Archive for the 'Science' Category

Rachel Maddow + Basketball + Bill Nye = Win

Yesterday’s Rachel Maddow Show provided me with yet another reason to love that woman. She uses footage of amazing 3-point shots in basketball to show how something out of the ordinary doesn’t disprove the ordinary. Washington has had some snowy weather recently, and the global warming deniers are loving it because they see that as proof that global warming isn’t real. They can’t tell the difference between weather and climate.

You can watch the video here, it’s fantastic and features an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy. But her point can be summed up in this quote, which begins around 4 minutes:

If one person wins the lottery…it does not disprove the existence of the recession. When it rains in the desert, that does not disprove the existence of the desert…If you have smoked a cigarette in your life and you are not currently suffering from lung cancer or heart disease, your existence…does not disprove the fact that smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease. The evidence we have of flight (birds, bees, airplanes, what have you) does not disprove the existence of gravity. The existence of monkeys does not disprove evolution. The existence of tadpoles does not disprove the existence of frogs.

Full court shots are hard, evolution is real, gravity is real, the recession real, deserts dry, smoking bad, frogs exist, also so do storms.

The fact that it is snowing somewhere…does not tell you any useful thing about the overall climate.

This is why we get our information about climate change from scientists, not pundits.

PZ Myers Braved Winnipeg…in January!

Yeah okay, he is from Minnesota, but still!

On Saturday night I was pleased to be able to see one of my favourite bloggers, PZ Myers of Pharyngula, speak on “the war between science and religion”, thanks to the Humanist Association of Manitoba.

Although I wasn’t sure how the topic related to Canada, American issues tend to spill over the border so it was relevant nonetheless. (The talk was recorded, but I’m not sure where or when that will be posted. I’ll post a link as soon as I find out.)

The main point that PZ was trying to get across was that atheists need to be “out”, and unafraid to talk about atheism, unafraid to criticize religion, and unafraid to criticize ideas that contradict science. I agree with him. I think that atheists are afraid to talk about their lack of beliefs for fear of offending somebody, this is certainly something I’m guilty of. I have the Out Campaign “A” on my blog, but I still have close friends and family members from whom I hide my atheism.

The conversation on beliefs really needs to be opened up. Even among atheists, there seems to be a tendency to think that we should just stay quiet and avoid causing a ruckus. But maybe it’s this tendency that makes it okay for religious people to deride atheists, and maybe it’s the fact that atheists are such a closeted group that makes them America’s least-trusted minority.

After PZ’s talk was over, I had a conversation with my mom about whether his cracker controversy was really necessary. If you don’t know the story, you can read his blog post about it here. The short version is that he desecrated a communion wafer…but really, read his version. I know that a lot of people think this whole thing was a silly exercise that accomplished nothing more than pissing off loads of Catholics. That was my first reaction. Think about it though, all he did was trash a cracker (as well as some pages from the Qur’an and the God Delusion). What he really did was demonstrate how ludicrous religious thinking can get. Some of the emails he received from angry Catholics illustrated how some people put the importance of the cracker above the importance of other human beings.

He has posted some of these emails on his blog, but one in particular that he showed at the talk really shocked me. It basically said that desecrating the wafer was worse then the holocaust or 9/11. Seriously. This is the kind of thinking that needs to be challenged publicly. PZ did something utterly harmless: he threw a few things that he didn’t hold sacred into the trash, and by doing this he was showing that not everyone was bound by superstitious beliefs. That’s something I can support.

What was your reaction to “The Great Desecration”?

Moving along…

My favourite part of lectures is pretty much always the question period, and there were a couple of questions in particular that stood out.

First, there was a local blogger (if you end up here let me know because I’d like to read your blog!) who mentioned that Canada doesn’t have any official separation of Church and state. I actually didn’t know this…I had made some lazy attempts to find out whether we had something similar to the US’s establishment clause, but came up empty. His question was did PZ think that we would benefit from making the separation of Church and state official. PZ’s answer, briefly, was no, and I agree. It might come in handy on occasion, but Canada has done great without it, compared to the US with its White House Faith-based initiatives, its national prayer breakfast, and its presidents (both the current and the previous) that can’t seem to make it through a speech without mentioning god or Jesus.

What do you think? Should Canada have an official separation of Church and state?

Second, a brave creationist showed up! His question: What do you have to say about molecules to morals? It was a weird question, but pretty much just a different wording of “can you be good without god?” PZ handled this well, and you can read the discussion on this in the comments on his blog, but how would you answer?

I’m always puzzled by this idea that we need someone (a god) to tell us what to do in order to be good. It just makes sense: if I don’t want to be harmed, I won’t do harm to other people.

Time to wrap this up…I’ll conclude by saying that I think atheists in general are moral and thoughtful people, and we should be loud and proud of our ability to think for ourselves. Cheers!

Symphony of Science – Jane Goodall

If you haven’t heard of the Symphony of Science you must must must click here now!

John Boswell, the head musician and producer behind Symphony of Science, has created (so far) 4 songs with accompanying videos that put the words of brilliant scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking to music…with the magic of auto-tune.

I love these creations so much that I even ordered the first song, A Glorious Dawn, on vinyl (you can get them from Third Man Records, they’re only $5, and the vinyl is etched to replicate the gold record on Voyager).

Symphony of Science just unveiled its most recent creation, “The Unbroken Thread”, featuring David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, and Jane Goodall. And it’s beautiful. This one is about biology, evolution, and the complexity and diversity of life on Earth.

I particularly want to point out the part featuring Jane Goodall, and it sums up the main reason why I decided to become a vegetarian (it’s been a week today!):

There isn’t a sharp line dividing humans
from the rest of the animal kingdom
It’s a very wuzzie line

It’s a very wuzzie line,
and it’s getting wuzzier
All the time

We find animals doing things that we,
In our arrogance,
Used to think was “just human”

I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do.

Thunderf00t Converses with Ray Comfort

Pearlist (Physical evidence and reasoned logic supporter) youtuber Thunderf00t, and Creationist Ray Comfort recently sat down for a conversation. It’s really long, but touches on some interesting subjects so if you want to watch you can take a look here.

I always have mixed feelings about these discussions between, because it’s hard to see whether they accomplish anything. Neither is going to change the other’s mind, and Thunderf00t, by sitting down with Comfort, is in a way giving him credibility.

I thought it was an interesting discussion, and I found it easier to watch than most between creationists and non-creationists, mostly because it didn’t turn into a shouting match.

Here are some observations I made during the conversation:

  • Comfort starts off by poisoning the well, saying he thought Thunderf00t goes by that name because he “likes stomping on Christians.”
  • Thunderf00t drives in the fact that he doesn’t know everything, he doesn’t know why we’re here, but Comfort asserts that he does know. Comfort doesn’t seem to understand the difference between knowing something and believing something. Comfort even goes as far as to say that statistics show that more people believe in an afterlife. That may be true but the popularity of an idea doesn’t make it true.
  • Comfort reuses his tired old anecdote that if you see some writing somewhere you know it was put there by a person, therefore looking at the universe, you have to think that it was put there by something intelligent. I like Thunderf00t’s answer to this, and that is that we can deduce that a person created the writing because we have observed people doing this before, so it logically follows. So far we have no evidence that would suggest that an intelligent being created the universe, so it isn’t reasonable to assume so.
  • Comfort is always using special pleading.  He asserts that he knows the answers because god has shown him the answers, for example at 4:30 “He’s made everything clear to me.” Comfort’s use of logical fallacies such as this one throughout the conversation make it extremely difficult to have a reason-based discussion.
  • At the transition between parts 3 and 4, Comfort quotes Penn Jillette, and completely misunderstands the quote. It’s kind of hilarious and really pathetic.
  • In part 4 my desire for Thunderf00t to really go after Comfort is somewhat satisfied when he criticizes Comfort’s street preaching techniques. Watch this video for an example. It’s really dispicable how he makes people feel guilty, and then puts them in a position where they want to prove themselves to him. Comfort’s style of preaching is just plain mean, and he clearly makes people uncomfortable.
  • In part 6 Comfort really falls into his preachy rhetoric. He’s pretty pathetic to watch throughout the conversation, as he is always trying to change the subject while Thunderf00t is making a point, and when all else fails he starts quoting the Bible and talking about sin and the ten commandments. So sad.

I think Thunderf00t did well at driving in the point that what Ray Comfort is doing is retarding the advancement of human knowledge. He is claiming that the Bible has all of the answers, and thus discouraging people from free inquiry. Comfort is unable to see the world outside of the framework of the Bible, and I suppose doesn’t want anyone else to be able to either.

I think the kicker is in Part 7 at about 7:33, Comfort says “All you need is an overactive imagination to believe in evolution.” Replace the word ‘evolution’ with ‘god’ and it sums up Ray Comfort’s beliefs. In fact, believing in evolution does not require a lot of imagination because of the wealth of evidence to validate the theory.

Comfort seems to think that everyone needs some kind of god to have faith in. Throughout the recording he says that Thunderf00t’s god is evolution or science or time. But when one uses physical evidence and reasoned logic to form ones body of knowledge, faith is not necessary.

Can Babies Understand Dogs?

Here’s a story I thought was kinda cute…

Babies Can Understand Dogs, Study Finds

Dogs may be man’s best friend, but babies might also really understand Fido.A new study found that 6-month-olds can match the sounds of an angry snarl or friendly yap with photos of dogs showing the corresponding body language.

The results, published in the July issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, suggest that babies can decipher emotions even before they learn how to talk.

“Emotion is one of the first things babies pick up on in their social world,” said lead researcher Ross Flom, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Barking dogs

The study involved 128 infants, with 32 from each of four age groups (6, 12, 18 and 24 months), who had little or no exposure to dogs.

The babies first looked at two images of the same fluffy canine, one showing the dog in an aggressive posture and facial expression while the other showed the dog in a friendly stance.

The researchers wanted to figure out whether infants had a preference for one expression over the other before including the dog barks. They didn’t.

Then, the researchers played a 2-second sound clip of either a friendly or threatening dog bark while the child viewed the two images. In the next trial, the other sound clip (aggressive or friendly) was played.

The 6-month-old babies spent most of their time staring at the matching photograph, so a mean bark would garner a stare at the dog with the vicious facial expression.

“The six-month-olds would look in that direction and kept looking in that direction,” Flom told LiveScience. “The older kids would glance at it and then kind of look away as if to say, ‘Oh yeah, I get it, it goes with that face. The task is ridiculous. I’m going to move on and look somewhere else around the room.’”

Baby smarts

The results suggest both 6-month-olds and babies up to 2 years old could distinguish a rowdy bark from a benign one. But the older babies just showed their correct responses differently than the 6-month-olds.

Interesting study, but I feel like this article might be sensationalizing the findings of the study a little bit…I wouldn’t be surprised.

The headline makes it seem like babies have some kind of intuition that puts them in tune with the dogs’ emotions. However I read it more as providing evidence that babies are able to perceive threats, which makes evolutionary sense to me!

Saturday Salute to Scientists…The Science and Entertainment Exchange

At the Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas, we got to see Jennifer Ouellette, a science writer and director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEE), speak about the quality of the science that’s portrayed in popular culture (from Wikipedia):

The Science & Entertainment Exchange (the Exchange) is a program of the United States National Academy of Sciences (NAS) developed to increase public awareness, knowledge, and understanding of science through its representation in television, film, and other media. The Exchange provides entertainment industry professionals with access to appropriate scientists and engineers who help to encourage effective representations of science and scientists in storylines, special effects, contextual background, and other elements in popular media. The Exchange also helps the science community understand the needs and requirements of the entertainment industry.

Officially launched in November 2008, the Exchange arranges direct consultations between scientists and entertainment professionals who develop science-themed content; it also provides a variety of other services, including scheduling briefings, brainstorming sessions, screenings, and salons. The Exchange is based in Los Angeles, California.

So often, movies and television shows get the science so wrong, and they perpetuate certain myths and untruths about how our universe really works. But there are an increasing amount of shows that are making an effort to get it right, and the Science and Entertainment Exchange is making it easier for writers to have access to scientists in several fields that can inform the scientific aspect of the script.

SEE, I salute you!

Science and Entertainment Exchange

Things I Want to See Before I Die (Part 1)

For some reason I’ve been thinking about my mortality a lot lately, maybe because I recently celebrated a birthday. Since I abandoned my wishful thinking of an afterlife I’ve become more okay with death.  I don’t have irrational fears of hell, I can just shut my eyes and that will be the end.

But the thought that the end is truly the end is also a really sad thought, because we live a time of so much innovation, and I would like to be around to witness it.

I decided that I’m going to make a list of discoveries and advancements that I’d like to see in my lifetime. I hope I can check some of them off soon, and I’ll try to update the list as I think of things…which is why I’m calling this post Part 1.

Here’s the list so far:

  1. The discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle
  2. Humans back to the Moon
  3. Discovery of alien life, hopefully intelligent but bacteria would be cool too!
  4. Figuring out what the heck dark matter is
  5. Space tourism
  6. Nuclear power to replace coal
  7. AIDS vaccine

I’ll start off with 7, that’s a pretty ambitious list! Unfortunately I won’t be taking part in discovering or implementing any of these things, but I will idolize the scientists who do so. And I do hope to take part in some space tourism in my lifetime, how awesome would that be?!

What would be on your list?


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