What should a scientist think about religion?

In a thread that will not die at the Panda’s Thumb, the argument has settled into a more reasonable back-and-forth on the issue of the entanglement of atheism and science. There are a number of people, including many of the contributors to the Panda’s Thumb, who are adamant that evolution must maintain a plausible deniability from atheism—that atheism is not a necessary consequence of accepting good science (a point with which I agree), and that atheism is basically a scary thing that will alienate many potential supporters (a point with which I strongly disagree). One comment, though, highlights the problem with the atheist-averse strategy.

Distinguish between whether you are speaking as a scientist or as an atheist. If the two labels are not necessarily linked, then it helps to minimize the confusion by clearly stating on a particular matter, whether you are pissed off as a scientist, or as an atheist.

If you must say, “Religion is irrational,” I think a theist would like to know if you are speaking as a scientist or an atheist. Scientist: Is irrationality a scientific concept? On what quantitative measure do we evaluate irrationality? Atheist: Why do I reject God premises? Why is materialism a superior philosophy?

As I was puzzling over how to answer such an odd question, I realized why I thought it was odd. The scientist and atheist positions are the same. It doesn’t matter which hat I’m wearing, the answers won’t change.

[Read more…]

Look at it as another reason to encourage embryonic stem cell research

I suppose this is a kind of threat—an archaic and quaint threat, but I’m sure some people take it seriously—but the Catholic church has made a strong statement against embryonic stem cell research.

The Vatican stepped up its fight against embryonic stem cell research on Wednesday, saying that scientists involved in such work would be excommunicated.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Vatican department dealing with family affairs, said in a magazine interview that “destroying human embryos is equivalent to an abortion… it’s the same thing”.

“Excommunication applies to all women, doctors and researchers who eliminate embryos,” the cardinal told Catholic publication Famiglia Cristiana.

To which I can only weakly reply, “no, no, don’t drive scientists away from your religion, Catholics!” Bwahahahaha!

Anyway, do read the article. I thought that, while short, it was very informative about the political debate on stem cells in Italy, and actually summarized the situation fairly accurately and pithily.

Embryonic stem-cell research techniques involve destroying human embryos to extract their stem cells. Stem cells are ‘blank’ cells which have the ability to grow into any tissue of the body. Scientists think they could eventually be used to treat a host of ailments including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

The stem cells of very early embryos are preferred because they can become any kind of cell whereas adult stem cells are less flexible. Despite popular support, embryonic stem cell research is opposed by pro-life groups and many conservative lawmakers because the human embryo must be destroyed before its stem cells can be removed.

I’ve gotten so used to the way American journalists so readily fall for the false claim of the anti-choicers that adult stem cells are better than embryonic stem cells in all ways that I was surprised to see that more accurate short description in there.

Humans are very strange animals

I mentioned that cringe-inducing hemipenectomy that some spiders do…well, Stan Schwarz had to one-up me and sent a link to an image of an example of full genital splitting (if you click that link, you’re probably safe; it’s a very tiny thumbnail image. Click on that, though, and all bets are off). I have no idea why any human being would want to do that—it looks like a very creepy meat butterfly in the guy’s crotch. If that description alone grosses you out, you definitely don’t want to click on that link. Move along, move along.