Science vs. the Qur’an

I received a comment on my post Religion as a mental parasite from Hashem, an Ohio native studying abroad at a university in Cairo. He converted to Islam, and believes its teachings to be divinely inspired due to the scientific information it conveys that was not available to its author(s) at the time of writing, in 600CE.

jthibeault, I like your article, and I have been in your place some time ago and truly understand what your thinking and trying to convey. But I got out of this, after extensive re-search on religion, and found, as always, how the strongest and most fearful things have extensive degrading rumors around it. From here I’m trying to say the religion I found, and I am not a preacher, but someone open to new thoughts that would shed “light upon me” and help me understand the truth, like letting up on my religion, have more faith in it, or whatever the outcome would be. I talk about Islam, and till today I haven’t found any flaw in the texts of the holy Q’uran regarding science, or anything which changed to adapt to science, or anything which ever prevented in the search of science. Actually its quiet the opposite, since it always calls for us to look for science and advance more in this world that god gave us. The scientific facts, philosophies, and explanations were never out of date, and is actually much ahead of its time. Please ask questions, I would love to have this conversation/debate, if you may, with you.

There’s a kernel of truth to this statement — while the Christian world suffered through the anti-knowledge Dark Ages, the Arabic world, predominantly Muslim, enjoyed a period of flourishing scientific discovery in astronomy and mathematics, owing largely to their disinclination to describe physical properties of objects, preferring instead to describe their Platonic ideals. Since they disliked the idea of trying to “unweave the rainbow” and take glory away from Allah, they largely avoided over-scrutiny of any of this world’s actual physical properties, so other disciplines languished while mathematics and astronomy benefited.

The challenge, however, is this: show the Qur’an had special scientific knowledge unavailable to mankind in ~600CE. That’s a tough nut to crack.
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AC Grayling’s “The Good Book”

Here’s an interesting endeavour, something like a methadone clinic for the heroin addicts of religious dogma. AC Grayling, noted “velvet atheist” (in quotes in much the same way I always quote “New Atheist”, because these subcategories are ridiculous), has written what he calls “a lifetime’s work”. He’s compiled some of humanity’s greatest philosophers’ and thinkers’ works into a single tome with a narrative flow and dense language comparable to the Christian Bible. In fact, he’s gone so far as to crib some of their layout and structure in doing so, to ensure that people who feel those aspects necessary are comfortable with this end result.

Determined to make his material accessible, Grayling arranged his nearly 600-page “Good Book” much like the Bible, with double columns, chapters (the first is even called Genesis) and short verses. And much like the best-selling King James Bible, which is celebrating its 400th year, his book is written in a type of English that transcends time.

Like the Bible, “The Good Book,” opens with a garden scene. But instead of Adam and Eve, Grayling’s Genesis invokes Isaac Newton, the British scientist who pioneered the study of gravity.

“It was from the fall of fruit from such a tree that new inspiration came for inquiry into the nature of things,” reads a verse from “The Good Book’s” first chapter.

“When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple,” the verse continues, “Through a mutual force of nature that holds all things, from the planets to the stars, in unifying embrace.”

The book’s final chapter features a secular humanist version of the Ten Commandments: “Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous: at least, sincerely try.”

“Be informed”. How terribly elitist!

While I appreciate the effort to keep religious folks comfortable and to offer a fully formed, coherent synthesis of scientific knowledge and humanism, picking all the best parts of what humankind has had to offer in the past to serve as a guidebook for the future, I can’t help but wonder if the religious folks’ primary comeback will be “see, you had to rip us off to write that!”

The natural comeback is, of course, to cite just a fraction of the prior art for much of what’s “good” about the Bible.

In MI, does CFI stand for Center For Incivility?

Oh boy! More blogosphere drama!

I’m a big supporter of skeptical groups and any other sort of outreach effort from the scientifically minded community, as I’m sure you know. Center For Inquiry‘s Michigan branch has an e-mail newsletter and an online calendar, which they use to promote science talks in the area. They host talks as well on occasion, but the event in question was not an event CFI sponsored or held in any way — they simply added this entry to their calendar.

Friday, April 8, 2011, 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Join members of Evolution for Everyone (“E4E”) to hear a lecture on “Sexual Coercion and Forced In-Pair Copulation as Sperm Competition Tactics in Humans” by Todd Shackelford, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Psychology at Oakland University.

Dr. Shackleford will present a talk on the competing theories of rape as a specialized rape adaptation or as a by-product of other psychological adaptations. Although increasing number of sexual partners is a proposed benefit of rape according to the “rape as an adaptation” and the “rape as a by-product” hypotheses, neither hypothesis addresses directly why some men rape their long-term partners, to whom they already have sexual access.

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RCimT: Playing scientific catch-up

Day 3 of my attempt at clearing out old links from my queue of stuff to blog about. Sadly, this one I can’t fit into a coherent narrative, except to say that science rocks.

ClimateCrocks posted a trailer for the movie Carbon Nation, touted as a “climate change movie for people who don’t believe in climate change”. It’s like the movie form of this comic. Frankly, whether you think climate is changing or not, people MUST see that the progress we can make by weaning ourselves off this addiction to hydrocarbons far outweighs any potential economic risks, even if you don’t believe there’s any threat.

There’s some interesting early results from a study regarding public archiving of scientific data — it by all appearances increases scientific contribution by more than a third. Open access to information and data removes one of the larger barriers to scientific contribution, as I have long suspected in other areas of human endeavour.

On a related note, unpublished scientific data may hide the “decline effect”, a noted scientific phenomenon where initial publications show greater effect than subsequent trials. Also unsurprising — if the data “picked” for the first few trials was picked from a superset of data that doesn’t show as great an effect, or if the data in subsequent trials was intentionally skewed against the initial results in an attempt to disprove them, showing all the data would certainly discover both scenarios.

This water flea has more genes than humans — 31,000 genes to 23,000. It is interesting to me that the number of genes it takes to make so complex a creature as a human being is in fact lower than the number of genes to create so tiny a creature as a water flea, but it rings true with the idea that everything in this universe operates like fractals – simplicity can give rise to great complexity, in some cases, accidentally and without inherent design.

Scientists have made a great breakthrough with regard to influenza vaccines — they have discovered a way to vaccinate against a protein common to them all. This could eventually lead to a single vaccine to eradicate influenza in much the same way as we have eradicated polio and smallpox. That is, until some pseudoscientific celebrity gains popular traction against the vaccine and it resurges as a result.

Good news for depression patients — we may soon be able to put things in your brain to make you better. Sounds like sci-fi, sounds like “playing god”, but deep brain electrostimulation may actually significantly improve chronic depression sufferers’ quality of life.

Steven Novella takes on the odd but prevalent belief that scientists are withholding the cure for cancer. Fact is, cancer is a class of diseases or issues, not a single monolithic thing that can be cured. We can cure many of them, such as Hodgkins Lymphoma, but not all of them. Interestingly, we may soon be able to tell which cancers will spread and which will never metastasize at all.

Apparently humankind’s proposed emergence as a modern-LOOKING people first, then a modern-ACTING people second, is less than accurate. We’ve discovered some evidence that the earliest peoples developed both language and ritual, two of the main intellectual hallmarks of our species.

Toxicologists and experts states apart have confirmed that despite the government’s assurances, Gulf seafood is tainted with oil. And/or dispersants, which is just as bad. Take care where your seafood comes from, folks. Though you really should take care as it stands, to eat seafood from sources that are sustainable.

Scientists have for the first time observed the formation of a planet in a protoplanetary ring of dust and debris. I love that this far into our knowledge of stellar and planetary evolution, we keep seeing “firsts” that scientists can collect data on and confirm existing theories.

Meanwhile, science continues apace in its other charge — knocking theories down. Or less so theories as common knowledge — Ben Goldacre covers the revelation that “sniffer” dogs may actually be responding to subtle cues from their masters rather than to any scent of drug or explosives they really learned to seek out. In this way, they may be something like the horse that could do arithmetic. In a funny bit of confluence, I learned just today of a new invention: the Wasp Hound. Wasps can evidently be trained to pick up scents better than any dogs.

That’s everything I had saved up in my Science post-fodder hopper. Perhaps I shall unload my Religion tabs tomorrow. Seems a fitting day for it.

Our first tentative steps onto the shore of the ocean of space

There’s nothing that sparks my imagination with quite the ferocity that space does. And with good reason — in its vastness, we find out so much about ourselves and our origins. It is in space exploration — even if limited to launching more and better probes and building more and better telescopes — that we will find answers to the questions that philosophers have bandied about as purely intellectual exercises since we climbed down from the trees.

Over at BoingBoing, there’s a discussion about Titan’s chemical makeup and eventual fate entitled “A Tale of Two Planets”, where it is noted how similar Titan is to proposed models of Earth’s early history. The fact that complex organic molecules exist there indicates that life could very well already exist as well, or could even start up during the sun’s death throes, should the abiogenesis hypothesis prove true.

On a similar track, Universe Today does a plausibility check on whether sentient life could emerge on planets orbiting red giant stars within their Goldilocks zones, which is interesting considering how sci-fi likes to portray red-giant-based life — as old, wisened, enlightened civilizations given the long time frames they would have had to evolve. The major problem is the very short time frame that a red giant star would have to power a planet’s potential evolution from Titan-like, to Earth-like, so unless these civilizations moved to more distant planets in their solar systems as the sun started to grow, it seems rather unlikely. Red giants are stars in a very late phase of stellar evolution, and generally tend to grow as their fuel is spent and they start fusing heavier elements during their final stages. Knowing that life has taken 3.7 billion years to reach the stage it’s at now here on Earth, that gives us an idea of how quickly sentient life can arise, but the one data point we have doesn’t give us nearly enough information to know whether we’re quick studies or slow learners in that respect.

One thing is for sure, though — we humans are definitely making up for lost time. We recently managed to create and trap antihydrogen, which was a big enough deal. Now we’ve evidently discovered a way to directly detect black holes via the “twist” they give to light that barely escapes it. That means we might actually have a way of obtaining some small shred of information about a black hole outside of the inferential information we get from observing its surroundings. We could create “black hole detectors”, telescopes that are designed to look only for this twisted light and pinpoint where black holes are in our galaxy and beyond.

Another piece of technology with a lot of promise, which was up until recently only science fiction, is the solar sail. Japan’s leading the way in the creation and deployment of real-life solar sails, which turn out to have most of the properties hypothesized. With the ongoing miniaturization of technology, deep space probes will become more feasible, cheaper to produce and easier to use to obtain data about our universe. We will also be able to create probes designed to sit between us and the sun and give us an early warning system for potentially harmful solar flares.

Despite all this new information, amazing insight, and depth and breadth of acquired knowledge, there’s still room in humanity for ridiculous and patently unevidenced “just-so” stories, like that Betelgeuse will go supernova in 2012. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. If it does, we won’t see the results for another 600 years, though, because it’s 600 light-years away. And since it’s so far away, it certainly won’t destroy the Earth like the crazies seem to think. Nor will the mysterious tenth planet Nibiru crash into us, since there’s no such fucking thing. And besides, Pluto was correctly demoted, so that would make it the 9th planet, jerkwads. Never mind that there’s nothing at all special about the year 2012 anyway, except to a certain class of egocentrics that will probably plague mankind til the end of time.

Speaking of which, when will time end, anyway?

Precession’d!

I can’t believe I missed these lulz as they were happening. Well, I can, as I was way too busy having an absolute blast hanging out with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met over the past week and a half, between Science Online and the drastically insufficient time Jodi and I spent with Ben and Stephanie Zvan. Anyway, I’m sure you won’t mind if I dogpile on this topic just a smidge later than everyone else has. And hell, I needed SOMETHING to write on the plane ride home — this is as good a topic to snicker derisively on the sidelines about as any, no?

The Bad Astronomer Phil Plait's favorite astrology image. One of my favorite images too, now that I have my hat in the astrology fight.

Recently, astrologers had their noses tweaked when a news reporter explained the precession of the equinoxes, and for some wholly unfathomable reason that phenomenon gained media traction enough to dominate quite a few news cycles. This isn’t exactly news, though — it’s a phenomenon known to astronomers for centuries now. As our corner of the cosmic ballet cycles on, our solar system is slowly shifting through our galaxy in such a way that the zodiacal signs assigned to people for being born between certain dates are no longer the same signs that one might see if they were to view the actual sunrise on a given day. The signs are, and have always been, merely a metric of what constellation the sun happened to “pass through” on that particular date. Generally, the only valuable data you can get from knowing someone’s sign, is what time of year they were born — and in days of yore, this might have been exceptionally useful, for instance knowing that certain times of year different levels of food availability or different climate difficulties, and thus certain “signs” were statistically more likely to survive through infancy. However, what times of year the sign is supposed to correspond with, change on a fairly regular schedule — about every thousand years, the equinoxes will have precessed one full sign.
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My compiled live-tweeting of #scio11 sessions

So I’ve made it to Minnesota, where the lovely Stephanie and Ben Zvan are hosting Jodi and I for the rest of our vacation, and this is literally my first chance to actually sit down and post anything on this damn blog. My pre-scheduled posts have all gone up, so it’s time to actually sit and put some effort into my blogging again, as time allows of course. Got lots planned for the week, such that chiseling out some time here and there will be difficult at best. I’m going to have to post some short-form synopses of conversations and events that happened during the conference. Completely out of context of course. Because it’s just funnier that way.

For today, here’s what you missed at the various sessions as I saw it. Distilling conversation to 140 chars on the fly is something of a dark art, so if I took anyone out of context, I apologize, and you’re more than free to correct the record. I was the official live-tweeter for the It’s Geek To Me session, so that’s obviously going to have the most thorough live-tweeting. Enjoy!

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How does one prove astrology? BY STARTING OVER.

The undying zombie astrology thread has attracted another latecomer to the party, this time Curtis Manwaring of Astrology X-Files, an astrology software developer who put together a seemingly testable hypothesis and added it as a comment on that thread. I’m moving my response to its own post, because frankly, nobody seems to be reading any of the follow-ups that have linked to it, and would rather continue the fight there. I’m tired of the single zombie thread, which is responsible for the vast majority of my database difficulties, causing me to hack my website to absurd degrees as a result. If it keeps attracting newcomers, I’ll close it, and add a comment saying “this post is closed, please visit any of the posts linked on page 9 of the comments if you want to continue the discussion.”

The meat of Curtis’ comment appears to be a way to test astrology, or at least one aspect of it. My problem with the suggestion is the same that I’ve had with the concept of astrology as a whole — it depends on a foundation that is simply not there. It builds on hypotheses that have simply never been proven, but rather always taken for granted. For instance, the hypothesis that there is any sort of correlation between the planets’ movements and people’s individual lives. Beyond this, much of what he suggests appears to disagree with other astrologers in the thread — even if you exclude Jamie “Darkstar” Funk of Dark Star Astrology (who has since attempted to shed his association with his ridiculous arguments here by changing his name). And to make matters worse, it appears to misunderstand statistical significance, the importance of sample sizes, and the importance of controlling for variables.

This is, as all my discussions against unfalsifiable and self-perpetuating memes, a long one. Grab a coffee.
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Repeal of DADT sends right-wingers into apoplexy

I am amazed that it took as long as it has to bring a bit of sanity back to America’s policies with regard to sexuality of serving members, but they finally repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. Yesterday the US Senate voted 63-33 to end cloture, then voted 65-31 (including eight Republicans) to repeal the strange law.

It’s one thing to forbid people from investigating, or discriminating against, gay soldiers. It’s another thing entirely to forbid people from serving while out. There’s a scene in the movie Across the Universe, set during the Vietnam War, wherein someone is expressly NOT refused entry into the army for claiming to be gay. “As long as you don’t have flat feet,” the recruiter says. Reality under DADT, however, expressly forbade any knowledge of a person’s sexual orientation, such that anyone openly gay could not serve, and anyone serving could not come out.

I can kind of understand, in the political climate of the 90s when being gay was only just becoming slightly less taboo — a bit of progress that was slowed with the misinformation around the spread of AIDS. The creation of the law in that climate was obviously intended to allow gays to join, to serve their country alongside straight soldiers — because if someone wants to risk their life fighting for what may or may not be a good cause, it damn well shouldn’t matter what gender or orientation they happen to be.

Except, naturally, to the esteemed and totally sane members of the Party of Family Values.

The new Marine motto: “The Few, the Proud, the Sexually Twisted.” Good luck selling that to strong young males who would otherwise love to defend their country. What virile young man wants to serve in a military like that?

If the president and the Democrats wanted to purposely weaken and eventually destroy the United States of America, they could not have picked a more efficient strategy to make it happen.
Bryan Fischer, American Family Association

“Today is a tragic day for our armed forces. The American military exists for only one purpose – to fight and win wars. Yet it has now been hijacked and turned into a tool for imposing on the country a radical social agenda. This may advance the cause of reshaping social attitudes regarding human sexuality, but it will only do harm to the military’s ability to fulfill its mission.
Tony Perkins, Family Research Council

If the lame-duck Congress succeeds in ‘gaying down’ our military this weekend, it will take a disastrous leap toward “mainstreaming” deviant, sinful homosexual conduct – not just in the military but in larger society — thus further propelling America’s moral downward spiral.
Peter LaBarbera, president of “Americans For Truth About Homosexuality”, a virulently anti-gay organization

Ain’t that just precious. What is it about the right wing that makes them so xenophobic and self-defeating that they’d deign decree who’s allowed to give their lives for their country? They can’t honestly think that being gay makes you less capable of killing people, can they?