Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Looking for Definitive Evidence

I was reading an article at LiveScience called the “Top 10 Missing Links” when I made the mistake of glancing down at the comments. I don’t usually do that because the ignorance often displayed drives me insane. In this particular case the person wanted to hear about definitive, unequivocal evidence that demonstrated evolution and I felt obligated to respond.

You're looking for definitive, unequivocal evidence? Forget it, because it doesn't exist. Unfortunately it's just not that simple. Not much in life is really. Generally what you have are little pieces of evidence gathered from here and there stapled together with a whole lot of interpretation and conjecture. That's just the way things work.

As new information is gathered it's put up against the existing hypotheses. If it confirms the existing hypotheses, they get stronger and more widely accepted. If it doesn't, then adjustments have to be made to include the new information. That's why science is called self correcting. It's supposed to alter the theory to accommodate the facts as understood rather than adjust or ignore the facts.

Does it always work perfectly? Of course not. Scientists are as human as anyone else and cherished hypotheses or explanations can sometimes die hard especially when reputations have been built on them. But overall, it does work this way. Science is always trying to move forward and widen our understanding of the world.

If you would like definitive, unequivocal evidence that science and the scientific method work, that I can give you. Just look all around you at the offspring of science which is technology. We have our current technology due to the empirical methods and self correcting nature of science.

Now let me ask you a question, is it very likely that science can be so right about the many things which are the foundation of technology yet be so wrong about evolution? I'd say that it's not bloody likely. The Theory of Evolution is a unifying theory that ties together many branches of science. There are many questions in evolution related to how, when and why, but there is no question about if.

In Search of the God Particle

That’s the title of an article on the Newsweek website which talks about the preparations for a grand particle physics experiment scheduled to begin this summer at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. Apparently the experiment is aimed at finding traces of an elusive sub-atomic particle dubbed the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is a theoretical particle that has never been observed but is predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics. It is the only particle in the Standard Model which has not yet been observed.

The hope is that verifying the existence of the Higgs boson would be a major step toward that Holy Grail of physics, a Grand Unified Theory which ties together the four fundamental forces, electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

However we’re talking about Newsweek here which is a publication that needs to appeal to the American masses. Those masses know nothing about, and couldn’t care less about, particle or theoretical physics. Besides, they probably wouldn’t have the education nor the intelligence to follow any reasonable description anyway.

Religion on the other hand, that’s different. That’s a topic near to the hearts of the unwashed trailer park masses so of course the article focused almost exclusively upon the possible impact upon religion of the upcoming experiment.

Fortunately for those of us with a triple digit IQ, the form of the article was an interview with the theoretical physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas and I got a kick out of some of his observations.

“The more we learn about the universe the less sign we see of an intelligent designer.”

Note that Weinberg is not only saying that we see less need of an intelligent designer but less evidence of one as well.

“I don't think that discoveries in elementary particle physics in themselves are likely to have anything like the impact of Darwin's theory.”

Probably not because the trailer park fundie crowd has no hope of understanding those discoveries nor their implications, therefore they’re no threat to the religious leadership which makes its living off of contributions from the faithful.

Actually, the fundie crowd doesn’t understand Darwin’s Theory of Evolution either but religious leaders have been kind enough to put together a simple minded straw man they are capable of understanding.

Of course the threat that evolution poses to fundie Christianity is so obvious that even the trailer park morons can figure that out, especially if their pastors pound away at it Sunday after Sunday. Hey, you have to keep those collection plates full.

“People who expect to find evidence of divine action in nature, in the origin of the universe or in the laws that govern matter, are probably going to be disappointed.”

But that’s not going to keep them from making stuff up which claims that they have.

“We don't see any purpose dictated to human beings in nature.”

Like I’ve said before, there’s a very good chance that we’re simply a cosmic accident, a temporary biological smudge upon the grand fabric of the universe.

“It takes a certain act of courage to look at nature, not see any plan for human beings in there and yet go on and live good lives, love each other, create beautiful things, explore the universe. All these take more courage without having some divine plan that we discover, but one that we rather create for ourselves.”

It certainly does. So much so that even many of us that recognize the probable reality of the situation sort of push it to the back of our minds. I’m willing to admit that I do this quite a bit. I state things in terms of probabilities and likelihoods which always leaves the door open a crack for a more pleasant reality. I also cling to my agnosticism rather than diving full bore into atheism.

The key point however is that if you have that courage, you don’t need the threat of punishment from some all powerful Sky Daddy to live a moral, creative life.

Still, I cling to agnosticism because hope springs eternal so they say and having a benevolent Sky Daddy watching over everything sure would be nice. Weinberg doesn’t seem concerned about that however.

“I don't believe in God, but I don't make a religion out of not believing in God. I don't organize my life around that.”

Life’s certainly too short to make a crusade out of the non-existence of God. So why can’t religious types see that it’s also too short to make a crusade out of the existence of God?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Day of Silence and the Day of Truth

With April right around the corner the two competing protests are gearing up. The Day of Silence is sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and is billed as a student led (high school and college level) protest against the oppression of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. It’s scheduled this year for April 25th.

While I sympathize with the cause, I’m a little uncertain about the methodology. The plan is to remain silent for the entire school day while handing out cards explaining why should the need arise. It sure sounds like it’s going to make any interactive educational exchange a tad difficult to achieve.

The Day of Truth is scheduled for April 28th and is sponsored by the Christian Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) with support from other conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Their basic position is that homosexuality is sinful and destructive behavior and they have the right to say so. This they call having an “honest conversation about homosexuality.”

I call it prejudice.

To be honest with you I don’t know why some folks have their sexual wires crossed but the scientific evidence appears to point to it being totally non-voluntary. Roughly equivalent to having blue eyes or being left handed.

On the other side of the fence, homosexuality appears to be condemned in the bible, or at least that’s how conservative Christians interpret the passages in question, so Christianity condemns it as sinful.

Now, what exactly are we going to talk about? Christianity is convinced it’s a sinful choice, science appears to be leaning toward it’s an involuntary characteristic rooted in either genetics, hormonal exposure or both. Does anyone really think there is a snowball’s chance in hell that the average conservative Christian can be made to accept that maybe, just maybe, homosexuality is beyond the control of gays?

In order to be willing to consider such a position, they would have to be willing to consider that their bible is wrong. If they haven’t accepted evolutionary theory, which isn’t even a moral question, they’re sure as hell not going to accept that homosexuality may be natural.

This is their idea of “truth.” Homosexuality is sinful behavior based upon a couple of passages written by a group of ignorant savages 3,000 years ago. I mean, why not roll out the old “truth” that Genesis 9:26-27 justifies keeping blacks as slaves?

Hey, feel free to express your opinion. It’s your right under the First Amendment. But how about at least being honest about what that opinion is? It’s not a call for an “honest conversation” it’s a condemnation. You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to think your opinion stinks to high heaven.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reverend Wright’s Comments

I’ve read the comments by Barack Obama’s pastor Reverend Wright that have raised such a furor and I’m not all that sure why they have.

The three you run into most often are as follows:

In a sermon on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Wright made statements that have been interpreted as saying that the U.S. brought on the terrorist attacks.

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

I don’t know how to break this to you folks, but this statement is essentially accurate. While I doubt that the bombing of Hiroshima was much of a factor in September 11th, the American support for Israel and, what the Arab World considers, terrorist acts against the Palestinian people certainly was. I don’t have any doubt in my mind that if the Palestinian crises had been resolved the twin towers would still be standing.

There is a difference between a cause and a justification however. I don’t think Wright is putting these events on the table as “justifications,” he’s putting them forward as potential causes. In other words you can’t run roughshod through the world and not expect anyone to fight back. And when they decide to fight back, don’t be surprised if they chose not to play by your rules.

I might also point out that we’re building up a continuing debt in Iraq that one of these days I’m certain some crazies will attempt to collect on.

In a 2003 sermon, he said blacks should condemn the United States.

"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

This is a little stronger than we’re used to hearing from black leaders and clearly saying that the government gives blacks drugs is wide eyed paranoia at its best but again, if you kind of ignore the heated language and the drug thing, the content advocates a not totally unreasonable outlook from the perspective of a people that, for the most part, have been locked out of the so-called American dream.

Only a fool would conclude that racism in America is dead and buried. Jim Crow lies just under the surface in many areas. Could the pastor have been a bit more diplomatic in his language? Sure, but I doubt he thought at that time that his words would ever go beyond his congregation. Think about some of the things you’ve said when you thought it would go no further than some trusted circle.

He also gave a sermon last December comparing Obama to Jesus and promoting his candidacy while criticizing his rival, Hillary Clinton.

"Barack knows what it means to be a black man to be living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a nigger."

If there is a problem with this statement it’s that Pastor Wright is perilously close to politicking from a tax exempt pulpit if he’s not over that line. I really can’t argue with his point that Hillary Clinton can’t know what it means to be a black man in a country controlled by rich white folks because she can’t. Hell, I was raised in a housing project in the Bronx and I can’t either.

As for his playing politics from his pulpit, I doubt this is much worse than what all the Evangelical Christian pastors did for Mike Huckabee from their pulpits. How come I didn’t hear the right wing moaning about that? Still, two wrongs don’t make a right and Reverend Wright may have been over the line here, over the line legally, but not morally.

I think we’ve gotten way too sensitive in this country. We get all phony indignant over the least little thing. I say “phony indignant” because it’s mostly a lot of bull intended to stir up some under educated segment of the electorate. God forbid we should decide our elections on real issues.

Friday, March 14, 2008

One Victory and One Ongoing Battle

My ACLU newsletter arrived today and in addition to its usual shrill language related to the Bush administration’s trampling of the law contained two little stories in the struggle to maintain the separation of Church and State.

One was about a victory and the other was about an ongoing battle.

The Victory was in Texas where the Ector County School Board agreed to stop the teaching of a bible curriculum from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) in the town of Odessa Texas. I did a piece on the NCBCPS last year and their so-called non-sectarian curriculum is about as non-sectarian as last Sunday’s sermon. It’s so blatant that it even offends other Christians.

When its curriculum is criticized the NCBCPS flip-flops between vigorous denials and raucous indignation. According to the NCBCPS there’s a godless Liberal conspiracy against teaching the bible in general and their curriculum in particular.

In reality, according to a review by a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, the curriculum declares faith tenets of Christianity factual history, champions a specific brand of conservative Christian dogma and contains errors of fact and interpretation.

In other words it’s more religious propaganda than a valid educational tool. Yet, the folks over at NCBCPS continue to deny that they’re pushing any particular religious agenda.

Yes, it’s just another day and another example of Christian dishonesty. I keep asking this question over and over again but I never get an answer. If what you have is “the truth,” then why do you need to use lies to advance its acceptance?

The ongoing battle is in Maryland where a bill containing a thinly disguised attempt at allowing state funded religious school vouchers is being contested. But again, the attempt is disguised under a bill inappropriately called “Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers in Maryland Tax Credit” or BOAST.

I read the bill; it’s an attempt to legalize private school vouchers and religious schools would be the primary beneficiary. Look, you’re entitled to send your kids to a private religious school as long as (1) they get a reasonably adequate education there and (2) you don’t ask the rest of us to help foot the bill.

Yes, it’s yet another day and yet another example of Christian dishonesty.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What a Moron!

I’m referring to Elliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, who got himself caught going to a high priced hooker. High priced may be an understatement as I heard he forked over $4,300 for the pleasure.

What an idiot. His career, his reputation and possibly his marriage all in the garbage can. I hope for his sake that was one hell of a piece of ass.

To make matters worse, did a Democratic governor have to choose a presidential election year for a sex scandal? Those are supposed to be the province of Republicans. Oh no, what a minute, I got that wrong. Democrats get into sex scandals with girls, Republicans do it with guys and I’m talking only about the males of the political species.

Good grief what a complete schmuck.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bush and Cheney should be Arrested and Moses was High

There are two unrelated but interesting stories in the news today.

Reuters reports that two towns in Vermont voted to instruct police to arrest George Bush and Dick Cheney for “crimes against our Constitution.” Hey, that works for me. I say we arrest them, give them a fair trial and then hang the bastards.

The second story comes from AFP. Apparently a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has concluded that Moses was high on psychedelic drugs when he got the Ten Commandments and talked to the burning bush.

Benny Shanon, a professor of cognitive psychology who admits having experimented with mind altering drugs at religious ceremonies during a trip to the Amazon, is the guy pushing this theory. The drug he used was from a powerful psychotropic plant called ayahuasca. Shanon claims that he experienced visions that had spiritual-religious connotations and that the properties of ayahuasca are similar to those in potions made from the bark of the acacia tree which is often mentioned in the bible.

Well, I don’t know about often. The acacia tree is prominent in Exodus 25 and 26 because God instructs that the Ark, the frames of the Tabernacle, the Table and the Altar within the Tabernacle and the poles for carrying the Ark, the Altar and the Table all be made of acacia wood. The construction of the Tabernacle, using acacia wood, is repeated in Exodus 37. Deuteronomy mentions in passing that Moses made the Ark out of acacia wood and Isaiah and Joel simply mention the acacia tree itself in one place each.

Clearly acacia wood had a special place but there’s no mention of any concoction made from the bark. Shanon simply finds this a more rational scenario than either supernatural intervention or a legend made up out of thin air.

I checked and the acacia tree does contain psychoactive alkaloids and apparently figures in Egyptian mythology both in relationship to the tree of life and the legend of Osiris. That sort of implies that Shanon may well be right. That wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Not Over Yet

Hillary managed to pull out Texas and Ohio so I guess it’s not over yet.

That’s disappointing. I was hoping the people of Texas and Ohio would have the sense to turn a new page in American history rather than opting for the same old. I guess I should have known better, after all Texas gave us George W. Bush and Ohio voted for him twice.

Oh well, onward we go.