The Morris Café Scientifique lurches to life again!

Once again this year, I’m setting up our Café Scientifique-Morris, which is going to be held on the last Tuesday of each month of the university school year. This time around, that means the first one falls on…Halloween! So we’re going to do something fun for that one: maybe some costumes, lots of clips from classic horror movies, I definitely think we’re going to need some bubbling retorts of colored fluids, and the chemistry department is tentatively going to provide some treats (ice cream made with liquid nitrogen—chemistry and treats don’t usually go together in people’s heads, I know.) This is the announcement for the first talk:


I’ve been ripping a few DVDs from my collection with classic portrayals of scientists—the Universal Frankenstein series, Re-animator, the Bond movies, etc. (any suggestions? Pass ’em on)—which show us off as evil villains, and I’m going to show short clips from them to illustrate our poor image. Then I’m going to follow up with more but less exciting clips of people like Sagan and Wilson and Dawkins and, if I can track it down, Bronowski to illustrate the real humanism of good scientists. Suggestions for the latter part are also welcome, and that will be the heart of the talk, but face it: I don’t want to overdo the moralizing, and all the fun is going to be in the monster-makers.

I’ve also finalized our schedule. I’ve opened it up to a few people on the other side of campus, so we’re also going to hear about the legal standards for the admission of scientific evidence, and the economics of alternative power generation and transmission, in addition to a discussion of the chemistry we all use in our homes, a bit of astronomy, and a session of insect identification.

  • 31 October 2006 :: PZ Myers, Biology
  • 28 November 2006 :: Theodora Economou, Law
  • 30 January 2007 :: Panel discussion, Chemistry
  • 27 February 2007 :: Arne Kildegaard, Economics
  • 27 March 2007 :: Kristin Kearns, Physics
  • 24 April 2007 :: Tracey Anderson, Biology

It’s looking like a good year for this seminar series. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop on by!

You must be kidding, Mr Unwin

Here’s another review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s unbelievable, as if the critic hadn’t actually read the book. Here’s the hed/dek:

Dawkins needs to show some doubt
Scientists work in a field full of uncertainties. So how can some be so sure God doesn’t exist? asks Stephen Unwin

Uh, what? Two things immediately come to mind: certainty isn’t a claim Dawkins makes anywhere, and…Stephen Unwin???!? Unwin is a remarkably silly man, as anyone who has read his book, The Probability of God will know. Unwin goes on with some very strange inferences.

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A devil’s catechism

My review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) (currently at #4 on Amazon’s bestseller list!) is in the latest issue of Seed, which showed up at my door while I was flying out East. They changed my suggested title, which I’ve at least used on this article, in favor of the simpler “Bad Religion”. You could always buy the magazine to read it, but I’ll give you a little taste of what I thought.

Oh, yeah…Seed does that nice plus of having an artist render a portrait of the author, so there’s also a picture, artfully ruggedized and made much more attractive than I am in reality. Not that I’m complaining.

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Miller gives another lecture

I’m going to be a bit distracted for a while, with some upcoming travel and various other bits of busy work, but I was listening to this lecture by Ken Miller (in which Carl Zimmer was in attendance, too) as I was puttering away on a lecture of my own . It’s pretty much the same talk he gave in Kansas, sans talk of shooting at new targets and other obnoxious language, but I still find myself disagreeing with his conclusions. I had to take just a minute to bring up my objections.

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Rising godlessness

The British seem to have good taste. Look who is at the top of the UK bestseller list:


I know what you are thinking: Where can I get my hands on a copy of Wintersmith? Aside from that, though, it’s impressive that The God Delusion has shot to the top so quickly. When I looked at the list of American best sellers, I saw that it wasn’t as depressing as I feared:

Chomsky and

Frank Rich on top,

Sam Harris is at #5, and

Dawkins is at #12 and climbing fast. Maybe there’s some hope for us after all—at least the literate segment of our population is pondering interesting views.

We still always get our Pratchett much, much later than the English and the Australians, though, which is so unfair.

I have a new favorite charity!

Check it out: The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is an Anglo-American secular charitable organization that is in the process of being set up. They have a long list of causes they will support—science and education on the top of the list, but also many other traditional charitable goals—and all with an overt secular mission. It is a brilliant idea I can get behind, and I think it has the potential to give a visible focus to the good efforts of godless people everywhere.

My brief moment of fame

Hrm. Well. Since so many people are emailing me about this (I guess the book is officially out now, since so many are reading it), I’ll come clean: I am mentioned briefly but flatteringly in Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). I’ll spare you all the mystery, and quote it here, blushingly. It’s on page 69, in a section titled “The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists” (no, I’m not one of the members, I’m a critic; but as you can tell from the title, it’s a strong criticism of a school of thought that says we must appease the fence-straddlers who fear the godlessness of evolution). He cites a couple of things I’ve posted here: The Dawkins/Dennett boogeyman,
Our double standard, and
The Ruse-Dennett feud.

A page worth of the relevant section is quoted below the fold. Hey, if you like it, buy the book!

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More on that Miller guy

I’ve now listened to a recording of Miller’s talk in Kansas. I like it even less.

Miller is an excellent speaker. He’s persuasive, he’s clear, he knows his science well, and he was an impressive participant in the conflict at Dover…and he was on the correct side. Here’s the problem: he’s wrong now.

What he does is an insightful and lucid analysis of the problems with creationism, and then tries to wrap it up by identifying the source of the problem. Unfortunately, he places the blame in the laps of atheists, which is simply absurd. We’ve got fundamentalists straining to insert religious nonsense in the school curricula, and Miller’s response is turn around and put the fault on those godless secular people who have antagonized good Christian folk, giving them perfectly reasonable cause to fear for their immortal souls. How dare we? It’s only understandable that Kansans would object to godless interpretations of science!

There are so many ways in which this is wrong:

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Ken Miller, creationist

Red State Rabble has an account of Ken Miller’s talk at the University of Kansas.

“Creationists,” biologist Ken Miller, told a large, receptive audience at the University of Kansas last night, “are shooting at the wrong target.”

Showing a slide of the cover art of “The Lie,” an anti-evolution tract by Ken Ham, that prominently features a serpent tempting us with a poisoned apple labeled evolution, Miller said creationists mistakenly take aim at Darwin’s theory because they believe science to be anti-religious.

Evolution isn’t anti-religious, said Miller. Rather, it’s the non-scientific philosophical interpretations some humanists, such as Richard Dawkins, draw from the evidence that challenges the role of religion.

If that account is accurate (I trust Pat Hayes to be accurate, and I also have independent confirmation*), then that was a shot at the majority of biologists, and a declaration of common cause with creationists. They are “shooting at the wrong target,” but who is the right target? Why, those humanists, people like Richard Dawkins and anyone who challenges the role of religion. Go get ’em, Kansans! Hound those wicked atheists—they aren’t the real scientists, after all. Real scientists believe in God and spirits and magic and etheric essences infused into souls by a phantasmal hominid, just like you do.

Thanks, Dr Ken! I know what side you’re on, now…it’s you and the creationists, best friends 4ever! Did they promise to let you strike the match at the atheist-burning?

Some of those who take a materialist world view assert that science alone can lead us regarding the nature of existence, or that scientific knowledge is the only kind worth having, said Miller. In doing so, these skeptics ignore the limitations of science, just as the creationists ignore the limits of theology.

In fact, many scientists, said Miller, a practicing Catholic, draw the opposite conclusion from the evidence for evolution.

“Faith and reason are both gifts from God,” said Miller. “It is faith that gives scientists a reason to pursue science.”

So all those atheist scientists who have no faith, who actively deny gods…what reason do they have for pursuing science? Hmmm? Why should we believe this immaterial god of yours gives any kind of “gift” at all? There is a non sequitur there: while many scientists do believe in some god or gods, he cannot claim that they draw that conclusion from the evidence—there is no evidence supporting the existence of any deities. Miller should know this.

Neither the philosophical or theological interpretations of the nature of existence, its purpose, meaning, or lack of it, are scientific, said Miller, because they are not testable.

Claims that a god operates in the natural world are not testable. They lack evidence in support. They make no predictions. They guide no hypotheses. They add nothing to any explanations of the natural world. They are contradicted by an absence of evidence.

Claims that gods do not exist or do not interfere in natural processes, and that we must base our interpretations on an assumption that events occur by the action of natural phenomena, however, have been the essential operational basis of all of science, and that has worked incredibly well. Barring the presentation of any positive evidence, a scientist should provisionally reject the existence of a postulated force that does nothing, is indetectable, and that even its proponents argue would exert only actions that are indistinguishable from what would occur in its absence.

The only unscientific opinion being offered is the bizarre idea that a magical being might have miraculously created humans or jump-started the Cambrian explosion, two suggestions Miller makes in his book, Finding Darwin’s God.

*The Lawrence Journal-World reports the same thing.

But Miller said the root of the portrayal of religion and evolution as opposites may come from scientists who have an “anti-theistic interpretation of evolution,” a stance he disagrees with.

“People of faith are shooting at the wrong target. They should not be shooting at evolution itself,” he said.

Instead of attacking evolutionary theory, the argument should be against the anti-theistic interpretation of evolution, he said.

I’d say he was pandering to a bunch of bible-walloping yahoos, except I think he honestly believes that nonsense himself. It still doesn’t excuse suggesting that everyone needs to start shooting at the godless, and he should realize that what he’s doing with that kind of argument is antagonizing a rather large subset of the scientific community.

I’ve put more shooting at Miller here.