conclusions, economic processes that put him on a stage in front of cameras, electrical processes whereby the cameras function and send those signals to your television. And then there are biological processes that bring the light into your eyes and the information to your brain.

Even without minute detail about each step, we can trace the whole thing from beginning to end. That doesn't mean that there's nothing more. Much like the movement of electrons begets an electrical field and a magnetic field, the existence of those electrons does not make the field less real. Moreover, you can act on the field without any knowledge of the mechanical basis for it. Just so, we can acknowledge the mechanics of the self and still understand there to be a sort of spirit field.

The major risk of the scientific inclination is that the more efficiently we can manipulate processes — as we move from having to go through an elaborate system of getting a comedian to learn how to make jokes and practice his delivery and work through a major network and a whole industry of entertainment in order to spark the pleasing sensation of laughter to simply being able to offer a pill or a shock to the brain — we can manipulate much more significant and dangerous things than laughter. As we advance, it becomes imperative that we develop our appreciation for this spirit field, and yet, our tendency to give credence to such a dimension at all decreases.

This, indeed, may be the mechanics of the Eschaton. The theological end of the world may have something to do with the fact that, as we "play God," our appreciation for what God has done, our belief in God, decreases. There are two paths based on increasing knowledge: You can become more God like, more like Jesus (for the Christian), in your actions, or you can become more arrogant and prideful in what you can do to manipulate reality, more skeptical that there is a God. If a series of accidental process, and not an intention, brought us to this point in reality, then there's less reason to be concerned about the idea of messing with it.

The intelligent being who has mastered laughter has reason to believe that he can put that power to better use than arbitrary circumstances of nature. If, however, there is a God who has thought the whole thing through from beginning to end, we ought to have a greater respect for, and be more humble in our application of, our new powers.

An apocalyptic narrative appears in the assurance that, no matter how far our civilization goes, we can move closer to God as individuals. The more skeptical, secular, and anti-religious the world becomes, the more opportunities there are to behave in a Christ-like manner. Those who take seriously the promise that they are blessed when persecuted will have plenty of opportunities for that blessing, and those who distrust the promise will have plenty of evidence that conversion will mean persecution. In other words, the separation of humanity into binary categories of religious belief and irreligious belief, which sciences dealing with the nature of being accelerate, might, itself, be the process of the end times.

November 26, 2009


Justin Katz

In a sense, it oughtn't be surprising, but it does seem as if the degree is notching up, and each step is shocking: Even some among the better informed among the folks with whom I interact on a daily basis (who are, to be sure, less well informed than even the most disengaged among readers of online punditry) remain unaware of this story:

Some of the world’s top climate scientists have been accused of manipulating data on global warming after hundreds of private emails were stolen by hackers and published online.

The material was taken from servers at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit — a world-renowned climate change research centre — before it was published on websites run by climate change sceptics.

It has been claimed that the emails show that scientists manipulated data to bolster their argument that global warming is genuine and is being caused by human actions.

Go to just about any right-of-center Web site with a national or international focus, and you'll find the details (which, of course, most of you have already seen). James Delingpole provides a good starting point. Mark Steyn notes the expanding scope.

Most striking, though, is this reader email, sent to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds (link added):

I now have a sense of what it was like living under Communism in Eastern Europe. The state-owned (in our case, establishment) press won’t report on reality so people had to turn to Samizdat to learn what’s actually happening in their world. It’s rather amazing. Also, having an Army of Davids go through these emails will pay dividends for years.

It may be a tired formulation, but you can just imagine if there were even hints of this scale of controversy on an issue with which mainstreamers held an ideologically opposing view.

November 19, 2009


Marc Comtois

According to i09, citing National Geographic, there is oxygen-rich water on Jupiter's ice-covered moon, Europa:

That amount of oxygen would be enough to support more than just microscopic life-forms: At least three million tons of fishlike creatures could theoretically live and breathe on Europa, said study author Richard Greenberg of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"There's nothing saying there is life there now," said Greenberg, who presented his work last month at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences. "But we do know there are the physical conditions to support it."

In fact, based on what we know about the Jovian moon, parts of Europa's seafloor should greatly resemble the environments around Earth's deep-ocean hydrothermal vents, said deep-sea molecular ecologist Timothy Shank.

"I'd be shocked if no life existed on Europa," said Shank, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

No word yet on when the first fishing expedition will embark. Or if an off-planet fishing license will be required.

November 6, 2009

A Biological Ghetto

Justin Katz

In the June/July issue of First Things, Mary Eberstadt suggested commonality between pro-lifers and vegetarians that (she thinks) justifies closer affiliation. Think what you may about the thesis, on which I'm not sold, a subsequent letter from a gentleman named Gerald Lame brings us back to dualism:

So Eberstadt's "moral traditionalists" are really animist-vitalists. And the news these pro-lifers have not yet heard, trapped as many are in their scholastic ghetto, is that the scientific theory of vitalism was found in the twentieth century to be false. The entire science of molecular biology is a testament to this fact. It turns out that there is no life principle. Life is a set of properties belonging to a suitably organized physical organism. These properties are the same for humans and nonhumans, for animals and plants. What distinguishes us is not some mysterious entity called human life. It is the structures of our bodies, especially our brains, and what they do. So a person is not a life. Animism is false. The mere fact that an embryo is alive does not mean that the person who might later arise from it is in any sense present. Life is not a proper object of sympathy.

He provides insufficient evidence to confidently declare him guilty of the practice, but Lame appears to be of the sort who extrapolate from mechanical understanding inappropriate philosophical lessons. He relies on "personhood" as something outside of biology and "life" but doggedly stops short of the next step into mire. If "life is a set of properties belonging to a suitably organized physical organism," then one could define "personhood" as the combination of those properties with a genetically unique organism. Lame must inevitably fall back to the old argument about consciousness.

The pro-life argument, especially in a theological milieu, is that biological life and spiritual personhood are inextricably linked. Not unlike an aborigine believing that a photograph steals the soul, Lame implies that describing the biology negates the person. Accuse whomever he may of intellectual ghettoism, the track in which his argument lies is well traveled and fraught with moral pitfalls.

For example, in a previous paragraph, he describes the biological process of pain and notes that young fetuses are incapable of feeling it. But if opposition to killing a human organism is essentially a question of suffering, then inducing euphoria prior to ceasing the flow of impulses that animate a biological construct in the form of a human being would alleviate "moral intuitions" that even a person is "a proper object of sympathy."

October 18, 2009

Climate Data from Foxboro

Carroll Andrew Morse

I turned on the last two minutes of today's Patriots game, after not having taken in any broadcast communications over the previous 4-5 hours. In addition to noticing the Patriots leading 59-0, I also happened to notice it snowing in Foxboro in mid-October.

Do proponents of the theory of “climate change” not caused by natural cycles -- one time known as proponents of “global warming” not caused by natural cycles -- take this development to be completely irrelevant, or as evidence that government attempts to control the weather are more pressing than ever?


The Bills-Jets overtime that CBS went to after the Patriots game may be the worst quarter of football I've ever seen.

August 14, 2009

Circuits Demystify the Brain

Justin Katz

Michael Hanlon does raise the ethical hurricane that spins at the end of the effort essentially to create a human brain with computer technology:

Well, a mind, however fleeting and however shorn of the inevitable complexities and nuances that come from being embedded in a body, is still a mind, a 'person'. We would effectively have created a 'brain in a vat'. Conscious, aware, capable of feeling, pain, desire. And probably terrified.

And if it were modelled on a human brain, we would then have real ethical dilemmas. If our 'brain' - effectively just a piece of extremely impressive computer software - could be said to know it exists, then do we assign it rights?

Would turning it off constitute murder? Would performing experiments upon it constitute torture?

Note the quotation marks around "person." Putting aside questions to which we do not have answers, such as the inherent morality that we should expect from digital life, we can observe that the likely response of our culture is tilted by the very assumptions with which it will achieve the innovation. Earlier, Hanlon writes:

So what is it, in that three pounds of grey jelly, that gives rise to the feeling of conscious self-awareness, the thoughts and emotions, the agonies and ecstasies that comprise being a human being?

This is a question that has troubled scientists and philosophers for centuries. The traditional answer was to assume that some sort of 'soul' pervades the brain, a mysterious 'ghost in the machine' which gives rise to the feeling of self and consciousness.

If this is the case, then computers, being machines not flesh and blood, will never think. We will never be able to build a robot that will feel pain or get angry, and the Blue Brain project will fail.

But very few scientists still subscribe to this traditional 'dualist' view - 'dualist' because it assumes 'mind' and 'matter' are two separate things.

Instead, most neuroscientists believe that our feelings of self-awareness, pain, love and so on are simply the result of the countless billions of electrical and chemical impulses that flit between its equally countless billions of neurons.

So if you build something that works exactly like a brain, consciousness, at least in theory, will follow.

The implication of this sort of non-dualism is that the self isn't real. Look at it this way: Hanlon misses the possibility that the simulation could tap into or generate a soul. Rather like the mystery of the Trinity, I suspect the relationship of mind to body is more subtle than the binary dualism/non-dualism phrasing allows, but the salient point is that, by relegating soul to the mysteries of the gray jelly, Hanlon implicitly accepts the conclusion that cyber-consciousness would disprove soul, and yet he still wishes to count the creation as a "person."

The problem is that, if there's no "ghost in the machine," conceptually, then there is only machine, and machines can be turned off without moral complication. At some point, a human society with pervasive familiarity with this sort of humanoid lifeform might learn to recoil at the notion that one can simply erase the hard drive, but in the interim, it would have internalized the principle that "personhood" is "simply the result of the countless billions of electrical and chemical impulses." The "simply" is out of place, there; whatever the mechanism, there's something substantial about the soul, and our inherent value hinges on its recognition.

July 24, 2009

Conformity as a Measure of Expertise

Justin Katz

Nicholas Wade has an interesting musing on the pitfall of conformity in intellectual pursuits:

Journalists, of course, are conformists too. So are most other professions. There's a powerful human urge to belong inside the group, to think like the majority, to lick the boss's shoes, and to win the group's approval by trashing dissenters.

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You're an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of "expert" they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you'll bear the less comfortable label of "maverick," which is only a few stops short of "scapegoat" or "pariah."

Literary hobbyists like us can certainly understand the paradox. There are dramatic limits to what one can accomplish, in any pursuit, when a living must be made elsewise. But awareness that one's statements are tied to one's living cannot be without its effects.

July 12, 2009

Multiple Paths to Self-Destruction

Justin Katz

On the whole, there's nothing in what Stephen Hawking is reported to have said at a recent lecture that is incompatible with theism broadly or Catholicism specifically. Human beings are part of nature, and our actions affect the course of the universe to some extent. Theologically, we are called to make of ourselves God's instruments (although I'd propose that the higher benefit comes spiritually, with the fact of our having done the act, rather than materially, in the task that we accomplish).

There is a certain danger lingering behind such thinking, and it's one that justifies admonishments against "playing God." Humankind has a way of backing into pits as it seeks to skirt obvious falls. Consider even just the last two paragraphs of the above-linked post:

But we are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls "self designed evolution," in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. "At first," he continues "these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression."

If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

I'm inclined to assert that voluntary elimination of such traits as aggression is utterly impossible, even if it becomes technologically plausible. At some point, people who refuse to submit will have to be forced or pushed off the evolutionary cliff (by sterilization or incarceration), otherwise they'll return to rule their passive brethren. Then, there's the possibility that removing aggression will derail technological advancement or that humanity (or its post-human surrogates) will encounter something in the universe — another alien species, perhaps — that requires an aggressive reaction.

More basically, though, there's an ontological difficulty in the second paragraph of the block quote: We begin with the prospect of removing our capacity for self-destruction only to end with the creation of life forms that would replace us! Clearly, prior to any decisions about our self-directed evolution must come a conclusion — an unlikely consensus — about the source of value in the universe. Adherents to scientism assume that value, leaving it deliberately unstated, and to the extent that they are not entirely oblivious to the fact that they have done so, they rely upon a sort of intellectual conceit that they know better... or at least that the process of thinking to which they adhere necessarily points in the direction of Good.

Ultimately, their imposition of a preferred evolution of mankind will come down to raw power, and one way or another, those qualities of human nature with which many of us have discomfort will be written into our program for the rest of our part in the universe's history, if only because it is also written into nature.

(I spent a fair amount of time with my head in these clouds a half-decade ago, if anybody's interested in more.)

May 30, 2009

DNA & Stem-Cell Tinkering in Science

Justin Katz

Those of us who are constitutional tinkerers (meaning our own constitutions, not the nation's) should find reason for deep concern in such news as this:

Human DNA inserted into mice caused their offspring to squeak at a different pitch, suggesting that the gene involved may be linked to people’s ability to speak.

The gene variant exists only in humans, meaning it developed after people separated evolutionarily from chimps. By inserting the gene into mice and measuring how it changed them, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, aimed to gain insight into the genetic forces that produce behavior unique to humans.

This sort of biological experiment will be extremely difficult to limit. Each step will justify the next, with the answer to the great puzzle just behind one more infinitesimal ethical compromise. Look, for instance, at this outcome, which intuitively seems peculiar in mice made a little more human (emphasis added):

In addition to the difference in squeaks, Enard and his colleagues found that the mice endowed with the human FOXP2 genes had changes in their brains. The alterations included lower levels of the chemical dopamine and longer dendrites, the branch-like projections of neurons. The mice also did less exploring of a board set up for them to wander in.

To unravel that part of the thread one can easily imagine a need to add just a few more human DNA, and as the curiosities pile up, limiting experiments to mice (rather than higher mammals) will loom as a larger and larger wall blocking answers. It's a dangerous path.

By way of contrast, this is wonderful news:

Researchers at Harvard and Advanced Cell Technology are reporting that they have been able to turn ordinary skin cells into stem cells by dousing them with the proteins made by four specific genes. The researchers were then able to turn the stem cells into mature cells of various tissues. This work is building off the discovery last year that adult cells could be reverted to embryonic stem cell-like state by integrating four specific genes that previous research had found were active in embryonic stem cells. Because the genes were added using viruses to produce these induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells researchers worried that they might have a high potential for turning cancerous.

The new breakthrough would seem to be an end run around the cancer problem.

One does wonder, of course, whether such discoveries would have been achieved had the previous administration discarded ethical concerns about killing embryos as this one has. But again, the ethical wall looms large, and it's easy for the tinkerers to imagine that the real answers to the significant mysteries lie just on the other side.

In a tinkering of a different sort, my teenage years were filled with songwriting — about twenty per year between the ages of 14 and 19 — and I recall several that came about as if by the walls to my playing. Periodically, I'd be attempting to figure out somebody else's music, plucking away at the piano looking for the accurate melody or chord structure, and my errors struck the ear pleasantly. I'd stumbled onto a musical path that the other songwriter had not taken, and the result was something different. If I'd been more talented, that something different might well have been something better.

Whether the walls are ethical, acoustical, or a matter of capability, the point is that the greater discoveries often do not lie in what appears to be the obvious direction, and where the walls have reason (such as moral principles or even mere prudence against progress for its own sake), we should not feel undue pressure to compromise their strength.

May 20, 2009

URI Advancements in True Mind Reading

Carroll Andrew Morse

Walter Besio, a biomedical engineering professor at the University Rhode Island, has received a grant from the National Institute of Health to continue his work into developing sensors that can interpret the electrical signals that come from the brain -- and perhaps turn those signals into functional inputs for a new generation of biomedical technologies...

A unique electrode developed for non-invasive use by a University of Rhode Island biomedical engineer is showing promising results in helping to interpret brain signals so paralyzed patients may control their environment. It is also being studied as a means of delivering a stimulus to control epileptic seizures....

Initially used for a more accurate detection of cardiac signals, Besio began to test its usefulness in detecting brain waves in an effort to help his brother who had become paralyzed in an automobile accident.

"I wanted to see if the electrode could help us figure out what someone was thinking," he said. "When you think about moving your arm, can we discriminate the signals from the brain to interpret the movement you want to make? It would allow paralyzed individuals to be more independent by letting them use their thoughts to perhaps control a robot or computer or a wheelchair."

April 19, 2009

The Compromise of the Moment

Justin Katz

Does anybody doubt that President Obama's handling of the stem-cell issue is designed as a means of avoiding political heat while disregarding the beliefs of those who hold the culling of embryonic stem cells to be a form of murder? By placing determination of the "guidelines" for expanded funding under controle of the National Institutes of Health, he's made them easily changeable and at a political distance. Coverage of the guidelines' release is peppered with statements of "for now" (emphasis added):

"We think this will be a huge boost for the science," said Acting NIH Director Raynard Kington. "This was the right policy for the agency at this point in time." ...

The guidelines are "a reasonable compromise based on where the science stands now," said Dr. Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology. "We may need to revisit some of the details down the road depending on how the science develops." ...

That's in line with legislation passed by the last Congress but never signed by President George W. Bush. Besides, Kington noted, no one has yet created a stem cell line using cloning techniques.

It sounds as if moral questions are hardly in play at all. Policy, in that case, is precisely a match for the general political approach of liberal materialists: Take steps as they're possible and pretend that there are still safeguards against leaps too far.

March 14, 2009

Maybe It's the Rhetoric That Makes the Stem-Cell Issue "Surreal"

Justin Katz

The change in our nation's direction on embryonic stem-cell research would concern me a little less if it weren't expressed in such poorly conceived terms:

As important as the stem-cell policy change is "the paradigm shift in making sure that research in this country is based on sound science and not any kind of political ideology," [U.S. Rep. Jim] Langevin said.

It shouldn't take but a moment's thought to come up with an example wherein most Americans would agree that ideology (read: "morality") ought to trump even sound research. Placing in lab coats those cannibalistic fetishists about whom we periodically hear gives a caricature of the possibilities if, for example, we join the "right to die" movement with the "right to experiment" philosophy. As with war, we do well to place the broader society in ultimate command of the practitioners.

Mr. Langevin's fellow guest at the the VA Medical Center, Harvard Stem Cell Institute Executive Director Brock Reeve, perpetuates misconception — or at least the reportage makes that appear to be the case:

Stem cells are the precursor cells that can transform into any cell in the body. Embryonic stem cells are especially adept at this. Scientists hope that they can be used to replace nerves in a paralyzed person's spinal cord or insulin-producing cells in a diabetic's pancreas. But Reeve cautioned, "It's going to be a long time before scientists and doctors know how to control any cell," he said. Embryonic stem cells may cause tumors, may be rejected by the patient's body and may migrate to places they're not supposed to go.

In point of fact, scientists have already provided doctors with methods of treatment related to adult stem-cells. Indeed, I won't find it surprising should those successes begin to be treated as if they ought to be credited to the new freedom of science from ideology now that the supposedly historic moment has come and gone.

March 11, 2009

The Substance in the Style on Stem Cells

Justin Katz

I remember when President Bush made his announcement about the ban on federal financing of embryonic stem-cell research. He held an evening address, at his desk, and took the time to explain some of the science, present the opposing arguments as he saw them, and explain his decision. You can think what you like about the man or his decision, but that's a stark contrast from President Obama's cheering-crowd press conference, yielding photographs of him leaning off the stage to lay hands on the paralyzed Representative Jim Langevin.

The difference extends to substance. Bush offered an actual compromise position (as much as those who opposed him might have disliked it): He increased (I believe) funding of adult-stem-cell research and permitted funding of research on stem cells that had already been removed from embryos. From Obama, we get promises:

Mr. Obama pledged that his administration will write strict guidelines for research on stem cells taken from embryos. "And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction,'" calling the practice "dangerous and profoundly wrong."

Why not have those guidelines ready for presentation at Monday's announcement? Why not actually put into place anti-cloning policy at the same time that he opened the door for federal funds for the destruction of embryos?

The answer, I suppose, depends on how cynical one is.

January 27, 2009

Caught in the Scientist's Perspective

Justin Katz

Stanley Aronson writes reasonable, interesting columns for the Providence Journal, but I often get the impression of an underlying scientism. By that relatively new coinage, I mean the tendency — a system of belief, really — to treat scientific answers as complete grounds for defining one's life.

So, in context of an essay about doctors' evolving ability to diagnose, even to forecast, illness, Aronson writes:

Where there had been three populations in a tripartite world dominated by health, disease or disease-incipiency, there was now a fourth population, namely, those currently quite healthy and without any underlying latent disease but who are nonetheless destined by the nature of their genetic baggage to be at high risk for some awesome disease in the future.

There are many who will bemoan: Has the time arrived when my physical destiny is inflexibly determined without my active participation? Have the domains of determinism and predestination, the specters that haunted theologians for centuries, finally emerged as an incontrovertible secular reality? Have I no choice in life but to be a pawn manipulated by my genes?

Personally, I don't believe that anything essential has changed in this regard. Human beings have always know that they would die. Using genetic information to give some sense of the when hardly represents an existential shift.

By standing in awe of science, however, those who tend toward Aronson's view lose sight of a critical principle underlying religion's answer to the question of destiny: Your lifespan and your health are not synonymous with your destiny. We are "manipulated by our genes" only if we waste our lives tracing their fatal calendar.

Yes, it is "an incontrovertible secular reality" that we will all die. What we do before (and after) that event is what defines us, and our destinies.

January 19, 2009

Fanatics in the Cabinet

Justin Katz

Jeff Jacoby has some suggested questions for U.S. Senators to ask Obama's nominee for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren. The last one gives a sense of Jacoby's general concern:

8. You are withering in your contempt for researchers who are unconvinced that human activity is responsible for global warming, or that global warming is an onrushing disaster. You have written that such ideas are "dangerous," that those who hold them "infest" the public discourse, and that paying any attention to their views is "a menace." You contributed to a published assault on Bjorn Lomborg's notable 2001 book "The Skeptical Environmentalist" - an attack the Economist described as "strong on contempt and sneering, but weak on substance." In light of President-elect Obama's insistence that "promoting science" means "protecting free and open inquiry," will you work to soften your hostility toward scholars who disagree with you?

Mr. Holdren, it bears mention, appears to have a long history of erroneous alarmist predictions.

November 17, 2008

Hot Off the Press and Fully Cooked

Justin Katz

Back in my proofreader days, I happened to catch a major error simply because the graphs didn't make sense. According to the document handed to me that day, the United Arab Emirates ranked much more highly than the United States in various measures of freedom. As it turned out, a row had been transposed on the spreadsheet, rearranging the scores of every nation studied, and we kicked the document back to start.

The point is that these things are bound to happen (especially as companies increasingly decide to forgo professional editors), but it would be nice if they were promoted as highly in error as in statement:

So what explained the anomaly? GISS's computerised temperature maps seemed to show readings across a large part of Russia had been up to 10 degrees higher than normal. But when expert readers of the two leading warming-sceptic blogs, Watts Up With That and Climate Audit, began detailed analysis of the GISS data they made an astonishing discovery. The reason for the freak figures was that scores of temperature records from Russia and elsewhere were not based on October readings at all. Figures from the previous month had simply been carried over and repeated two months running.

November 9, 2008

Cosmic Dark Flow (Not the Pres-Elect's Charisma)

Justin Katz

One can say with some certainty that there will always be something new to discover in reality:

On the outskirts of creation, unknown, unseen "structures" are tugging on our universe like cosmic magnets, a controversial new study says.

Everything in the known universe is said to be racing toward the massive clumps of matter at more than 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) an hour—a movement the researchers have dubbed dark flow.

The presence of the extra-universal matter suggests that our universe is part of something bigger—a multiverse—and that whatever is out there is very different from the universe we know, according to study leader Alexander Kashlinsky, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

September 20, 2008

Man-Made Black Holes Temporarily Postponed

Monique Chartier

The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland suffered some sort of electrical malfunction yesterday and is out of commission for two months as repairs are effected. The first beams had been successfully sent round the Collider ring about ten days ago but protons have yet to be smashed together.

September 9, 2008

Re: Busting the Palin Caricature

Carroll Andrew Morse

In addition to the areas that Marc mentioned, members of the Projo editorial board (and some other organs of the MSM) are playing fast-and-loose also with their description of Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's position on stem cell research. Here's the the unsigned editorial from Saturday…

Governor Palin didn’t mention…that she opposes stem-cell research.
…and the Froma Harrop op-ed from Sunday…
It’s four more years of national humiliation as our leadership undermines the teaching of evolutionary science, and if something happens to John McCain, opposes stem-cell research.
But the statement that Governor Palin "opposes stem cell research" is not accurate and leaves the reader in the dark about the important developments into non-embryonic stem-cell research that have occurred over the past year.

The most promising research into stem cell medical treatments is coming from the use of "induced pluripotent stem-cells", using cells taken from adults and not human embryos. Time Magazine described the most recent breakthrough in July…

After nearly a decade of setbacks and false starts, stem-cell science finally seems to be hitting its stride. Just a year after Japanese scientists first reported that they had generated stem cells by reprogramming adult skin cells — without using embryos — American researchers have managed to use that groundbreaking technique to achieve another scientific milestone. They created the first nerve cells from reprogrammed stem cells — an important demonstration of the potential power of stem-cell-based treatments to cure disease.

Led by Kevin Eggan at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Christopher Henderson at Columbia University, the 13-person team reported online today in Science Express that they had generated motor neurons from the skin cells of two elderly patients with a rare form of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive neurodegenerative condition. The new study marks an important first step on the road toward real stem-cell-based therapies, and also answers several plaguing questions about the pioneering stem-cell technique known as induced pluripotent stem cell, or iPS, generation.

IPS was first described by Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka, who, in 2007, showed that the introduction of four genes into an adult human skin cell could reprogram it back to an embryonic state (Yamanaka had reported the same achievement in mice the previous year). Like embryonic stem cells, these reprogrammed adult cells could be coaxed into becoming any other type of cell — from skin to nerve to muscle. But researchers questioned whether the new stem cells would behave as predictably or as safely as embryonic stem cells, or whether iPS would consistently yield usable cells. "Our work shows that the original method developed by Yamanaka works great," says Eggan.

Is anyone opposed to this line of research? If not, than the Projo op-ed page should stop running claims that someone is.

The idea the Governor Palin opposes all stem cell research traces back, as best as I can determine, to statements made in her 2006 campaign for Governor of Alaska, before the major 2007 breakthrough in creating stem-cells from adult tissues had occurred, but some MSM writers don’t seem interested in this critical distinction, nor in helping the public keep pace with the science.

Is that a rational position for those who fancy themselves as pro-science?

September 5, 2008

There Is a Right Path

Justin Katz

Just a pause to affirm that one doesn't have to push the boundaries of ethics to extend the boundaries of medical science:

The cell identity switch turned ordinary pancreas cells into the rarer type that churns out insulin, essential for preventing diabetes. But its implications go beyond diabetes to a host of possibilities, scientists said.

It's the second advance in about a year that suggests that doctors might be able to use a patient's own cells to treat disease or injury without turning to stem cells taken from embryos.

Of course, some folks give the impression that, deep down, they believe that ethical absolutes are the greatest disease facing humanity, with all mere ailments as subsequent considerations.

July 20, 2008

Irrelevant by Association

Justin Katz

It occurs to me, while reading through the comments to last week's post on religion and evolution, that a bit of common, subconscious legerdemain infects those making the secularist argument. By way of context, here is my lone statement of intentions with respect to my own voting intentions:

I'll vote every time for children to have at least the sense that such a reality is plausible, and I submit that a society that insists that children receive only the cold, hard lessons of the skeptics would be doomed.

That statement bears on my own community. Elsewhere, I hold that, down to the community level, regions ought to have a wide degree of latitude to shape the education that their children receive. Yes, the United States needs well educated scientists, but who am I, as an overeducated New England carpenter to judge for a town in rural Mississippi that the utility of scientific knowledge outweighs the utility of religious faith — even if we exclude spiritual well-being from the judgment. A person who believes that there is no child in the country who would not be better served by an accurate, if rudimentary, understanding of evolution than by an affirmation of some particular religious worldview is a prima facie zealot and, unless claiming to know every American child, ought to cede stronger authority to those closer to them.

Beyond those civic principles, my writing on this topic presents merely my own view of God, offered with the intention of honestly conveying the personal intellectual foundations on which I construct my specific policy suggestions and illustrating what I feel to be at stake. I'm not, in other words, presenting Bible passages to be included in public policy or in classroom instruction.

Unfortunately, discussion of religion has worn deep ruts into our society's intellectual habits. For example, the statement is commonly made (often with strains of condescension) that humanity has manifold understandings of God, creating a necessity to exclude Him from public discourse. It is inappropriate — the case in point argument goes — to mention God in the context of evolution because various religions have offered various competitive explanations for the development of the universe, which, being of a religious nature, are beyond our ability to judge.

This is a clear non sequitur — one directly related to a process whereby many people wrongly conclude that God does not exist. Having once labeled something as "religion," which requires some degree of faith, the person asserts the assumption that all such thinking must be wholly based on relativistic "myths" and therefore tainted by indecipherable criteria. One needn't possess much faculty for reason to spot the faith-based taint in such a conclusion: namely, the underlying belief that there is no God and, therefore, no more or less accurate understanding of Him.

Ported to discussion of public school curricula, it can seem as if the secularists are arguing that government schools cannot suggest the compatibility of God with evolution for the reason that some religions are clearly not compatible with it, thus triggering a violation of church/state separation. The consequence becomes that the lessons develop a decidedly atheistic tone, given the impression that no theology can account for the mechanical process. It becomes science versus religion because we lack the cultural confidence to stand our religious traditions beside our scientific accomplishments.

The only constitutionally reasonable way to address this sort of conundrum is to allow maximum freedom across the nation. As may be inferred from my willingness to make suggestions about societal doom, I'm of the opinion that a society that allows intellectual progress fully in a reciprocal relationship with theological development is most likely to prove successful in every way about which we should be concerned. Allow people to hone their local societies according to their beliefs and some will thrive while others languish, providing valuable lessons for our broader collective as we move forward.

July 10, 2008

Re: No Scientific Theory

Justin Katz

Andrew's disagreement with John West, it seems to me, comes down to a single word: "directs." In essence, West presents two opposing possibilities:

  1. "God... intentionally directs the development of life toward a specific end."
  2. "God himself cannot know how evolution will turn out."

Andrew's hypothetical of God's experimenting with "multi-creation," picking "the one He likes best and [making] it permanent" would fit within possibility #1, with God's method of "directing" being, essentially, a series of model runs. I'd argue that such a possibility would have, in West's words, "consequences for how we view life" that are more similar to the tweaking God than the ball-rolling God, because the critical difference is the belief that God has a preference that may be understood (admittedly to a limited extent) by observing that which he has made, as St. Paul put it.

My own view is that all realities that could exist do exist in the only way that it makes sense to call "real." (In religious terms, one might say that God's imagination is reality.) What we experience as the linear progression of time is actually the movement of our souls across a playing field of options, and God acts mainly by drawing our souls toward a particular range of those possibilities.

Moving more than a clarification or two beyond that stage in the discussion requires many, many more paragraphs than I intend to pile on, here, but the salient point is that there remains an indication of "intelligent design." If there is a distinction worth making between West's statements and Andrew's, I wouldn't characterize it as one of West limiting God's rules, but one of Andrew limiting God's definition of "directing."

May 27, 2008

Skipping Past the "Helicopter in Every Garage" Phase

Carroll Andrew Morse

Jay Fitzgerald of the Boston Herald reports on a long-shot but interesting economic development project for Rhode Island…

Woburn’s Terrafugia Inc. hopes its futuristic car-plane business takes off in Massachusetts.

The maker of the hybrid car-plane contraption - which theoretically will both drive on roads and soar through the sky - plans to meet with officials from Gov. Deval Patrick’s Massachusetts Office of Business Development next month to try to work out an economic-incentives package to keep the company in the state.

But Massachusetts may face stiff competition in its attempt to retain Terrafugia’s future production operations.

A number of states - eager to attract a cutting-edge manufacturer requiring potentially hundreds of highly skilled assembly and mechanical workers - are actively wooing the young aviation company, founded by an MIT grad and his colleagues.

"I’d rather stay right here in Massachusetts," said Carl Dietrich, co-founder and chief executive of Terrafugia, which hopes to start production of its two-seat car-planes sometime in 2009.
But "economics are economics," said Dietrich, who adds he’s listening closely to economic-incentives pitches being made by such states as Rhode Island and Maine.

The two states, both long known for their boat-making sectors, see aviation as a logical way to attract and keep highly trained mechanics jobs, he said.

The name of Terrafugia's intended first car-plane is the "Transition". According to Terrafugia's FAQ, car-plane means exactly what it sounds like, i.e. something that might exist in a Sean Connery era James Bond movie…
Q: Will the Transition fit in my garage?

A: The Transition was designed to fit into a standard household garage. At 6.75 ft (2.1 m) high, 6.5 ft (2.0 m) wide, and 18.75’ (5.7 m) long, the Transition will fit anywhere that you could park a larger SUV such as a Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator, and will fit inside a 7’ garage and a standard parking space.

Q: How fast will the Transition drive on the ground?

A: The Transition will be fully highway capable and able to easily reach the speed limit. A 100hp engine in a vehicle as light as the Transition will provide ample power on the ground.

Q: How fast will the Transition fly?

A: At 75% power, the anticipated cruising speed of the Transition is 100 kts (115 mph, 185 km/hr).

OK, well, maybe it's not exactly like a James Bond car-plane…
Q: Can I take off from the highway?

A: No. In addition to power lines, billboards, overpasses, and other obstructions that make this idea unsafe, the Transition will have to be parked with the engine off in order to deploy the wings and engage the propeller. It is also illegal in most states (emergency landings excluded).

I'm curious; does the possibility of luring this company to Rhode Island make any of the if- it's-not-being-taxed-right-now-then-it-needs-to-be crowd mellow their position on whether Rhode Island should help balance the state budget by ending its sales-tax exemption on aircraft?

April 30, 2008

A Difference of Ballast

Justin Katz

Yes, unless Ben Stein didn't simply neglect to enunciate a qualifier (such as the one that I've inserted in the following quotation) in which he actually believes, then he may, as Glenn Reynolds puts it, have "completely lost it":

When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers, talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed ... that was horrifying beyond words, and that's where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that's where science [as an ideological locus of meaning and moral guidance] leads you.

The added phrase would certainly be a legitimate response to biologist P.Z. Myers's explanation, in the clip that Stein was referencing, that it was scientific learning that led him away from religious faith, and his hope that science would become the "main course" to the religious "side dish." A more accurate culinary metaphor, from my point of view, would present religion as the set of beliefs and understanding of the world that sets the whys and hows of eating, while science helps one determine what to ingest toward those ends.

Automatically hearing or not hearing such important intellectual foundations as that which Stein conspicuously omitted lays, I believe, the central barrier of this particular dispute. Consider Reynolds:

The Holocaust was not a scientific endeavor, but had its roots in the Nazis' unscientific loathing of the Jews. The Nazis did try to dress up that loathing in scientific dress, but that was a propaganda move, not science. (Indeed, Nazi science, for the most part, was dreadful science, made up by people to suit their preexisting beliefs without actual resort to the scientific method.)

And (via him), Ed Morrissey:

Science does not lead to Dachau; ideology perverting science led to Dachau. The Holocaust occurred when raving anti-Semites and materialists latched onto scientific theory as a philosophy, making it into a rationalization for what they would have done regardless.

Reynolds elides the reality that the trappings of science make for effective propaganda, and Morrissey is too quick to treat science as a passive body of knowledge, as opposed to a mode of thought that can have an effect on the thinker. It is an error to suppose that science can define, explain, and qualify everything that is important in life — or even just important in intellectual inquiry — but the implications, when once that error has been made, do lend themselves to dangerous conclusions. The lack of an anchor against tides of explicability and direction facilitates rationalization of ghastly experimentation and application.

Something similar can be said in general of religion, of course, and science is among the anchors to prevent that particular drift. The danger of current polemics is that the distance between us will grow as we pick and choose which types of ballast we may permissibly jettison. And we do well to grant a benefit of the doubt to those of the other side when — in one-take broadcast conversation — they appear to have left some disclaimers unsaid.

December 31, 2007

The Projo's Technical Difficulties with Digital TV

Carroll Andrew Morse

An unsigned editorial in Saturday's Projo had this to say about the coming transition to digitial television…

The government is taking away the analog spectrum to boost wireless services (which are becoming ever more important) and for public-safety needs. That’s why the Feds (i.e., taxpayers) are even offering to help pay for those converter boxes.

So those rooftop antennae that were such important images in so many Christmas cards and magazine illustrations (will magazines disappear too?) will leave the scene, increasingly dominated by cell-phone towers.

…but I don't think that's correct.

Digital TV signals are broadcast over the airwaves on standard UHF frequencies, so cable or satellite TV is not required for receiving digital or high-definition broadcasts. All that's needed is a) a digital converter and b) a good UHF antenna for acquiring signals to convert. (Channels that were originally VHF; 6, 10, and 12 in the Rhode Island market, have each been assigned some portion of the UHF spectrum, which the converters are programmed to find whenever the "old" VHF channel numbers are selected).

In anticipation of the change-over to digital, most televisions being manufactured now have converters built directly into them. External converters will only be required for older sets. WJAR-TV (NBC 10) has more detail available here; WPRI-TV's (CBS 12) digital information is available here.

Thus, contrary to the Projo editorial, UHF antennas will be more important than ever for receiving over-the-air broadcasts after the conversion to digital.

November 27, 2007

Clarity for Safety's Sake

Justin Katz

I missed last night's Tiverton Town Council meeting because, on top of dealing with some essential technology problems with my arsenal, we had a bit of toxic contamination in the home. Well, that's probably exaggerating: we broke one of those energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs and, realizing that they contain mercury, the obsessive in me had to research the danger.

One hopes that even a hypochondriac would find significance in the fact that just about every panic-laced missive on the topic refers to the exact same story, about a Maine mother who shattered a bulb in her daughter's room and wound up two grand in the hole because the uncleaned spot on the shag carpet registered a too-high mercury level. But even a merely cautious parent might find cause for confused concern in the fact that the EPA's clean-up guidelines for mercury spills state both:

Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury


If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag or vacuum debris in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

The bottom line is that the bulbs contain very little mercury (less than 5mg in gaseous form), and the average break-and-clean will diminish the risk with each step, even if done all wrong:

  • Some particles stay in the bulb.
  • Some particles drift off into the air.
  • Some particles stick to the shards.
  • Some particles get caught in the vacuum bag.
  • Some particles get caught by the body's natural defenses.
  • And some particles get absorbed with no deleterious effect.

Still, as I do with every quotidian danger, I wish some group or agency were given exemption from lawsuits in order to offer candid statements of risk and effect for the growing number of substances that we know to be harmful. So what if the safety threshold for mercury is 300 nanograms per cubic meter. What happens to the human body if that doubles, triples, quadruples? What would be the likely intake breaking the bulb right under one's nose? A foot away? Ten feet away?

The variables are manifold, of course, but for citizen laypeople, it'd be enough to know whether we're lighting campfires in the jungle or shooting blowtorches in the hay barn. And then I can get to wondering if my blue-state conservatism is somehow related to a periodic childhood practice of smashing fluorescent bulbs in the dumpster garages of my apartment complex, right after picking at the asbestos pipe insulation in the laundry room...

November 26, 2007

Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts on the Stem Cell Breakthrough

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts has issued a statement on the stem cell breakthrough that was reported last week in two major scientific journals…

As a strong advocate for all forms of stem cell research, I am excited to learn that scientists are able to manipulate skin cells into embryonic cells that could lead to the development of treatments, and hopefully cures, for the most debilitating and life threatening diseases of our time. This is a wonderful discovery that opens the door to a new avenue of stem cell research. I encourage our Congressional delegation to push for greater federal research dollars for every type of stem cell research.

We must continue to pursue each and every scientific opportunity in this sector to save lives, prevent suffering and create research opportunities in our highly skilled biotech economy here in Rhode Island.

The Lieutenant Governor’s statement also made mention of her current efforts regarding adult stem cells…
Lt. Gov. Roberts is currently working with leaders in the General Assembly to submit legislation that will ensure expanded banking of cord blood, a different type of adult stem cell. Roberts hopes to implement a system in hospitals across the state for public cord blood banking which increases research opportunities and can save lives in Rhode Island.
Lt. Gov. Roberts assembled a report on stem cell research possibilities earlier this year that can be read at her official website.

November 25, 2007

Equal Like a Dream Versus a Song and a Dream

Justin Katz

It would have been too much, I suppose, to hope that the New York Times would take the opportunity of the recent stem-cell breakthrough to correct a longstanding falsehood in its analysis spin of the issue to date. It is, nonetheless, disappointing that it persists:

Early in the controversy, opponents, including Mr. Bush, often said they supported studies using so-called adult stem cells that involve cells extracted from blood and bone marrow. But those cells have more limited potential than embryonic stem cells, and proponents of embryo experiments said it was like comparing apples to oranges. The reprogrammed skin cells, by contrast, appear to hold the same properties as embryonic stem cells, more an apples-to-apples comparison.

Perhaps one can say that there's nothing factually incorrect in the quoted paragraph, provided one limits "potential" to meaning "theoretical potential." As I've noted before (for two), "so-called adult stem cells" have already produced cures and treatments. One cannot say, however, that the recent "findings have put people on both sides of the stem cell divide on nearly equal political footing." One side is willing to dive into an ethical morass on the oversold promise of any-day-now medical miracles, as long as we plow through objections to killing embryos and cloning. The other side now has not only a slate of present-day accomplishments, but a very high likelihood of entering the very same miracle race.

November 23, 2007

A Primer on the Stem Cell Breakthrough

Carroll Andrew Morse

1. Remind me what all the hubbub surrounding stem cells is again.

Theoretically, illnesses caused by damaged or destroyed cells can be cured, if replacement cells can be created. Stem cells are a promising source of replacement cells.

2. So why don’t we use already cell therapies, wherever new cells would help?

Finding replacements is not easy. You can’t just drop any ol’ cell into a damaged area of the human body and expect it to take up the required function. Using the right cell for the right problem is necessary.

3. And stem cells are the answer, because…

They can be used to create any specialized type of cell.

Every cell in the body, literally within its DNA, contains all of the information necessary to produce every kind of tissue; heart, brain, nerve, bone, etc. that makes the body up. Given that we humans start out as a small set of cells (ultimately just a single cell), our cells at earliest stage of life must be flexible enough to use DNA information to produce any kind of tissue.

If doctors and scientists can find a source of these flexible cells -- stem cells -- and learn how to manipulate their growth, they may be able to create specialized cells useful in many therapies.

4. So let me rephrase question 2. Why don’t we already use cell therapies, wherever new cells created from stem cells would help?

Let me rephrase answer 2. Finding stem cells to make into replacements is not easy.

Until now, the primary source of stem cells fully capable of becoming any kind of tissue has been embryos, but acquiring embryonic stem cells requires destroying an embryo. This raises obvious ethical concerns.

And even if embryonic stem cells can be turned in to the appropriate cells for a cure, they cannot be readily transplanted into a sick patient, because of the body’s natural rejection of tissues that come from a foreign body.

5. What's the big breakthrough everyone is talking about?

Scientists announced a truly amazing discovery last week: the process of a stem cell turning into a specific tissue cell is apparently not as one-way as had been widely assumed. It is possible to take regular cells from an adult human and turn them back into stem cells. The Washington Post has provided a pretty good summary

[Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s team at Kyoto University] identified four genes in mouse skin cells that, when operating at high levels together, can turn countless other genes on and off in just the right pattern to make skin cells almost indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells….

Because the rejuvenated cells did not come from embryos and behave slightly differently from embryonic stem cells, Yamanaka named them "induced pluripotent stem cells," or "ips" cells (pluripotent means "able to become virtually every kind of").

He immediately tried the same technique on human skin cells….He coaxed the ips cells to become nerve cells, heart cells that beat in the dish, and other major cell types. And he showed that they were exact genetic matches to the skin cells they came from, suggesting that tissues or organs grown from them could be transplanted into the donor of the skin cells and not be rejected.

Dr. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered a similar process around the same time.

6. How is the transformation done?

Literally, by reprogramming DNA….

Yamanaka put copies of [the] four genes into retroviruses, Trojan-horse-like viruses that insert their genetic payloads into the DNA of cells they infect. Once infected, the skin cells took on virtually all the characteristics of embryonic ones….

At the same time, Thomson, Junying Yu and colleagues were racing ahead. Working from an initial list of 14 genes that seemed to make human cells embryonic, they gradually narrowed their recipe to just four genes, too….

His cells passed the same tests as Yamanaka's, though in his final recipe, two of the genes he used were different.

"Apparently there are various ways to get to Rome," said Rudolf Jaenisch, a stem cell researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. "We don't have to do it like the egg. We can do it differently."

7. In politically charged science debates, the claims sometimes get ahead of the reality. Any reason to be skeptical here?

Well, James Thomson is the same scientist who discovered embryonic stem cells about a decade ago, so if he thinks this is for real, there is obviously something to that.

Dr. Yamanaka and Dr. Thomson haven’t quite made the claim that they've produced stem cells, but cells that are very close to stem cells. Some more observation and experimentation is needed before it can be claimed that they are 100% true stem cells.

The process of creating the stem cells involves certain cancer risks, but because there are mulitple ways to induce the transformation into a stem cell, the researchers in the field seem confident that this problem will be worked around. But I'll repeat the warning in the question -- in politically charged science debates, the claims sometimes get ahead of the reality

With certain diseases that originate at the genetic level, generating your own stem cells will not be a solution, because the stem cells will contain the same defects causing the illness, so solving the rejection problem and allowing cells from another person to be transplanted will continue to be investigated.

8. For the more technically minded, can you be any more specific about any of this?

Well, I suppose I could re-print the abstract from Dr. Thomson et. al’s article appearing in the journal Science

Somatic cell nuclear transfer allows trans-acting factors present in the mammalian oocyte to reprogram somatic cell nuclei to an undifferentiated state. Here we show that four factors (OCT4, SOX2, NANOG, and LIN28) are sufficient to reprogram human somatic cells to pluripotent stem cells that exhibit the essential characteristics of embryonic stem cells. These human induced pluripotent stem cells have normal karyotypes, express telomerase activity, express cell surface markers and genes that characterize human ES cells, and maintain the developmental potential to differentiate into advanced derivatives of all three primary germ layers. Such human induced pluripotent cell lines should be useful in the production of new disease models and in drug development as well as application in transplantation medicine once technical limitations (for example, mutation through viral integration) are eliminated.
Er, that makes it all clear, right?

November 19, 2007

Thanksgiving Meal Prep Work

Marc Comtois

In preparation for Thanksgiving (I'm in training right now...), here is some reassurance for those of you (well, me) who tend to over-indulge: Eat as much as you want:

Katherine Flegal and colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute...used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is a representative sample of the US population, to find the connections between being underweight, overweight and obese and cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer and many other causes of death. The results are startling since they confound much of the received wisdom about being fat in America.

Flegal discovered that being overweight (BMI's of 25-30) was not responsible for increased mortality. In fact for CVD, cancer and all other causes, being overweight actually increased one's chance of living longer. In total, overweight was associated with a total of 138, 281 fewer deaths. Being overweight is not likely to kill you.

She found that being obese increased the risk of premature death for the most part in only the most obese, that is those with BMI's over 35. In other words, even modest obesity is not a death sentence. For example, those with BMI's of 30-35 aged 25-69 did not have a statistically significant increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Indeed, for cancer the results are even more startling since even those with BMI's in excess of 35 did not have a statistically significant increased risk of dying. And for all other diseases other than CVD and cancer, obesity up to a BMI of 35 was modestly protective -- that is, likely to result in a longer rather than a shorter life.

See, a little cushion is good for you! Now eat more pie, it's for your health, after all!

October 27, 2007

Evolution or Devolution?

Justin Katz

Upon reading some British scientist's prediction of two species of humans thousands of years hence — a genetically solidified separation of the haves and have-nots — commenters have seemed to overlook the possibility that the haves are rapidly divesting themselves of the only thing that is actually worth having as they rend themselves from the sometimes inconvenient and often painful embrace of nature. As a cultural matter, it perhaps comes down to aesthetic preference, but such marches in the presumed direction of evolution must incsusceptibility to unforeseen pitfalls. Consider:

These humans will be between 6ft and 7ft tall and they will live up to 120 years.

"Physical features will be driven by indicators of health, youth and fertility that men and women have evolved to look for in potential mates," says the report, which suggests that advances in cosmetic surgery and other body modifying techniques will effectively homogenise our appearance.

Men will have symmetrical facial features, deeper voices and bigger penises, according to Curry in a report commissioned for men's satellite TV channel Bravo.

Women will all have glossy hair, smooth hairless skin, large eyes and pert breasts, according to Curry.

Racial differences will be a thing of the past as interbreeding produces a single coffee-coloured skin tone.

What if our clear and visible distinctions have been a key ingredient of our species' success? On an individual level, it allows us to recognize each other — to identify (if we're to be reductive) others whom we know to possess particular information. On a regional level, it has improved our odds at predicting others' beliefs, associations, and previous experiences.

Me, I'll throw my lot in with those who revel in the grubby difficulties of organic life. Cultural evolution requires improvement of our handling of nature and its differences, not our self-extrication from them.

October 14, 2007

Stem Cells Even a Catholic Can Love

Justin Katz

The following blurb (from page 12 of this PDF of the 10/11 Rhode Island Catholic) reminds us that stem-cell research can be moral and miraculous:

Three year-old Andrew Mueting of Dodge City is a bright, happy-golucky, energetic little boy. But when he was four months old, doctors gave him a bleak prognosis. Born with malignant infantile osteopetrosis, an exceedingly rare blood disorder that affects approximately 20 U.S. babies a year, Andrew was expected to spend his few years of life fighting anemia and infections, struggling with weak bones and eventual blindness and deafness. Now Andrew is expected to live a long, healthy life with few ill effects. In treatments at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., "Andrew had to go through eight days of chemotherapy to completely wipe out his immune system," said his father, Nick Mueting. "During the last five days of his treatment, I took a medicine that helped my body produce a lot of stem cells in my blood. At the end of that period ... I was hooked up to a machine for five hours as it extracted the stem cells from my blood." After that, 50 cubic centimeters of the father's stem cells were injected into his son's blood.

I'd note that embryonic stem cells have still not produced any actual cures, although of controversy, ill will, and (in my opinion) unhealthy worldviews they've produced much.

October 10, 2007

Consensus Cascade: Fear the "Experts"

Marc Comtois

The New York Times piece, "Diet and Fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus" explains how a scientific "consensus" came into being that a low-fat diet was best (despite evidence to the contrary) (via Dale Light). How'd it happen?

We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.

If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong.

Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better, according to the economists Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch. If, say, 60 percent of a group’s members have been given information pointing them to the right answer (while the rest have information pointing to the wrong answer), there is still about a one-in-three chance that the group will cascade to a mistaken consensus.

Cascades are especially common in medicine as doctors take their cues from others, leading them to overdiagnose some faddish ailments (called bandwagon diseases) and overprescribe certain treatments (like the tonsillectomies once popular for children). Unable to keep up with the volume of research, doctors look for guidance from an expert — or at least someone who sounds confident.

Hm. Sound familiar? As Dale Light notes:
We should remember that "science" is conducted by human beings with all the weakness and fallibility that entails, and that credentialed "experts" are often disastrously wrong. With that in mind we should recognize that expert opinion is a weak and shifting base on which to construct public policy.
While this is true in the hard sciences, it is especially true in the social sciences, which are less empirical no matter what anyone says. Usually the prescription written to solve a societal ill is more test run than cure. The reality is that it usually takes years, decades or even centuries for good ideas to percolate and solidify into something that works.

October 8, 2007

Not Slaves to the Synapses

Justin Katz

So conditioned have we become to the materialist construction that we find it surprising when somebody suggests that our bodies — even our brains — are something more than time bombs waiting to betray our spirits:

A surprising study of elderly people suggests that those who see themselves as self-disciplined, organized achievers have a lower risk for developing Alzheimer's disease than people who are less conscientious.

A purposeful personality may somehow protect the brain, perhaps by increasing neural connections that can act as a reserve against mental decline, said study co-author Robert Wilson of Chicago's Rush University Medical Center.

Astoundingly, the brains of some of the conscientious people in the study were examined after their deaths and were found to have lesions that would meet accepted criteria for Alzheimer's — even though these people had shown no signs of dementia.

"This adds to our knowledge that lifestyle, personality, how we think, feel and behave are very importantly tied up with risk for this terrible illness," Wilson said. "It may suggest new ideas for trying to delay the onset of this illness."

Previous studies have linked social connections and stimulating activities like working puzzles with a lower risk of Alzheimer's. The same researchers reported previously that people who experience more distress and worry about their lives are at a higher risk.

It's almost as if our brains are interactive material vessels for minds (some might say "souls") that aren't merely a byproduct of biological development.

October 6, 2007

Artificial Life

Monique Chartier

The Guardian (United Kingdom) is reporting that

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.

Supposedly, Mr. Venter has yet to take the final step of transplanting the artificial genome into a living bacterial cell.

The team of scientists has already successfully transplanted the genome of one type of bacterium into the cell of another, effectively changing the cell's species. Mr Venter said he was "100% confident" the same technique would work for the artificially created chromosome.

The new life form will depend for its ability to replicate itself and metabolise on the molecular machinery of the cell into which it has been injected, and in that sense it will not be a wholly synthetic life form. However, its DNA will be artificial, and it is the DNA that controls the cell and is credited with being the building block of life.

It would be interesting to learn the composition of his "ethics committee":

Mr Venter said he had carried out an ethical review before completing the experiment. "We feel that this is good science," he said.

Possibly the "we" includes a larger circle than Mr. Venter realizes.

September 25, 2007

The Human Race: Safe for the Next 62,000,000 Minus 12,900 Years?

Carroll Andrew Morse

You've probably heard the theory that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs tens of millions years ago, but did you know that a similar impact may have caused the extinction of the woolly mammoths, just 12,900 years ago? According to Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, a Brown University geologist is a leading researcher into this event

Researchers studying a dark layer of dirt at 10 sites around North America say they have found evidence that an asteroid or a comet may have killed the woolly mammoths, giant sloths, camels and other huge creatures that once roamed the continent.

The international team of researchers looked under what is known as "black mat" sediment, which dates back to 12,900 years ago. It coincides with a period of abrupt global cooling known as the "Big Freeze," or the Younger Dryas....

"We don't have a smoking gun for our theory, but we sure have a lot of shell casings," said Peter Schultz, a planetary geologist at Brown University in Rhode Island.

"Taken together, the markers found in the samples offer intriguing evidence that North America had a major impact event about 12,900 years ago."

This news actually makes me feel a little better about the immediate future of humanity.

Scientific evidence has been found in the fossil record indicating a cycle of major worldwide extinction events occurring about every 62 million years or so. Here's a description of the theory from National Geographic

Robert Rohde and Richard Muller are vexed. For the past 542 million years the number of animal species living in the world's oceans has risen and fallen in a repeating pattern, and the scientists haven't the foggiest idea why....

The pattern includes a rise and fall of marine animal diversity every 62 million years and a weaker cycle of rising and falling marine diversity, which repeats every 140 million years. The researchers think that expanding and retreating glaciers may explain the 140-million-year cycle, but they are stumped over what drives the 62-million-year cycle.

The declines in the 62-million-year cycle correspond with some of the best known mass extinctions on Earth.

Among them are the die-off caused by the asteroid or comet widely believed to have doomed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and the "Great Dying" of 250 million years ago. During the Great Dying, some unknown cause wiped out most life on Earth.

The extinction of dinosaurs has generally been taken to have been the last event in the 62-million year cycle, meaning another catastrophic extinction may be overdue and ready to begin any day now. Unless, of course, the "scheduled" extinction event (assuming the theories to be true) already happened, 12,900 years ago.

Biologists have generally proposed various one-off explanations, e.g. the rise of humanity, for the set of extinctions that claimed the woolly mammoth. If, however, the extinctions 12,900 years ago were part of the 62-million year cycle that's connected to various astronomical and climatic factors, we may be safe going forward from today for at least the next 61.99 million years!

The Human Race: Safe for the Next 62,000,000 Minus 12,900 Years?

Carroll Andrew Morse

You've probably heard the theory that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs tens of millions years ago, but did you know that a similar impact may have caused the extinction of the woolly mammoths, just 12,900 years ago? According to Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, a Brown University geologist is a leading researcher into this event

Researchers studying a dark layer of dirt at 10 sites around North America say they have found evidence that an asteroid or a comet may have killed the woolly mammoths, giant sloths, camels and other huge creatures that once roamed the continent.

The international team of researchers looked under what is known as "black mat" sediment, which dates back to 12,900 years ago. It coincides with a period of abrupt global cooling known as the "Big Freeze," or the Younger Dryas....

"We don't have a smoking gun for our theory, but we sure have a lot of shell casings," said Peter Schultz, a planetary geologist at Brown University in Rhode Island.

"Taken together, the markers found in the samples offer intriguing evidence that North America had a major impact event about 12,900 years ago."

This news actually makes me feel a little better about the immediate future of humanity.

Scientific evidence has been found in the fossil record indicating a cycle of major worldwide extinction events occurring about every 62 million years or so. Here's a description of the theory from National Geographic

Robert Rohde and Richard Muller are vexed. For the past 542 million years the number of animal species living in the world's oceans has risen and fallen in a repeating pattern, and the scientists haven't the foggiest idea why....

The pattern includes a rise and fall of marine animal diversity every 62 million years and a weaker cycle of rising and falling marine diversity, which repeats every 140 million years. The researchers think that expanding and retreating glaciers may explain the 140-million-year cycle, but they are stumped over what drives the 62-million-year cycle.

The declines in the 62-million-year cycle correspond with some of the best known mass extinctions on Earth.

Among them are the die-off caused by the asteroid or comet widely believed to have doomed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and the "Great Dying" of 250 million years ago. During the Great Dying, some unknown cause wiped out most life on Earth.

The extinction of dinosaurs has generally been taken to have been the last event in the 62-million year cycle, meaning another catastrophic extinction may be overdue and ready to begin any day now. Unless, of course, the "scheduled" extinction event (assuming the theories to be true) already happened, 12,900 years ago.

Biologists have generally proposed various one-off explanations, e.g. the rise of humanity, for the set of extinctions that claimed the woolly mammoth. If, however, the extinctions 12,900 years ago were part of the 62-million year cycle that's connected to various astronomical and climatic factors, we may be safe going forward from today for at least the next 61.99 million years!

September 24, 2007

The Reductiveness of Science

Justin Katz

A July 30th L.A. Times piece that held the dominant spot in this Sunday's Providence Journal Lifebeat section is a fine specimen of science's reductive power in the hand of a secularist:

The forces of attraction are in many ways mysterious, but scientists know certain things. Studies have shown that women prefer men with symmetrical faces and that men like a certain waist-to-hip ratio in their mates. One study even found that women, when they sniffed men's T-shirts, were attracted to certain kinds of body odors.

That initial spark can flash and fade. Or it can become a flame and then a fire, a rush of exhilaration, yearning, hunger and sense of complete union that scientists know as passionate love.

Key to this state of seeing a person as a soul mate instead of a one-night stand is the limbic system, nestled deep within the brain between the neocortex (the region responsible for reason and intellect) and the reptilian brain (responsible for primitive instincts). Altered levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin -- neurotransmitters also associated with arousal -- wield their influence.

But passionate love is something far stronger than that first sizzle of chemistry. "It's a drive to win life's greatest prize, the right mating partner," Fisher says. It is also, she adds, an addiction.

People in the early throes of passionate love, she says, can think of little else. They describe sleeplessness, loss of appetite, feelings of euphoria, and they're willing to take exceptional risks for the loved one.

Brain areas governing reward, craving, obsession, recklessness and habit all play their part in the trickery.

Love, you see, in all of its stages is traceable through various chemical changes and is, ostensibly, the predictable consequence of a collection of complex factors, from appearance to personal history to the circumstances under which a couple meets. Writer Susan Brink refers to it as a "trick" multiple times. One wonders what scientists could have discovered that would make Brink think love sincere or "real."

It's only natural to feel as if some of the magic has disappeared from something when it has become understood. Natural, but incorrect and deleterious. The emotion is just as real whether or not we know what the brain is doing to create it, just as understanding the physics of a sunrise makes it no less magnificent.

The trickery comes in when mankind presumes to manipulate that which has been defined, and it is the reduction of life's magic to mere mechanics that begets the moral error that manipulation is acceptable. Consider:

Experiments in other mammals add to the human chemical findings. Female prairie voles, for example, develop a distinct preference for a specific male after mating, and the preference is associated with a 50% increase in dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.

But when the monogamous vole is injected with a dopamine antagonist, blocking the activity of the chemical, she'll readily dump her partner for another.

The imaginable applications of a love antidote, or a love enhancer, range from the cute to the tyrannical. Looking at the love of your life and pondering the chemical "trick" of your emotions is socially corrosive, but it's nowhere near as frightening as considering the use toward which such chemical tricks would have been put by 1984's Big Brother.

September 9, 2007

Skeptical, Cynical, Sarcastic, or Just Saying "Heh"

Justin Katz

During a perusal of Instapundit, I came across two (seemingly) unrelated items. The first reports that British skulls appear to have grown 20% above the eyes since the times of the plague:

The two principal differences discovered were that our ancestors had more prominent features, but their cranial vault -- the distance measured from the eyes to the top of the skull -- was smaller.

Dr Peter Rock, lead author of the study and director of orthodontistry at Birmingham University, told the BBC News website: "The astonishing finding is the increased cranial vault heights.

"The increase is very considerable. For example, the vault height of the plague skulls were 80mm, and the modern ones were 95mm -- that's in the order of 20% bigger, which is really rather a lot."

Then, by sheer happenstance, no doubt, I clicked over to a tongue-in-cheek quip about this picture:

Bushitler "Shrub" types should feel welcome to flock to my serious question (not mentioned in the BBC skull article) whether the size of British skulls might have more to do with the long-term effects of interbreeding with large-skulled, small-featured foreigners than with blossoming brain function on the isle.

August 12, 2007

Dictating the World to the Rest of Us

Justin Katz

This represents less of a movement than the Jackass movies — albeit mildly less adolescent and significantly less influential — but it is somewhat emblematic of a certain way of thinking: As noted by Bobbie Johnson's Guardian-related blog, some blogger in California (I think) has taken it upon himself to recategorize books that stores have placed in the science section:

Four copies of (Michael Behe's) The Edge of Evolution were discovered once more in the science section.

I flip a copy and read the back. Here's the beginning of the first quote from the back cover: "Until the past decade and the genomics revolution, Darwin's theory rested on indirect evidence and reasonable speculation..." (Dr. Philip Skell, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at Pennsylvania State University, and member of the National Academy of Sciences). That's not true! I am emboldened by this bare-faced lie from this well-respected elderly chemist, pick up all four copies, and stroll upstairs.

Now, I aim for accuracy in my recategorization, and I was still slightly mad at the lies on the back cover (read the "Editorial Reviews" at Amazon for a sampling), so I sought out the most appropriate section of the store:

Behe's lie-covered volume now rightly resides in the Religious Fiction section (click on the image to see the label). A job well done.

The act itself is little more than a prank, causing mild difficulties to the stores and customers who might seek to find these books, and it's only fair to note that the blogger also moved Chris Hitchens's latest anti-religious screed, so embarking on a counter-crusade would be a bit of an overreaction. But a slice of the discussion on Johnson's blog brings out a bit of a scent that permeates the science/religion battle. Writes one commenter:

That´s the suppression of free speech, and not rationalisation.

Replies another:

I disagree. To burn or ban the book is against free speech. To move it to a section more appropriate to its contents is librarianship.

I suppose the latter commenter might have a point if the librarian-vandal had informed the employees of the store about the books' new locations. In unilaterally removing them from the shelf on which others will expect to find them, however, he is, indeed, suppressing free speech in a way not unlike unplugging the microphone of somebody speaking at a legitimate rally.

July 18, 2007

Improving Power Dynamics by Flipping the Bird to the Birds

Carroll Andrew Morse

Apologies. I know we’re discussing some serious stuff in the posts below. But I just can’t resist using Justin’s most recent title as a hook to introduce this Boston Globe item about research being conducted at Brown University to improve aircraft design through the study of pregnant female bats

Since the Wright brothers took to the skies a century ago, aerospace engineers have studied bird flight as the baseline for designing aircraft.

But a special Pentagon research project underway in Providence could change that.

A team of engineers and biologists at Brown University has discovered that bats, the mysterious nocturnal mammals that are guided by sound and helped inspire Dracula and Batman, may hold the secret to more efficient flying machines.

The Air Force has taken notice of Brown's work. It will invest $6 million in the project over the next 5 years, in the hope of using the research to design future military aircraft.

Research so far has found that bats can carry up to 50 percent of their weight and execute airborne maneuvers that would make a bird or plane fall out of the sky. Moreover, scientists believe the hundreds of tiny sensors covering bat wings could be the key to their most impressive airborne maneuvers, a discovery that engineers could replicate with networks of sensors and computers on military aircraft.

If researchers can unlock the secrets of bat flight, it could have wide-reaching implications, according to Air Force and Brown officials. They say the project has the potential to revolutionize aircraft design and could lead to the creation of smaller, more efficient military air vehicles that can maneuver in tight spaces as well as gather intelligence and airlift supplies through forbidding terrain.

June 1, 2007

See, Here's the Thing About Evolutionary Argumentation

Justin Katz

It is not my intention, herewith, to offer a supporting addendum to Sam Brownback's New York Times piece about evolution, although I think his gist is surpassingly reasonable. Rather, in reading the discussion of that piece in the Corner — which I'm sure is, or might as well be, playing out in various venues across the country — it seems to me that an important point is being missed.

To begin, John Derbyshire (amidst a collection of phrases that followers of the debate will recognize as puffed feathers) offers the following explanation of his scientist response to Brownback's scientific understanding (all emphases in original):

The problem with this position is, that you need to observe — or at least, darn it, hypothesize — some mechanism that stops the micro before it goes macro. (Not to mention that you have to posit some mechanism, other than macro-evolution, for the origin of species... But leave that aside for the moment.)

Take, for example, allopatric ("different homeland") speciation. You have a population of living, sexually-reproducing organisms, all belonging to the same species (i.e. able to mate with each other). You observe variations within the population. You further observe, watching across several generations, that some variations (red hair, schizophrenia) are heritable in whole or part, some (appendectomy scars) are not heritable at all.

Now you divide your population in two: Population A and Population B. You separate them geographically. (Hence "diferent homelands.") You observe that A and B have different "menus" of heritable variation (A has more redheads, B more schizophrenics). You further observe that A's and B's environments are different — A's is hot and dry, B's cool and wet.

You sit back and observe for a few thousand generations. Yep, microevolution goes on. A changes, B changes. Because they started out with different menus of heritable variations, and because environmental pressures in the two places are different, they change differently. They diverge. A thousand generations on, the two populations look and behave differently from each other. Ten thousand generations on, they look and behave way differently. Orthodox biology ("Darwinism") says that eventually they will be so different, they can no longer interbreed. Speciation will have occurred. A and B are now two species.

Under Brownbackian evolution — micro yes, macro no — this can't happen. They can't go on diverging. They can only get so different, no more. The divergence must slow down and stop. But... what stops it? What's the mechanism?

The accumulating Corner posts (here, here, here, here, here, and here) get all the way to a philosopher's suggestion that "unless we can make a convincing case that the choice is not between relativism or dogmatism, more and more people will reject the former and embrace the latter," but at no point does anybody address what the average person will find objectionable (even if unarticulatedly so) in Derbyshire's explanation. How is it — why is it — that hot/dry versus cool/wet conditions ought to be expected to transform hair color and psychosis into biological differences so vast that sperm and egg will no longer function together? An equatorial African human being can still, as far as I know, mate with an Eskimo, and yet chimpanzees would be schtupped to no avail.

Now, I'm absolutely positive that there's a very clever and ever ready response that I haven't the time, just now, to read with the merited attention, but my experience leads me to predict that the back and forth would — not unlike the hypothesis of "micro yes, macro no" — merely change the terms of the debate, without substantially altering the beliefs of those involved. I'm not saying that those beliefs are stubbornly unreachable, but taking the discussion to the boundaries of my comprehension, I've always found the assumption (e.g.) that it's just so darn logical for environmental factors to change organisms in more and more dramatic ways to dominate the details. Meaning that the details appear proposed mainly to illustrate how the assumption could be true.

To some degree, this is just how science must function. "So far, x has provided predictive information with respect to question y, and if we were able to prove that it functions also as X, then we could explain Y, or even Z." Perhaps what's so frustrating about the whole dispute is that rational religion functions in much the same way, just with a broader class of considerations. "Yes, but the way in which I understand 7 has a certain relevance to question y, and given millennia of compelling thought about numbers (and your certainty that X proves the whole effort to have been misdirected), I'm going to insist that there is something of 2 in Z, regardless of the alphabet." I'm not one to disclaim science's ability to explain the world in which we live, but to the extent that it smuggles in a philosophical materialism, one must risk accusations of creationism to state with certainty, as Brownback does, that "man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order." Simply put, there is a form of comprehension distinct from scientific thought without which no understanding of the world is complete.

Julian Baggini, the aforementioned philosopher, writes the following in the piece to which Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg tread in their conversation:

Richard Rorty, for example, argues against Truth brilliantly, and it is far from clear that he is simply wrong. The problem is that he does not concede as unequivocally as he should that in practice his theories usually leave the world more or less as it is. Rorty believes as much as anyone else that the Holocaust happened more or less as described in history books, he just refuses to use an allegedly outmoded vocabulary of truth to say so. It is not quite fair to call his refusal in such contexts a pose, but it is certainly not quite what it seems.

Ironically, like many left-leaning intellectuals, Rorty thinks that denying objectivity and truth is politically important, as a way of liberating people from the ways of seeing the world promoted as the Truth by the powerful. However, it turns out that Rorty and his ilk seriously misjudged what happens if intellectuals deny truth stridently and frequently enough. Far from making liberal openness more attractive, such denials actually make it appear empty, repugnant and weak compared to the crystalline clarity and certainty of dogma.

Stepping back from the glint of ivory, one can see that the masses do not, in their ignorance, cling to dogma because the academics have left them no middle ground. Those academics aren't making liberal openness seem "empty, repugnant and weak" — language that inherently buys into the academics' elevation of power as the driving force of all human behavior — but that they make it seem wrong, or at least so unbelievable that those who profess it don't actually behave as if it is true.

Such declarations, for all their dogmatic certainty, merely resonate all the more loudly as the bunk that they are. The more monolithic the proclamation, the more apparent it is that the intellectuals, at some point en route to their PhDs, underwent an amputation of the intrinsic human sense that that which has been created likely has a creator, that the miraculous appearance of deliberateness, joined with a longing for and feeling of purpose, is at least suggestive of deliberate purposefulness.

Too often, the purpose of denying truth appears to be the otherwise unjustified allowance of preferences that "the world promoted as the Truth by the powerful" would treat as suspect. Too often the attacks on certainty give the impression of a strategy to promote the power of those who specialize in obscurity. "You're deluded," they say, "in thinking that there's any objective truth, so you should indulge my various urges and subscribe to my political solution to the world's ills, all perpetuating a system that allows me to make a comfortable living explaining why boogers are actually lint when removed from my naval, while you toil in the fields." They are clever enough to prance around any old Truth that might be mentioned, and they insist that the rest of us must be able to reassert those Truths in a way acceptable to them. Otherwise, we are merely retreating to the comfort of certainty, and if we begin to think that a society that devotes its resources to meaningless nonsense could use some reworking, we're reactionary barbarians lashing out at our own insecurities.

Without drawing too close of a comparison between academics defending a philosophy and scientists defending a theory, this leads us back to suspicion of evolution. I don't think it necessarily indicates a "new position" to which "creationists have retreated" to wonder why the burden is on believers (who often would scoff at being called creationists) to explain why humidity wouldn't eventually make a sperm and an egg incompatible. Derbyshire does a bit of weaseling of his own when he assumes that the unlimited capacity of heritable tendencies and "environmental pressures" to change a species is so obvious that it cannot be questioned without the development of an alternative mechanism that is science-like in its exclusion of anything that is not materialistic.

Layer on enough environmental pressures, and the environment begins to look more like an oven that a wildfire, and heritable tendencies more like ingredients than random minerals. Indeed, mutations and unique natural events begin to give the impression of stirring. Thus we arrive at Brownback's bottom line:

If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

Even Goldberg argues that this sets up a "strawman... saying that if you believe in anything more than 'microevolution' you're buying into a cold, godless, materialistic universe," but that attributes more weight to Brownback's positive argument than appears to be intended. The question that he's answering is why he would raise his hand when asked whether he did not "believe in evolution." His explanation is that he believes in evolution as a natural process of relatively minor differentiation, but not (as the question is often meant to imply) as a way for all life to have developed under the indifferent eye of randomness. Anything between must be specified — although the discussion is not likely to fit in an opinion column, much less a debate — so that the believer has the opportunity to specify where the proposed pressures do not appear sufficient to change the very character of the creature and where the mechanisms have begun to give the impression of design.

April 24, 2007

Literal Signs of Rhode Island’s Apocalypse?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here’s one you probably didn’t expect. According to a study by A.M. Best, Rhode Island is a top-10 State in terms of projected damage per square mile caused by tornadoes and “related weather events”…

Most people associate tornado activity with the "Tornado Alley" of the Great Plains states. While this is true in terms of the sheer numbers of tornadoes and losses, surprisingly, catastrophe modeling shows that New Jersey tops the list of the states with the highest average expected, or modeled, insured losses per 1,000 square miles from tornado and related weather events, followed by Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio and Rhode Island. Tornadoes have occurred in all 50 states; however, the high average loss rates in the above-mentioned five states are affected heavily by insured property values in addition to the frequency of the storms, according to a special report issued by A.M. Best Co.
However, according to the National Climatic Data Center, there hasn’t been any property damage caused by a tornado in Rhode Island since 1990. I would hazard a guess that the A.M. Best model doesn't have a high enough resolution to produce accurate results for Rhode Island alone, so we're getting lumped in with Western Massachusetts and its substantially higher tornado rate.

April 11, 2007

The Confluence of Homosexuality and Abortion

Marc Comtois

Ian Donnis rather wryle points out that "one of the country's top evangelicals, Kentucky-based Albert Mohler, has suggested that pre-natal treatment to change homosexuality in the womb would be biblically justified." Donnis also directs us to a recent piece by Mary Ann Sorrentino on the same topic. Writes Sorrentino:

The same gang that for decades has warred against any invasion of the womb in which a developing fetus (which they call an “unborn child)” resides now hopes to put a fetus on a sure road to heterosexuality.

As interesting as the concept of a gay fetus may seem, the image of hordes of so-called Christians fretting about the sexual orientation of the not-yet-born boggles the mind. Yet the Reverend R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, claims that in utero gays can find salvation through hormonal interventions that might make them straight from the moment when the obstetrician whacks their newly born bottom.

Mohler belongs to the same faction that has opposed pre-birth medical tampering in the past. Gender selection, in vitro fertilizations, even some pre-birth surgical procedures have all been deemed wrongful interference in divine territory. Now that these people see a way to diddle with the sexuality of the unborn, however, many of them are all over that possibility.
Indeed, it's apparently the hypocrisy of it all that is bothering people:
''What bothers me is the hypocrisy,'' [Jennifer Chrisler of Family Pride, a group that supports gay and lesbian families] said. ''In one breath, they say the sanctity of an unborn life is unconditional, and in the next breath, it's OK to perform medical treatments on them because of their own moral convictions, not because there's anything wrong with the child.''
Rev. Mohler is clearly making a distinction between pre-natal hormonal treatment and genetic manipulation (maybe it's too fine a point, I don't know). And Chrisler seems to be willingly conflating the meaning of "sanctity of life" to serve her own rhetorical purpose. There can be little doubt that Mohler is being consistent in his stance against abortion, as he also said "he would strongly oppose any move to encourage abortion or genetic manipulation of fetuses on grounds of sexual orientation."

This is part of a deeper debate, as outlined in this article:

Conservatives opposed to both abortion and homosexuality will have to ask themselves whether the public shame of having a gay child outweighs the private sin of terminating a pregnancy....Pro-choice activists won't be spared, either. Will liberal moms who love their hairdressers be as tolerant when faced with the prospect of raising a little stylist of their own? And exactly how pro-choice will liberal abortion-rights activists be when thousands of potential parents are choosing to filter homosexuality right out of the gene pool?
I think Rev. Mohler's stated belief is representative of a majority of Evangelicals (I'm not one, by the way) and thus answers the first question: having any child--gay or not--is preferable to aborting one. On the other hand, Sorrentino has consistently framed the abortion issue as a matter of "choice." So, if she doesn't want to be, you know, "hypocritical," does that mean that we can assume she also endorses a woman's right to choose to abort a fetus because it may be gay?

And that takes me to an even wider discussion. A couple years ago, I came across this touching piece by Patricia Bauer, the mother of a child with Down Syndrome. The parallel to the above discussion is obvious:

Margaret is a person and a member of our family. She has my husband's eyes, my hair and my mother-in-law's sense of humor. We love and admire her because of who she is -- feisty and zesty and full of life -- not in spite of it. She enriches our lives. If we might not have chosen to welcome her into our family, given the choice, then that is a statement more about our ignorance than about her inherent worth.

What I don't understand is how we as a society can tacitly write off a whole group of people as having no value. I'd like to think that it's time to put that particular piece of baggage on the table and talk about it, but I'm not optimistic. People want what they want: a perfect baby, a perfect life. To which I say: Good luck. Or maybe, dream on.

And here's one more piece of un-discussable baggage: This question is a small but nonetheless significant part of what's driving the abortion discussion in this country. I have to think that there are many pro-choicers who, while paying obeisance to the rights of people with disabilities, want at the same time to preserve their right to ensure that no one with disabilities will be born into their own families {here's an example--ed.}. The abortion debate is not just about a woman's right to choose whether to have a baby; it's also about a woman's right to choose which baby she wants to have.

As far as I can tell, Sorrentino is perfectly fine with that.

Sorrentino has done admirable work in the gay community, but has she ever wondered if those whom she's helped through the tragedy of AIDS would have been better off if their mothers had aborted them instead?

That's a pretty tough theoretical, I know.

I suspect that Sorrentino was so delighted to hold up the mirror of hypocrisy in front of Rev. Mohler's face that she failed to look into it herself. Dealing with these deeper issues--instead of taking the easy, facile "hypocrisy" angle--is a much more difficult task. After she's seen the strength and grace of humanity amidst the tragedy of AIDS, I wonder how she can support giving carte blanche to those who may one day seek to preempt what they'd deem an imperfect life. Does she have personal reservations about unfettered abortion rights or does she subscribe to a universal, abortion-on-demand ideal--regardless of circumstance--because it's an individual choice?

In the end, I'm left with the impression that it's the right-wing, Evangelical zealot who is more likely to protect the right to life of an unborn gay child than a liberal, pro-abortion radical.

Get your head around that.

February 18, 2007

Life as Cost/Benefit Analysis

Justin Katz

I suspect this is an argument we'll be hearing more and more as this century unfolds:

"The potential scientific gains outweigh the objections."

No doubt liberals and libertarians will join together in arguing that women have a right to sell their own eggs. But as the scientific promises move ever closer to immortality, can there be any doubt that creating an international market for the seeds of life will prove to have borne much more insidious fruits?

February 7, 2007

Does this Count as the So-Called Politicization of Science?

Carroll Andrew Morse

From a local Oregon television station, via Drudge...

In the face of evidence agreed upon by hundreds of climate scientists, George Taylor holds firm. He does not believe human activities are the main cause of global climate change.

Taylor also holds a unique title: State Climatologist....

In an exclusive interview with KGW-TV, Governor Ted Kulongoski confirmed he wants to take that title from Taylor. The governor said Taylor's contradictions interfere with the state's stated goals to reduce greenhouse gases, the accepted cause of global warming in the eyes of a vast majority of scientists.

“He is Oregon State University's climatologist. He is not the state of Oregon's climatologist,” Kulongoski said.

Taylor declined to comment on the proposal other than to say he was a "bit shocked" by the news. He recently engaged in a debate at O.M.S.I. and repeated his doubts about accepted science.

In an interview he told KGW, "There are a lot of people saying the bulk of the warming of the last 50 years is due to human activities and I don't believe that's true." He believes natural cycles explain most of the changes the earth has seen.

January 29, 2007

Mitt Romney on Social Issues

Carroll Andrew Morse

I know. I’m not supposed to be posting anything on the 2008 Presidential campaign before June. However, I’m adding a codicil to my New Year’s resolution: I can make an exception when able to present primary-source material about a Presidential candidate (or someone with a Presidential exploratory committee) that adds to a discussion area already active here at Anchor Rising.

At the National Review Institute’s (direct quote from NRO-Editor-at-Large Jonah Goldberg: "Whatever that is") Conservative Summit held this past weekend in Washington D.C., Presidential Candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gave a substantive address on his philosophy concerning the major issues in American politics -- limited and fiscally conservative government, healthcare, foreign policy, and social and life issues. Here's what Governor Romney had to say about gay marriage, abortion and stem-cell research...

Governor Mitt Romney: When I ran [for Governor of Massachusetts], there were a couple of social issues that were part of that debate. You probably know what some of them were.

One was gay marriage. I opposed then and do now oppose gay marriage and civil unions.

One was related to abortion. My opponent was in favor of lowering the age where a young woman could get an abortion without parental consent from 18 to 16…I, of course, opposed changing the law in that regard.

Another issue was the death penalty, I was for, [my opponent] was against.

Another was English immersion. For a long time, our state had bilingual education, where the schools or the parents get to choose what language their child is taught in. I said that’s just not right. If kids want to be successful in America, they have to learn the language of America. We fought for that, and by the way, I won that one, my opponent did not.

Now, as you know, after I got elected, Massachusetts became sort of the center stage for a number of very important social issues, one of them being gay marriage. I am proud of the fact that I and my team did everything within our power and within the law to stand up for traditional marriage. This is not, in my view and the view of my team, a matter of adult rights. We respect the rights of gay citizens to live as they wish and to have tolerance and respect and not be discriminated against. I feel that very deeply. At the same time, we believe that marriage is not primarily about adults. In a society, marriage is primarily about the development and nurturing of children. A child’s development, I believe, is enhanced by access to a mom and a dad. I believe in every child’s right to a mom and a dad.

Now, there’s one key social issue where I did not run as a social conservative, at least one. That was with regards to abortion. I said I would protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion. I’ve changed my view on that, as you probably know.

Let me tell you the history about that. Some years ago, when I was at the Olympics, I met a guy named Mark Lewis. He was head of our marketing there. He told me that he was a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. I don’t know how far he got. His final interview was with a German interviewer and the interviewer said to him “Mr. Lewis, who is one of your political heroes?” and he said Ronald Reagan. The German had the predictable response -- *GASP*. He said how in the world can you square that statement with what Churchill said, which is that “a young person who is not a liberal has no heart?” Mark responded by repeating the last portion of that Churchillian comment, that “an older person who was not a conservative had no brain” and adding “I, Herr Doctor, simply matured early”.

On abortion, I wasn’t always a Ronald Reagan conservative. Neither was Ronald Regan, by the way. But like him, I learned with experience.

In my case, the point where that experience came most to bear was with regards to learning about stem-cell research. Let me tell you, there are so many different ways of getting stem cells. I was delving into that because my legislature was proposing new legislation that re-defined when life began. I think it’s interesting that the legislature thinks it has the capacity to make that determination. Our state had always said that life began at conception, but they were going to re-define when life began, so I spent some time learning (with, by the way, a number of people in this room who helped) about all of the different types and sources of stem-cells, not only adult stem cells and umbilical stem cells and stem cells from existing lines, but also surplus embryos from in-vitro fertilization. I supported all of those.

But for me, there was a bright-line when you started creating new life for the purposes of destruction and experimentation. That was somatic-cell nuclear transfer (or cloning) and also what’s known as embryo farming. At one point, I was sitting down with the head of the stem-cell research department at Harvard and the provost of Harvard University, and they were explaining these techniques to me. I imagined in my mind this embryo farming. Embryo farming is taking donor sperm and donor eggs and putting them together in the laboratory and creating a new embryo. If that’s not creating new life, then I don’t know what is. I imagined row after row after row of racks of these, created either by the cloning process or the farming process. At that point, one of the two gentleman said, “Governor, there’s really not a moral issue at stake here, because we destroy the embryos at 14 days”. I have to tell you, that comment and that perspective hit me very hard. As he left the room with his colleague, I turned to Beth Myers, my chief of staff, and said I want to make it real clear: we have so cheapened the value and sanctity of human life in our society that someone can think there’s not a moral issue because we kill embryos at 14 days.

Shortly thereafter, I announced I was firmly pro-life.

Now, you don’t have to take my word for it, by the way. The nice thing about being able to watch governors is you don’t have to look just at what they say, you can look at what they’ve done. Over my term, I had 4 or 5 different measures that came to my desk [concerning life issues] and on every single one I came down on the side of respecting human life. That didn’t make me real popular in the state. Remember, in Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy is considered a moderate….

In the next few days, I’ll have more from Mitt Romney on other issues, excerpts from Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush on the meaning and future direction of conservatism and from Tony Snow on the Iraq Surge and the President’s new healthcare proposal, plus a whole lot of insights and opinions that I heard discussed at the conference that will bring you up-to-date on the state of conservatism…

January 18, 2007

More on Stem Cells

Justin Katz

Ramesh Ponnuru has been offering up clear-headed argumentation on the social conservative side of the stem-cell debate. Readers can follow the latest spat backwards from here, but I think this is a key paragraph:

President Clinton’s bioethics commission concluded that “the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research” (p. 53). More and more, it appears that such alternatives exist ...

Embryonic Research

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal steals some bases in its stem-cell–related editorial today:

But amniotic stem cells, though plentiful, may not be able to develop into the full range of cell types that embryonic stem cells provide. Because they are only a few days old, embryonic cells are extremely flexible in terms of what they might become. Adult stem cells, championed as a good-enough alternative by foes of embryonic-stem-cell research, hold promising but probably limited uses (for instance, helping repair bone fractures). Difficult to extract, they are taken from living people, and considered unlikely to help with complex ailments. Amniotic cells look better, but may still fall short of what embryonic stem cells can do. ...

Anthony Atala, the author of the study on amniotic fluid, has said it is “essential” that the National Institutes of Health make research dollars available for embryonic stem-cell research. He sees the amniotic-fluid approach as complementary to it, not as a replacement. For one thing, embryonic-stem-cell research is further along, and closer to being tested in humans. In moving toward possible cures, time is of the essence.

Firstly, it is imprecise to talk about "what embryonic stem cells can do." Embryonic stem cells are not doing anything, yet. They may be "closer to being tested in humans" than once they were, but they aren't there. Which leads to: Secondly, adult stem cells are being tested, even used, and have been for years.

I could be incorrect, but as I understand the biology, the adult stem cells are limited mainly in their ability to become only a handful of cell types, not in the practical applications that they could fill once they've been repurposed. But stem cells taken from different parts of the adult's body have different ranges, so they aren't, as a group, limited to the capabilities of any particular type.

January 2, 2007

Science Makes Babes of Us All

Justin Katz

The wonders that modern science is promising in the very near future (really, so near we can touch it, honest) seem so bright that they impart such sparkling innocence that even constitutional pessimists fail to see obvious dark sides. One such, John Derbyshire, writes:

If you don't like eugenics, you are not going to like the 21st century. "Eugenics" became a scare-word because of ***STATE-SPONSORED*** eugenics programs, which were indeed a horrible idea—especially in the 1920s, when promoters of eugenics had very little idea what (as a matter of technical biology, I mean) they were talking about. State-organized anything is pretty dubious. We're conservatives; we know that.

Private, commercial eugenics is here, though. It already has a foot in the door, & pretty soon it'll be sprawled on your living-room couch. My children (probably) and my grandchildren (certainly) will practice eugenics. Why would they not? The desire to have smart, healthy, good-looking offspring is wellnigh universal. If parents can get assurance of such an outcome for a few thousand bucks, why should they not purchase that assurance? In a free country, how will you stop them? And why would conservatives or libertarians want to stop them? "Eugenics" has become such a scare-word that we'll probably have to re-name the process to avoid all the shrieking and skirt-clutching; but it will be eugenics just the same.

Just how long does Mr. Derbyshire believe we'll be able to deny a state-sponsored "right to eugenics" for those who cannot afford a few thousand bucks? (Per child, remember. The picture is compounded by the tendency of such folks to have more children.) Surely even small-government conservatives (if I may indulge in a redundancy) would have reservations about allowing the free market to create a permanent underclass — one with fruits borne within a single short generation.

I've little doubt that Derb is correct that I'm not going to like the 21st century. It does not make for an auspicious beginning that high-profile conservatives have so abandoned the notion of a higher morality that they cannot believe otherwise than that "objections [to eugenics are] so abstract & theoretical [that] it would be hard to get anyone to care about them." Gone, apparently, is the societal stigma against attempting to play God. We're so advanced, nowadays, that we're well beyond such ancient precautions. Really, we'll get it right this time — when the stakes are such that we cannot afford to get it wrong. Honest.

Big, big oops: in the brackets of that last Derbyshire quotation, I at first used "euthanasia" rather than "eugenics." That was some very substantial and stupid mistyping on my part, and I apologize for having made the error, not the least because it distracts from what I believe to be a strong point. I can only plea for your belief that simple intellectual honesty and a sincere interest in truth, rather than victory, keep me from playing deliberate games of that sort. I suppose the best I can do, after owning up to the mistake, is to take it as reminder that I have to be particularly careful now that I've gotten in the habit of finishing up my customary 12-hour workday before blogging.

November 20, 2006

Cold-Blooded Miracles

Justin Katz

One could, I suppose, respond to Andrew Stuttaford's prods about an intelligent designer by wondering aloud why this sort of thing isn't an example of built-in wonder — a cold-blooded miracle, if you will:

Twice within a year the brown arole lizard has evolved changes in its body and behaviour to outwit a predator — confirming Charles Darwin’s theory on natural selection.

Changes in limb length were observed by biologists after they introduced a predator, the northern curly-tailed lizard, to islands off the Bahamas where the brown arole is found.

In the first six months the brown arole, Anolis sagrie, developed longer legs so that it could outrun its predator, Leiocephalus carinatus.

Over the second six-month period the arole changed its behaviour so that it spent far less time on the ground and longer on branches and plant stems.

After a year the surviving aroles had much shorter, stumpier legs that were more suited to clinging on to thin branches. “We showed that selection dramatically changed direction over a short time, within a single generation,” the researchers reported in the journal Science.

We live in a skeptical world, indeed, if lizards' spontaneous ability to grow or shrink their legs is not evidence of design! Sadly, upon review of the online abstract and supporting materials (PDF), it appears that the ever-intriguing evolution/miracle debate needn't be had. From the former:

We predicted that the introduction of a terrestrial predator would first select for longer-legged lizards, which are faster, but as the lizards shifted onto high twigs to avoid the predator, selection would reverse toward favoring the shorter-legged individuals better able to locomote there.

And from the latter:

For individual identification, each lizard received an island-unique pattern of colored marks by injecting elastomer (Northwest Marine Technologies) subdermally into two limb segments. In November 2003 and May 2004, we censused nearly exhaustively on each island to determine surviving individuals. ...

Selection gradients could only be calculated on islands for which some, but not all, lizards died. Because survival of marked lizards was either 0 or 100% on some islands in some of the time periods, our sample size was reduced to nine islands in the first time period and five in the second time period; those five islands were used in the repeated measures analysis. On these islands, an average of 20.6 males was measured at the start of the experiment; survival
rates were 33% and 58% in the 0-6 and 6-12 month periods.

Interest may or may not compel me to pick up a copy of the magazine with the full article in it, but it appears that Stuttaford's source was incorrect. The lizards' limb length didn't change; rather, lizards of different limb lengths survived at different rates. Gee. The only astonishing finding here, as far as I can see, is the tendency of scientists and the materialists who love them to trumpet their documentation of the obvious and treat it as if it is revolutionary new proof that God doesn't exist.

As far as evolution goes, what I'd be interested to know is whether this single generation of lizards manages to convey its adaptations to the next generation. Note that the study addressed only males. If females, for a made-up example, have to lie dormant on the ground for a time in order to lay eggs, then the species might not survive at all. Or if long-legged gals are somehow better able to mate among the "high twigs," then the evolutionary influences on leg length might cancel out.

What would be exponentially more difficult to cancel out, given human beings' capacity for split-second adaptation, is the long-legged credulity of modern skeptics.

July 27, 2006

Stem Cell Misconceptions

Carroll Andrew Morse

This short passage from Froma Harrop's stem cell column from yesterday contains one of the misconceptions that Senator Tom Coburn talked about last weekend...

Adult stem-cell research is promising -- but already fully funded. And only embryonic stem cells can be turned into other types of body cells to replace damaged tissues. That's why researchers are so intent on using them.
Current research indicates that embryonic stem cells may not be the only cells that "can be turned into other types of body cells" (the technical term for this is "pluripotency"). Researchers in California claim to have created pluripotent cells by reprogramming human "germ cells", cells taken from the reproductive organs of adults...
May 9, 2006--Publicly addressing the company's breakthrough in stem cell research, PrimeGen Biotech LLC (www.primegenbiotech.com) today announced that its principal investigator will present data showing the isolation and therapeutic reprogramming of adult germ-line stem cells into pluripotent cells -- cells that have the potential to turn into any cell line of the body.
The PrimeGen research is still undergoing peer review. Also, back in April, Reuters reported on a research group in Germany that has created pluripotent cells from the germ cells of mice, though not from humans yet.

At this time, therapies using "pluripotent germ cells" are only potential, just as therapies using "embryonic stem cells" are only potential. So what's needed to turn the potential into reality? Well, almost every summary of the topic that I've found so far (including Senator Coburn's remarks) says that the biggest roadblock to the theraputic use of embryonic stem cells is the issue of rejection. If pluripotent cells can be created from germ cells, the rejection issue is solved, as the material needed for celluar therapy can be created from the body of the person needing the therapy. If there is a more promising path around the rejection issue, no one is talking much about it.

Finally, I am unsure of what the meaning of "already fully funded" is in the context of adult stem cell research. Does this mean that everything scientifically that can be done is being done? Or does it only mean that we've hit a politically-determined limit on how much is spent on adult stem cell research?

July 24, 2006

Senator Tom Coburn Discusses Stem Cells (in Warwick!)

Carroll Andrew Morse

After delivering a luncheon speech this past Saturday at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma was asked what he thought about President Bush's veto of the stem-cell bill. Here is Senator Coburn's answer...

Senator Tom Coburn: I've made it my goal to stay more informed on this issue than anybody in Washington. I've read the science. I've read the reports.

There's some things you should know. We've been studying pluripotent embryonic stem cells for 25 years as a nation and throughout the world. Despite this fact, there is not one treatment available today for anybody in the world from embryonic stem cells. You've spent, of your money, over the last five years, over a half-a-billion dollars on human embryonic stem cell research with no results and no accomplishments.

The second point you should know -- and you should tell to anybody who comes up to you and says Republicans and the President don't care about my child -- is that for every disease group listed in the debate, there is already an ongoing study with great results curing those diseases with adult/cord blood stem cells. That includes juvenile diabetes, that includes lupus, that includes Parkinsons, with ongoing human trials with tremendous results.

The final thing you should know is that the only way embryonic stem cells will ever be available to Americans will be with the taking of tremendous drugs to block the rejection from the body. That's part of the debate. The reasons they want hundreds of thousands of embryonic stem cell lines is to try to deal with the rejection issues in what's called the HLA system of antigens.

The wonderful difference with adult stem cells is you take your own stem cells. There's no foreign tissue. There's nothing foreign, so there's no rejection. With every embryonic stem cell program, there will be rejection. Even if you clone yourself, unless you are woman who clones yourself with your own egg, there will be rejection.

We've have a tremendous untruth spread, without the real facts of what's going on being told. There are 72 treatments and they're growing every day and that's before we get to the latest scientific discovery, germ cells, which are pluripotent (they can produce any tissue in the body) but don't have the side-effects of embryonic stem cells. That's just been discovered in the last six to twelve months.

So do we talk about what the truth is or do we talk about what's politically expedient? I had three members in the Senate after the vote come up to me and say you're absolutely right, but I couldn't vote with you because I had so much pressure from the disease groups and I had already committed my vote. Now think about that character trait. I'm not going to do the right thing, because I'm more interested in getting elected in than in doing the right thing. That's the mindset too often we see in Washington.

More information from Senator Coburn about the science and ethics of stem cells is available at the Senator's website.

By the way, for those curious about what Senator Coburn was doing in Warwick, I�ll be explaining that part later today...

October 30, 2005

Solar Engineering at the Rhode Island School of Design

Carroll Andrew Morse

Does hearing the name Rhode Island School of Design make you think about cutting edge technology? Well, it probably should.

Last month, a team from RISD was one of 18 teams who participated at the Solar Decathlon on the mall in Washington D.C. Teams from 18 different universities built solar-powered houses -- yes, entire houses. The RISD team designed and constructed an 800 square-foot urban dwelling

Intended as an urban dwelling that will work well as a row house, the team says it elicits adjectives such as "loft-like," "pure," "free-space," and "transformative," or just "very cool."
To make maximal use of space, the RISD design includes a garden on the roof
In an urban environment, where space is a premium and a yard almost unheard of, a roof garden brings tranquility and a sense of place to the house. The garden will have a series of planter boxes in which we will grow vegetables and herbs, as well as shade plants. This again reduces the solar load on the building and insulates the roof.
Not only is the house completely solar powered, but it is also provides power to an electric car
Our entry takes the emerging practice of sustainable architecture to another level as the house will not only power itself, but will actually produce an excess of energy (used to power RISD's new electric car) with zero toxic emissions. We will not burn a single drop of fossil fuel to heat and cool the space.
The days when fossil fuels will be replaced by alternative sources of energy are closer than you think; they are that much closer because of the efforts of people like the RISD Solar Decathlon Team.

October 22, 2005

Final Wilma Update, Maybe

Carroll Andrew Morse

Greetings to readers from outside of New England! These updates are targeted to the concerns of New Englanders, and the times and events cited may not be relevant to hurricane preparations elsewhere. Please consult the National Hurricane Center for the most up to date nationwide information.

The latest run of the GFDL now has Wilma safely out to sea by the time it arrives this far north. The National Hurricane Center doesnt mention New England in its 5AM discussion, and the TV weather guys (and gals) seem confident that -- after Florida -- theres no threat to the mainland US. The projected storm track has been accelerated, so just in case, be aware of

Projected Entry into the North Atlantic: Monday Evening
Projected Arrival at New England Latitudes: Early Wednesday Morning

UPDATE (Saturday, 6:00 PM):

Hmmmm. The NHC keeps accelerating the forecast track. They still aren't mentioning any New England scenarios in their latest discussion, but it doesn't seem like it takes much deviation from the forecast for Wilma to bring tropical storm force winds over Cape Cod, or even Rhode Island.

Projected Entry into the North Atlantic: Early Monday Afternoon
Projected Arrival at New England Latitudes: Tuesday Afternoon

October 21, 2005

Quick Hurricane Wilma Update

Carroll Andrew Morse

Greetings to readers from outside of New England! These updates are targeted to the concerns of New Englanders, and the times and events cited may not be relevant to hurricane preparations elsewhere. Please consult the National Hurricane Center for the most up to date nationwide information.

At least one computer model (GFDL) is now predicting that Wilma passes directly over Cape Cod, probably at tropical storm force. This prediction is the outlier. The other predictions, and the National Hurricane Center official forecast track, have Wilma passing far to the east of New England, safely out to sea.

I will reiterate my warning: dont be deceived by fact that Wilma has been near-stationary while off of the coast of Mexico. After the storm crosses Florida and enters the North Atlantic, it will be only 24-36 hours before it reaches New England latitudes. Hopefully, at New England latitudes, Wilma will also be at Mid-Atlantic longitudes, but just in case, be prepared to prepare.

The forecasters will know much more in about a day and a half, after Wilma moves off of the Yucatan peninsula and back into the ocean.

Projected Entry into the North Atlantic: Early Tuesday Morning
Projected Arrival at New England Latitudes: Mid-Wednesday Morning

Wilma Update

Carroll Andrew Morse

Greetings to readers from outside of New England! These updates are targeted to the concerns of New Englanders, and the times and events cited may not be relevant to hurricane preparations elsewhere. Please consult the National Hurricane Center for the most up to date nationwide information.

Wilma is still lingering in the Gulf of Mexico. Most computer models (may take a few seconds to load, link via StormTrack) are not forecasting a direct hit on New England, and the intensity forecast is only for tropical storm strength by the time it reaches New England latitudes. Still, this is a highly uncertain forecast, and the storm is expected to move quickly Northward once it crosses Florida and enters the North Atlantic.

Projected Entry into the North Atlantic: Early Tuesday Morning
Projected Arrival at New England Latitudes: Mid-Wednesday Morning

October 20, 2005

Hurricane Wilma Update

Carroll Andrew Morse

Greetings to readers from outside of New England! These updates are targeted to the concerns of New Englanders, and the times and events cited may not be relevant to hurricane preparations elsewhere. Please consult the National Hurricane Center for the most up to date nationwide information.

Projected Entry into the North Atlantic (off Florida coast): Early-Monday Morning
Projected Arrival at New England Latitudes: Mid-Tuesday Morning

The National Hurricane Center is continuing to stretch out the time that Wilma spends in the Gulf of Mexico. They are NOT slowing down the speed of the storm once it enters the North Atlantic.

Again, I emphasize that the forecast does not yet imply that Wilma is likely to strike Rhode Island (the 5AM discussion didnt mention New England at all), BUT if we wait until the storm enters the North Atlantic before starting any preparations, we will have only 24-36 hours to do everything we need to do, IF the storm turns in our direction.

October 19, 2005

Keeping an Eye on Hurricane Wilma

Carroll Andrew Morse

Greetings to readers from outside of New England! These updates are targeted to the concerns of New Englanders, and the times and events cited may not be relevant to hurricane preparations elsewhere. Please consult the National Hurricane Center for the most up to date nationwide information.

This is from the 11 AM discussion of Hurricane Wilma from the National Hurricane Center

Those funny strings of letters, like GFS, NOGAPS, ECMWF, etc. are the names of different computer models that predict the storm track. The forecaster looks at all the different models, and then uses his judgment and experience to make the official forecast.

Heres the map of the current forecast track. According to the forecast, there is still a strong possibility that Wilma will stay out to sea (from a New England perspective). But look how quickly the storm moves from the Carolina coast (projected Sunday morning) to the New England coast (projected Monday morning).

Why am I bringing this up now? A short time ago, I proposed a disaster preparation template. One question to be addressed was

2. What mistakes are citizens preparing for a disaster likely to make? How do we deliver the information and resources that will help people preempt as many of their own errors as possible?
A major danger associated with Wilma is that people may not realize how quickly a hurricane can move up the Atlantic coast. On Sunday morning, they may hear that the storm is off the coast of North Carolina, assume that they still have 3 or 4 days to prepare (especially after the behavior of Ophelia, which meandered off of the Mid-Atlantic coast for several days), and wait too long to evacuate.

Local weather forecasters and emergency authorities need to make clear the necessity of planning around Wilmas forecast track as soon as Wilma passes into the North Atlantic.


5PM update from the National Hurricane Center says there is great uncertainty in Wilmas forecasted track

The uncertainty makes it all the more important for Rhode Islanders to be aware of Wilmas position. Once the storm crosses Florida and enters the North Atlantic, whenever it does (current forecast is Sunday afternoon), it may only be 24-36 hours until it moves up here.

August 17, 2005

Teaching the Boundaries of Science

Justin Katz

My latest column, "Life in an Unfinished World," takes up the evolution v. intelligent design dispute. The religious-like fervor of those who oppose intelligent design raises the question of whether they think any aspects of society rightly impinge on science. Contrary to frequent insistence that intelligent design be taught — if at all — in religion or philosophy classes, no more important lesson can be taught to American schoolchildren than that science has culturally and methodologically defined boundaries.

January 24, 2005

Clamming Up the Terrorists

Justin Katz

They may have invested millions in acquisition and sacrificed hundreds of lives, but there's one thing that the terrorists haven't counted on:

... the latest example of the sea's, or at least the coast's, medical potential comes from researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. There, scientists, working under a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, dosed quahogs with the botulism toxin. They discovered that something from the shellfish neutralized the poisonous enzyme, a potential bio-terrorism agent.

Bal Ram Singh, a chemist, and his colleagues increased the dose until it was enough to paralyze and kill the population of a town of 1,000 people. But the botulism has little effect on the clams, except to cause them to secrete a mucous that turned the water they were in cloudy.

I don't imagine many men and women of our armed services would mind a steady supply of my mother-in-law's stuffies. And I can only hope that initial plans are underway to equip each EMT vehicle with a pot of chowder.