Abiogenesis, chirality and narrowing down the alternatives

In the great “mythmaking” that is the scientific process, discovering things about events long lost to history is done a little bit differently than the method might suggest in more mundane circumstances. We develop plausible hypotheses regarding events like the abiogenesis event that occurred here on Earth, and then test them rigorously attempting to falsify each one in turn. Like Sherlock Holmes, or Dr. House, we’ll get to the kernel of the matter by eliminating all the alternatives until we are left with but one plausible truth. We know we’re on the right track when predictions about certain aspects of the theory are demonstrable in laboratories.

We may never learn the exact nature of the exact abiogenesis event that led to us (among multiple possible such events) any more than we’ll know the exact daily routine, shape, facial features, birthday or date of death of the single individual last common ancestor (among multiple possible last common ancestors of that ancestor’s species) between us and chimpanzees, but we know (by genetic and fossil evidence) that we are not that far removed. This should not matter in the investigation of how it could have happened — despite the fact that there are many theories about the event of abiogenesis. We know the first chemicals breached that fuzzy boundary between “mere chemical reaction” and “self-perpetuating chemical reaction” — in other words, between non-life and life — so we know abiogenesis had to happen somewhere. If it didn’t happen here, and we got here by panspermia, then it happened elsewhere in the universe first, but it happened once at the very least.

New research has been very promising as of late with regard to the greatest mystery our planet yet holds, potentially unlocking each of the sub-mysteries one at a time with plausible answers. One of these sub-mysteries involves the chirality of all life on Earth — every amino acid this planet uses as its biological Lego can exist in a right-handed or a left-handed form and would spontaneously form either one at identical odds, but every speck of life on this planet uses only the left-handed version. With our ever-improving knowledge of the early environment of the planet, we’ve discovered that aspartic acid trends sinistral, creating left-handed versions in large quantities in a crystalline structure under those conditions. This certainly does not confirm the theory, but it provides a good hypothetical “seed” that explains how the amino acids that form us all tended to be left-handed.

There’s also the question of why those simple building blocks like aspartic acid might have influenced the other amino acids that self-generated in the environment to follow suit in their chirality. So, scientists built on the earlier result and introduced the left-handed acids into an environment with equal proportion left- and right-handed amino acids, and found the left ones crystallized much like the aspartic acid crystal in the earlier experiment.

“These amino acids changed how the reactions work and allowed only the naturally occurring RNA precursors to be generated in a stable form,” said Hein. “In the end, we showed that an amazingly simple result emerged from some very complex and interconnected chemistry.”
The natural enantiomer of the RNA precursor molecules formed a crystal structure visible to the naked eye. The crystals are stable and avoid normal chemical breakdown. They can exist until the conditions are right for them to change into RNA.

This experiment had every possibility of falsifying the earlier hypothesis but it did not. More research will either disprove both these hypotheses, or confirm them repeatedly over many iterations until our confidence level has increased so that they’re the best plausible explanations. Or, who knows? Perhaps we’ll one day unearth some new evidence, and we’ll need a better explanation to incorporate that new knowledge.

That’s how science works.

How we know things in science, and how we can know things about abiogenesis

Nicked from astrobio.net on the Miller-Urey experiments. That's the actual equipment used

On this blog post over at Greg Laden’s, I’ve made a damn fine effort (if I do say so myself) at explaining the process of scientific inquiry to a pair of commenters who’ve taken issue with the idea that anyone could know anything about the event of abiogenesis — the “Origin of Life”, when the fuzzy boundary between chemicals and life was first breached — that happened on this planet. I’ve agreed with them on a number of points, including Anthony’s main thesis, that there was exactly one way that this universe’s past has unfolded, exactly one “truth” to any event in history, and that as a result, figuring out that exact truth is nearly impossible short of having been there to witness it yourself. He accuses the current scientific establishment of “decadence” (belittling our blog friend DuWayne in the process), and of “ideological materialism” wherein the elite of the scientific world are beholden to assume materialism lest their entire epistemology crumbles beneath them.

Luckily, science doesn’t work that way or we’d have stopped investigating this universe long ago.

The scientific method can be implemented to attempt to model events that it cannot prove with 100% certainty happened in exactly one way. By learning about the past, through the physical and inferential evidence we have available to us, we can develop hypotheses which are testable today. If our hypotheses about the past are correct, we can then correctly predict the results of these experiments, and if the experiments are carefully enough crafted, they can disprove the hypotheses and force us to start over. In the specific case of the abiogenesis event that occurred on this planet, we might never know the exact formula that resulted in our exact lineage. This should not stop us from taking the evidence we have available to us, the direct and inferential physical evidence that shows how this planet was very likely composed chemically in the early pre-biotic environment, and extrapolating from that knowledge that perhaps self-arranging lipids and amino acids might have formed.

The Miller-Urey experiment in 1953 took some of our best guesses about the pre-biotic environment and attempted to verify the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis that it would allow for amino acids to self-arrange. When the experiment was complete, they were proven correct. Amino acids — the building blocks to life itself — formed spontaneously, without direction, in an environment that was like science’s contemporary understanding of the early Earth. If this experiment had failed, it would have put a nail in the coffin of the abiogenesis theory, though not the last one, certainly. The fact that it succeeded suggests one of two things: 1) amino acids might spontaneously emerge in a number of environments, or 2) we got lucky and hit upon the correct way to create amino acids but did not replicate the early Earth, thus disproving abiogenesis. The former is far more likely, for obvious reasons — not ideology, but pure math. If there are a near infinite set of environments that the planet could have had, then there are a near infinite set of environments to test. The problem comes down to one of narrowing — if we know the early Earth had to have ammonia (to provide the organic compounds necessary), then we’ve excised all models that do not include ammonia. Scientists later discovered a photochemical reaction of nitrogen that would provide this ur-Earth with the necessary ammonia. Meanwhile, we narrow our options down significantly with each new piece of evidence.

The fact that better evidence turned up suggesting that the early environment was actually significantly different from the conditions replicated in the Miller-Urey experiment should thus hardly come as a surprise, though the actual early environment is still hotly debated among scientists. Miller tried again in 1983 with the newer data, but came up empty — hardly any amino acids to be found. However, Professor Jeffrey Bada repeated the experiment with an even better approximation of the early environment, e.g. that Miller’s second test had omitted iron and carbonate, and amino acids were once more formed spontaneously through nothing more than pure chemical interactions in the simulated environment. And that certainly isn’t the only such related test.

Two different environments, both resulting in amino acids. Certainly the later test benefits from the extra evidence collected about the early Earth, but getting amino acids in multiple different environments bodes well for our ability to show that every step in the grand staircase toward biology is plausible. We know that the lipid bilayer necessary to create a cell membrane can self-arrange as an emergent property of the lipid’s intrinsic hydrophobia (fear of water) on one side, hydrophilia on the other. They’ll form up all by themselves without prompting, given the right environment. So will RNA nucleotides, meaning if the RNA-world hypothesis is correct, we’re well within our rights to suggest that the hypothesis is the one that best fits the available evidence and make further predictions and experiments from there.

None of this is, you’ll notice, an attempt at building a narrative of “how things definitely happened”. People will often demand such a thing, knowing that they cannot themselves replicate experiment results, nor comprehend their interconnectedness with other such experiments if they’re even aware of these other experiments, nor suss out how all the pieces of the puzzle ultimately fit together. I understand this drive — the drive to build a narrative that is easily digested — because every human being has it. It is that drive that frees up one’s mind to contemplate other things, like immediate survival concerns or reproduction or the pursuit of leisure. It is that drive that one combats when arguing with people who cling tenaciously to their received dogmas. The temptation is great to replace one dogmatic narrative with another. But the scientific worldview demands that we understand that our understanding of this universe may never reach 100% certainty about any single topic or event, but as we slowly polish and chip away at the theories we have built, we can bring them to within impressive degrees of certainty that put any former, more dogmatic, effort at explaining the universe to shame.

The level of certainty that Andrew believes we are expressing about the study of abiogenesis is galling, and his repeated insistence that scientists are engaging in myth-making betrays his lack of understanding of the process. That we don’t know a great many things about the actual abiogenesis event on this planet means nothing, ultimately, in the study of how it might have happened. It is like asking that we know everything about the daily life of the very first ape to climb down out of the trees, or else the theory of evolution is about building a just-so narrative. I’m personally content to allow the process of scientific investigation to grind down all the possibilities until there are but a few left, and we can choose which one fits all the evidence best, until such time that new evidence overturns the model and we are forced to revisit.

That’s how science works, you see. And science does indeed work.

(To within a reasonable degree of confidence.)

How we know all life shares a common origin

According to Anthony McCarthy over at Greg’s blog, extrapolating from this information to determine something about how life began on this planet is purely ideological mythmaking. Never mind that every species on the planet shares the same metabolism, by the same enzymes, which must be coded for by the same combinations of chemicals, and these chemicals must come into being by the same chemical processes. Or that as you work your way backward you can determine the lipids and amino acids that must have been how this particular origin of life happened, and that you can replicate in a laboratory the spontaneous generation of these lipids and amino acids from the pure chemicals in varying environments that are similar to, if not identical to, the best models we have of the composition of the early Earth. Meaning we have pretty much every step in the chain replicated plausibly, so even if we don’t know the exact events, we can with a fairly high degree of confidence claim that we actually know a good deal about how life probably emerged here.

Oh, he also doesn’t believe in emergence, meaning he’s never seen a fractal or snowflake under a microscope. And loves to scoff at the idea that we’re skeptics, just because we’re convinced by the evidence presented. I’ve given up on him, now that he’s decided to “copy [my words] as the most irrational series of assertions by the self-identified champions of science and reason [he's] had the dubious privilege of reading.”

How do you truly “lead”, in a community so loosely organized and full of in-fighting?

Stephanie Zvan lives up to her nickname once again, this time by putting together an excellent and thorough discussion on leadership in context of the big ol’ privilege blowup (AKA, this month’s Great Rift In The Community (TM)). This is important stuff, if you want to understand exactly where people have gone wrong in arguing many of the points they’ve argued, and where people are completely misunderstanding their own leadership roles. There are many lessons we should learn from the events surrounding Elevatorgate, and Stephanie does a fantastic job of cataloguing them.

Debbie [Goddard, of CFI - ed] and I spoke about skeptical leadership, and it was a particularly interesting time to do so. Rebecca’s post on naming names in her talk at the CFI leadership conference had just come out. This was a conference that Debbie had organized and run. Also, earlier this year, I had expressed some criticism of CFI Michigan’s leadership for their promotion of an evolutionary psychology speaker and their reactions to my post and Bug Girl’s dissecting the speaker’s research.

Debbie and I had a good talk, and I’ve been meaning ever since to write up a few thoughts on leadership. Note that these are my thoughts, not Debbie’s, although I’m comfortable saying that Debbie and I agree on a few things:

  • Leadership is largely a set of skills that can be taught.
  • Due to the nature of skepticism and atheism, leaders in these movements may emerge from the ranks based on skills other than leadership. That’s natural and expected.
  • Skepticism and atheism, as broad movements, need to find a way to reliably instill these skills in their leaders to create stronger movements.
  • We need to provide support for leaders independent of the groups that they’re leading. That is to say both that pooling talent and knowledge is more effective and that it isn’t healthy for an activist organization’s leader to receive all their social support from within the organization.
  • We’re only in the beginning stages of treating leadership skills as important, but we’re already making good strides.
  • Moving this quickly, as with any kind of change, is going to produce some pain.

Now, speaking only for me, I think there are some lessons on leadership to take home from the events of the past few months. I will also be naming names here, but I should note that my intent is to provide concrete examples and to draw something good out of painful events, not to shame anyone. None of what I’m about to say is or should be transparently obvious to everyone. These are things we need to learn.

Emphasis mine. If any of this was self-evident, there’d have been no blowup.

Go read the rest of this post, post-haste.

Yes, that was an imperative. I’m being leader-y, see?

The Problem with Privilege (or: after this, can we get back to the actual issues?)

I’ve been arguing recently with one of my Twitter followers about the specifics behind the Elevatorgate incident and the fallout that ensued. It seems that she’s seen fit to make private the extraordinarily long blog post that she put up about the subject. Completely coincidentally, I assume, after I showed her that the guy that approached Rebecca Watson in an elevator was present and within earshot when she said she was going to bed.

I had intended to address a few more of her concerns so that we can get back to the actual topic of privilege, but many of those points were only on her blog post. She did, however, reiterate many of the high points in comments, so I’m not completely without blog fodder at the moment. And hopefully this will help us get back on track really quickly.

One of Mechelle’s points was that a number of bloggers have been making use of a number of phrases that she considers hyperbolic — for instance, claiming that Rebecca had been “cornered” in the elevator.

[T]his is about a guy who was, off the bat, not only judged to be displaying inappropriate behavior by telling her he thought her interesting, but also extended an invitation to his room for coffee. Furthermore, it was done so in quite dishonest ways. Words were used to exaggerate the situation, like “cornered” “trapped” “followed” and it was even said that “he found her sexually attractive”, which he said nothing of the sort, all to plant the seed that the situation was more sinister than it really was.

[Read more...]

The Problem with Privilege (or: no, you’re not a racist misogynist ass, calm down)

Part two of a series, evidently. Told you I had more to say.

From blacklava.net. Buy one today! (If you're privileged.)

So you’re white. So you’re a man. So you’re well-to-do. That surely doesn’t make you evil! … OR DOES IT!?!?

People honestly don’t seem to understand what it means to say that there’s a privilege problem in the skeptical community, it seems. Nor what it means if they’re one of the lucky few majority who have this privilege. Nor what to do when someone calls you out on it. Nor pretty well any aspect of actually understanding the situation and its implications that might allow for normal social interaction on a daily basis without blowing up half the damn blogosphere every time someone points out a behaviour that’s damaging the way Rebecca Watson just did. I’m assuming inadvertently, since she’s pretty damn good at building networks, and she’s well-respected in skeptical and atheist communities enough for this to matter.

I mean, hell, all it took to touch off this particular firestorm was Rebecca complaining that a guy ignored one, if not two direct statements of intent in order to flirt with her — in one of the most socially awkward ways imaginable, indicating he was wholly oblivious of the implications of his environment — to provide the powderkeg. It took someone like Stef McGraw, a public figure as a member of a leadership organization at her school, completely missing the point of Rebecca’s complaint and doing so in public on her organization’s blog, to provide the fuse. Rebecca daring to rebut in public at a conference in which Stef was attending lit the match. Everything that’s happened since has been people of all stripes sticking their noses into the conversation as though it merited more than the back-and-forth that Rebecca could have damn well handled on her own. The explosion happened through three incidents, and everything else has been people picking through the rubble either trying to score rhetorical points or trying to triage the injured parties. (I said parties. I don’t mean Rebecca specifically.)

People including me, a white male taking advantage of his privilege to be heard on this one.

You see, privilege is when you are a member of a non-marginalized group in a region — like, say, being white and male and Christian in North America. Not only do the marginalized people get explicitly marginalized, there are some creeping and insidious ways that the privileged group gets advantages that they themselves might not be aware of. For instance, a man might get the benefit of the doubt when he approaches someone somewhere at some time and invites them for coffee. When that someone is a woman, and that somewhere and somewhen is an elevator at 4 AM, and that invitation for coffee is a thinly veiled invitation for sexual congress, the woman might get a little freaked out. People everywhere and of both sexes scramble to excuse the man, especially since he did nothing wrong, and therefore the woman is freaked out for nothing.

Except one of the ways privilege works is that the people with the privilege often try to solve the problems inherent in the power dynamic by suggesting that the underprivileged protect themselves. You know, because the onus of responsibility is on them to keep from being abused. How many times have you, as a man, been told to avoid dark alleys or elevators or going out in the middle of the night because you might be raped? How much rape avoidance do you have to practice? Sure, you have some small amount of necessity to avoid these areas because you might be mugged, but not statistically more than a woman might, even though women are on average physically less capable or less willing or more acculturated to simply not fight back. Males don’t have to practice avoidance the way a woman does. And a woman does because we excuse behaviour that indicates predatory isolation techniques in men, whether they cause any actual offense or not afterward.

I’ve already written a post for a secret project in which I discuss how I (only slightly, she’ll say) hurt my dear friend inadvertently by using too many of my own words, rather than simply pushing traffic to her words instead. I’ll happily include the post in this series when said secret project is fully operational, but until then, suffice it to say that as a guy, I have the ability to post more inflammatory things with less flack from the audience, and I automatically get more hits whether my words merit them or not. I recognize and acknowledge this privilege, and I accept it, and I’m even willing to apply this privilege to noble ends, especially if it means eroding at the privilege in general to provide the less-privileged with an equal shot in this world.

I have privilege, in being white and in being male. This does not make me a racist, nor a sexist, especially where I recognize that my position does actually give me societal advantages that I don’t necessarily deserve. It doesn’t make you a racist or a sexist either. But lashing out at someone who simply wants to point out where someone is taking advantage of a privilege — in this case, the privilege to flirt despite clear signs of pre-rejection — that’s just wrong.

It’s wrong because you, as the forum troll that makes comments like these or these, sense that some “right” is being taken away from you, but you don’t even know what it is. You assume that Rebecca advocated that the man in the elevator was a rapist — never mind all the rape avoidance techniques these women have been taught to employ as members of the unprivileged that include this exact scenario, and that she never took it beyond a complaint of the behaviour being generally creepy. You assume that people who support Rebecca are man-haters who want men to never flirt again, but you ignore the fact that they simply want you to pay more attention to them before diving into the sexual come-ons, especially right after you got done talking about how uncool those cold-opens are. You assume that anyone who disagrees with you on any minor picayune point is from “another tribe”, a different in-group, and therefore worth derision and total lack of respect. And once you’ve made up your mind on anything, come hell or high water you’re sticking to your guns.

Those of us who appreciate a little bit of reality in our discourse might simply recognize that when a woman says “don’t do this specific thing”, you probably shouldn’t do that specific thing. If not simply with her, then at least let it give you pause and search for indicators that the behaviour is acceptable with your next target. Flirting with women in elevators is fine. If you’ve known them for longer than thirty seconds, and respect if they tell you to back off, anyway.

Like all things, interpersonal relations are nuanced. Stop trying to make this a binary issue, because it’s not.

By the way, Jen at Blag Hag says much the same thing specifically about Dawkins. Yeah, he’s not a misogynist either. He’s just misusing his privilege to tell someone that their complaint is useless, just because it’s a “first world problem” so to speak. This is, of course, misguided. But don’t dare tell him so while including the word “fuck”.

Paul Baird vs Sye Tenbruggencate Round 3

When a debate begins with an opening statement like this one, you know it’s going to be a doozy. And this is actually Paul and Sye’s third go-around.

I’d like to thank the viewing audience for taking the time to join us for this debate, I’d like to thank Eric Hovind for hosting this debate in the Creation Today Studios, I’d like to thank Paul Baird for his renewed and apparent undying interest in debating this topic with me. I’d like to thank my brothers and sisters in Christ for their prayers and support but most of all I’d like to thank my lord and saviour Jesus Christ for giving me the opportunity to represent Him before all of you today. Today Paul and I will be debating the existence of God. Since this is our third go around Paul is well aware that my line of argumentation is that the proof that God exists is that without Him you can’t prove or know anything. Proof requires knowledge, truth and absolute laws of logic to name but a few, none of which can be accounted for outside of the God of Christianity. I submit that the only way one can know anything to be true is by or through revelation from God. But Paul and I both claim to know things. A few days ago Paul, on Pauls blog he affirmed that very thing when he said and I quote “The one area of my worldview that seemed to be a problem is much less so, i now know how much I don’t know, which is rather comforting in a strange way”. Well Paul admits that he doesn’t know much he admits that he knows some things but how can Paul know anything since it is my claim that God is a necessary foundation for knowledge.

Bare assertion == truth! I say God is necessary for knowledge, ergo if anyone claims to know anything, God must exist!

It only gets worse from there, but Paul is more than up to the task. Good read.

How much more ground will Sye cede before he abandons presuppositional apologetics? My guess: all of it. He will cede every inch of ground before he abandons the notion that by presuming he’s ceded no ground, he automatically wins any argument.

Psychic fails to predict her utter failure

This isn’t surprising, but it is an excellent example of what not to do if you’re trying to win fame and fortune as a psychic. It should hopefully serve as an object lesson for why one needs to consider the simpler solution when someone claims special knowledge, but honestly, I don’t expect it will change anyone’s mind — some people appear to be hard-wired to simply accept special claims uncritically.

A woman visited a rural farmhouse in Houston, Texas, and evidently smelled something foul and decomposing, and spotted a bunch of blood on the porch. She made the conclusion that the residents were mass-murderers and reported a tip to police that via her psychic powers, she’d determined that there were dozens of chopped-up bodies buried nearby. Turns out the blood was from the family’s daughter’s boyfriend having attempted suicide, and the smell from a freezer that’d failed allowing the meat within to go rotten.

So not only was the tip unhelpful, it was all a waste of time and energy. “There’s no validity to the report,” one law enforcement official confirmed.
Police must follow up on all credible tips about crimes, including those from dubious sources. They routinely deal with liars, hoaxers, jailhouse informants with dubious motives, people with drug habits and mental illnesses, and so on.

Police cannot simply ignore a lead or tip even if it comes from a psychic — after all, just because a person claims to be psychic doesn’t mean that he or she is not involved in a crime. Suspects in criminal cases who have inside knowledge of crimes sometimes try to pretend that the information they have came from psychics.

I don’t suspect this particular “psychic” was involved in any of the events that transpired at the homestead, mostly because she was so spectacularly wrong on everything. I suspect this woman saw these few clues and via her superpower of overactive imagination, lept to a conclusion that did not follow from the evidence.

I can probably also ascribe a motive to her — psychics are big money. A really good pretender could earn a hundred thousand bucks for four hours “work”. All you need is a few lucky hits under your belt (and who doesn’t make wild predictions that occasionally come true?), and a shameless PR engine at your back, and you too could be on the path to insane riches by claiming to have special knowledge about how this universe works.

This particular story has the happy ending that not a single person was murdered at this ranch, and this so-called psychic failed miserably to springboard a lucky guess into a profitable career of lying to and/or cold-reading people. But even if she was absolutely correct on all the details, with the number of people in this world and the number of them that have made at least a few guesses about wildly improbable events, is it any sort of surprise that people will get one or even a few of these wildly improbable guesses totally and completely correct?

If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. If you hear a psychic prediction, think “prior knowledge” not “special knowledge”.

Update: Hilarious. Reuters reported “Up to 30 Bodies Found Near Houston, Some Children”. Then corrected themselves. Meaning they reported, uncritically, exactly what the psychic claimed.

A few podcasts from this weekend on skepticism and atheism

Meant to get these up on Monday, but I was hoping for a chance to listen to them first. Unfortunately, I’m now on a road trip to PEI for work, in the car with some coworkers, and am probably expected to interact with them rather than holing myself up in my iPhone’s ear buds. So, I’ll just queue this up to post while I’m on the road.

Having met Desiree Schell at Science Online 2010, I can tell you she’s a witty, warm and clever human being whose podcast Skeptically Speaking is always worth a listen. She generally tends to stay out of atheist arguments, because it honestly seems sometimes that both sides are presenting less than their best faces — with the most popular and eloquent firebrands on each side trending toward significantly less than civility in the argument. However, on the weekend, she discussed with Greg Laden and Mike Haubrich the intersection between skepticism and atheism on Minnesota’s Atheists Talk Radio. I didn’t get to listen to this live in toto, but I’ve heard snippets of it while the live net stream would allow it.

It’s well possible to come to either belief via the other first. I was an atheist who “believed” (loosely) in karma as a teenager, but grew out of it and into true skepticism the more I researched various nonsense religions and realized the similarities between them and the “whack-a-mole” nature of various other strains of bullshit pseudoscience. No matter how many significant pillars you sledgehammer out from under a fundamentally unfalsifiable or unscientific belief system, the people who believe it are going to prop it up with some other makeshift prop or simply hang it from a sky-hook so that no evidence against it may even be considered. How many conversations have you had with someone who earnestly believes “The Secret”, or Scientology, or homeopathy, or astrology, Christianity, or anti-vaccination, where no matter what piece of evidence you present that runs counter to their claims, no matter how damning the evidence against, their faith in their flavor of nonsense is at best static, at worst strengthened? Ed Yong blogged about this phenomenon recently, in context of Harold Camping’s failed rapture predictions and his doubling-down. Camping’s now saying “the Rapture happened but nobody was worth saving; God in his mercy is sparing us the tribulation and the world will end on schedule in October.”

Science doesn’t work like that. When presented with evidence to the contrary, science is not static — scientists may dig in their heels if they have a vested interest in their theories, but science itself will self-correct over time. Some scientists, like the unbelievably awesome Scicurious, swallow their pride and admit when they’re wrong, when they’re fooled, when they were making judgments with insufficient evidence or having seen only those papers that support a position but none that refute. In scientifically minded circles, this gains you popularity — not to enforce lockstep, but to reward selfless humility for the betterment of the sum of human knowledge.

Scicurious and Desiree discussed this event and its repercussions Sci encountered for having unabashedly admitted when she was wrong about bees and cell phones, on Desiree’s podcast the same day that Des did Atheists Talk. They also discuss, given the studies that have been put out recently, the idea that cell phones reduce sperm count or fertility. The whole idea that cell phone radiation can hurt you is a good example of whack-a-mole pseudoscience. Remember Science vs Garlic, and the comments thread that ensued? Frankly, the discussion didn’t go anywhere but to the same few sources and the same specious claims about low-frequency electromagnetic radiation, none of whom were anywhere near scientific consensus on what a cell phone can and cannot do to your body. I should have gone back to it, but my wedding day was impending, and I honestly got distracted.

At least the science is still coming in, and it’s still saying this nonsense is nonsense. If I had gotten the chance to send in a question, it would have been this:

How long must we humor people repeatedly suggesting the same thing over and over again, and perform tests of all stripes to conclusively prove their beliefs wrong, when they’re just going to come back and find some new way to suggest it again despite it being thoroughly refuted? It’s like this XKCD comic. At absolute best, you’ll get organizations like the WHO looking at all the studies, shrugging and saying the data’s inconclusive, but that one can’t rule out the possibility of cell phones causing X disease. At worst, you’ll get exactly the same, only the media will also report it as though a link was found between cell phones and cancer. When do you get to say “enough is enough?”

I ask that question often on this blog, about a lot of things. I never get a satisfactory answer.

Oh, by the way. Desiree is a Canuck. As though there wasn’t enough to love!

We are free to “presuppose” that there is a reality here, because there is.

Sorry for the sporadic posting schedule, once again. Been running myself ragged over work. Need to tone that down a bit.

There’s a piece over at Cosmic Variance by Sean M Carroll, the brilliantly titled Physics and the Immortality of the Soul, that dovetails perfectly with the “denouement” to an otherwise ongoing “conversation” (and I use that term loosely) going on over at George’s place. The crux of the discussion is that we, as atheists, do not appeal to some transcendental force to explain why reality has the rules that it does. Beyond that, we apparently have faith (e.g. presuppose the Law of Non-Contradiction) in order to go on making sense of this universe, such that the universe doesn’t up and change the rules on us every time we think we have a handle on things.

Carroll talks about this concept this way, in context of a dispute he’s having with someone on the verifiability of the concept of life after death:

Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

I’m applying this same principle — the non-fallacious version (definition IV) of the argumentum ad ignorantium — to explain why this universe has the rules it does.

We do not know it to be otherwise. The pooled, collective knowledge of humankind (also known informally as “science”) contains record after record of things happening in non-contradictory ways. Things cannot both be and not-be in the same way at the same time. Simultaneously, things MAY be different elsewhere simultaneously. If M-Theory holds true, it’s well possible that we live in an 11-dimensional universe where every single way that a universe could have been created, was created, simultaneously, at the Big Bang singularity event. We live in THIS universe, with its rules of non-contradiction, only by virtue of the mechanistic nature of this universe.

In other words, we’re here to experience this universe, only because this universe is capable of sustaining life like us. In all the vastness of this universe, we don’t know how often life (especially sentient life) has emerged, but it would be egocentrism to claim we’re the special ones, we’re the only ones. In ignorance of the evidence of other forms of life, or other ways the universe can be, we have to use the evidence that we have accumulated in order to make the best guesses we can. We know through observation that this universe is a mechanistic one, where fundamental particles behave in predictable manners if you know all the variables. One of those ways that these particles behave, involves the inability for them to be something else at the same time in the same place or in the same way. Thus, the law of non-contradiction holds, though it was no more imposed on this universe by our codifying it than the sky made blue because we gave that hue a name.

This universe operates something very close to a fractal. We know certain derived properties of these particles, and we know the amazing complexity that these particles gain when “zoomed out” to the atom level. We know how the elements interact with one another. We know that some of these elements form molecules. We know some of these molecules form amino acids, which can self-replicate and self-arrange in the presence of their constituent building blocks. We know these amino acids can, given enough time, become microscopic organisms, which can, given enough time, become multicellular organisms, which can, given enough time, become sapient meat computers.

We know all of this provisionally based on the concept that the information we have on-hand is the only information we have to make that judgement, and we know that we may not have all the information and may have to revise our body of knowledge as that new information becomes available.

The fact that we live in a comprehensible universe that can, at least in one tiny pocket of it, sustain us — that fact alone is not sufficient to prove God. The God hypothesis is not even necessary, given how little evidence for “direct intervention” by an all-powerful deity we need invoke to develop a clear picture of how our universe could have developed mechanistically since the Big Bang.

We may not know what happened at that event, and our euphemistic placeholder name of “Big Bang” is a guess that happens to fit with the evidence we have at the moment. It may not hold true in other universes, should they have emerged from the Big Bang in other dimensions. We know that the math we’re doing right now mostly fits with the M-Theory model, but it’s hairy math, and it’s new math. Another, better, model may supplant it. But it is the best model to explain not only the evidence we see, but why we’re in a comprehensible universe that supports us. That should be enough for now, you’d think. That some people see it as the “gap” into which they can stuff their god is a testament to how tenacious old ideas (like the God idea) can be in the face of all the new stuff we’re learning.

Never mind that most theists still don’t have any evidence for their specific conception of God outside of their faith. They shouldn’t get to shove God into a gap that’s already long since closed (like that there’s something instead of nothing), much less one that we’ve only just discovered a potential solution for.