Archive for January, 2009

PZ Myers in Calgary

Posted in Skeptic with tags , , on January 31, 2009 by koinosuke

The following is an account of PZ Myers lecture at the University of Calgary, according to my fallible memory. I did take copious notes, which upon later inspection turned out to be completely illegible, as is the norm. Oh well …

The friendly free thinkers were out in force at the University of Calgary, quickly filling the large theatre to capacity. There was a woman handing out flyers promoting young earth creationist (YEC) propaganda and misinformation, unfortunately she did not feel the need to actually attend the lecture.

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The talk open with some disturbing news from the province of Alberta. Alberta public schools are required to follow the provincial curriculum, however schools are allocated 15% of the day which can be used in any manner. Some schools are using this time to teach creationism nonsense. They are abusing their authority and the minds of the students unfortunate enough to be sent to these schools. PZ’s talk entitled “Science Education: Caught in the Middle in the War Between Science and Religion”, could not be more timely.

PZ Myers is standing on the far left

PZ Myers is standing on the far left

PZ started his talk with the important message that science must be secular. Constitutional considerations on the separation of church and state (explicit in the US, Canada not so much) should not be employed to protect the science classroom. If they are employed, then this is a last ditch effort. Rather the focus should be on increasing the public understanding and appreciation of science. As the woman handing out the YEC pamphlets neatly demonstrated, scientific illiteracy is correlated with creationism.

Professor Myers addresses the crowd

Professor Myers addresses the crowd

Creationists are  masters at swaying public opinion with bogus science, even to the point of earning academic degrees without ever intending to use the knowledge they gained. This wall of shame includes Jonathan Wells, Marcus Ross, Nathaniel Abraham to name a few. And why are these men so passionate? PZ can explain it in one word: religion.

Religion has many advantages in the area of ideas. It is often, falsely, considered as just one more way of understanding the world. It is completely unfalsifiable, always an advantage, and is given undue deference by most of society. This is despite the sheer absurdity of its claims.

A simple word substitution can turn an idea on its head

A simple word substitution can turn an idea on its head

People can be moved to violence if this unspoken rule of respect for religion is broken. One gentleman stormed out of the talk after a loud outburst. This kind of passion can lead to quite a distorted morality, as the 18,000 letters PZ received, after desecrating the Eucharist, demonstrate.

Only one of the 18,000 letters

Only one of the 18,000 letters

Religion needs to be moved back into the private arena. PZ has a wonderful analogy; religion ought to be compared to masturbation, a very private personal practice.

Enough said

Enough said

The previous slides may seem disrespectful, and it would be unfortunate if they were interpreted as a gratuitous slap at religion; they are not. They may shock some but hopefully they will also generate new ideas and discussion.

We can and should fight back against the encroachment of organised religion into the public area (case in point the attack on science in Alberta). PZ Myers has these suggestions:

Come out as an atheist, secular humanist, sceptic, or whatever …

Question the role of religion in our society

Blaspheme: my personal favourite. I don’t go out of my way to blaspheme but it is so hard not to. I move a lot of switches on the Sabbath.

There are other ideas such as, volunteering to teach evolution in high school or joining sceptic societies in an effort to increase the public understanding of science.

The first step could be coming out to celebrate Darwin Day Thursday, February 12, 2009 6:30pm – 9:30pm at Rusty Macdonald Branch Library – Auditorium 225 Primrose Drive in Saskatoon.

Hope to see you there.

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Expelled In Saskatoon

Posted in Media, news, Skeptic with tags , , , , , , , on January 25, 2009 by saskskeptic

I went to see Ben Stein‘s movie “Expelled” at the Elim Tabernacle.  They had a public presentation of the movie and it allowed me to see it for the first time.  Much has been said about this movie.  I think none more elegantly than by Robert Ebert.

The movie purports to address academic freedom.  It presents four individuals who claim that their careers were damaged for supporting intelligent design.  This is a fine premise for a documentary, but the discussion of the ‘victims’ is as one sided as a Michael Moore film.  There seems to be no investigation of the validity of the claims.  There are a few interviews with the individuals from the accused institutions.  Generally these were dismissed.  For example, one university official was described as not willing to leave the party line.

The topic of the film is supposed to be about academic freedom.  Who would not support academic freedom?   However, a huge amount of the film is dedicated to attacking evolution, or more specifically Darwinism.  Attacking Darwin the man and his theory as presented 150 years ago is much easier then attacking the current theory of evolution.

The film associates evolution with Nazi’s, Communism, the eugenics movements, atheism, lack of free will, lack of morals, and the implied meaninglessness of life.   It portrays science as a balkanized single-minded institution where no descent is allowed.  Scientists supporting evolution are presented as negatively as possible.  Such ad hominem attacks have nothing to do with academic freedom and belie the true goal of the film.

After the movie, there was a discussion with two professors:

Dr. Delwyn Fredlund, Professor Emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan.

Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, President of Horizon College & Seminary, previously from the University of Manitoba.

Both of these men have impressive academic careers, and have been honored for their work.

The discussion started out quite well.  They suggested that the point of the movie was to be able to think with our own minds; that the government should not control what people think.  Dr. Giesbrecht even said that there can be errors on both sides and that it is important not to be dogmatic.  Interpretation of scripture can be wrong.

Disappointingly, both panelists demurred when asked if they believed in old or young earth creation.  They seemed concerned that they may offend those that disagreed with them.  Is there know academic freedom in a religious setting?

Unfortunately things went downhill from there.  They suggested that because Darwin did not know how complex the cell is, that given our current knowledge he might not now propose his theory..  This seems unlikely since the vast majority of cell and evolutionary biologists do not have a problem with the theory.  Obviously there have been some refinements to Darwin’s original theory.  When proposed, Darwin did not even know about DNA.  He did not know the mechanism for propagating changes to the next generation but he could discern the effect.

Dr. Fredlund did say something that shocked me.  He said that evolution violates the law of entropy.  This is an old argument, and on the surface this may seem to be true.  The entropy (randomness) in a system always increases.  In other words things wind down and get more disorganized.  Superficially evolution seems to contradict this.

If you have a box with things of various temperatures, after a while the temperatures will even out, but this only applies to closed systems, such as our theoretical box.  It is the primary reason that perpetual motion machines cannot exist.

Fortunately for us, the earth is not a closed system. There is a huge burning gas ball in the sky that pumps a tremendous amount of energy into the earth’s biosphere.  Life runs on that energy. Since energy constantly flows from the sun to the earth, there is no violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

But imagine how such a claim appears, coming from a distinguished scientist, when you are unaware of the details of thermodynamics. Would you question it? The laws of thermodynamics are basic high school physics.  That a professor of soil mechanics would make such a claim to his audience is dumbfounding.

At the end, questions were cut off and both panelists made their final remarks.

Dr. Giesbrecht brought up the issue of the human eye.  Like a good scientist, Darwin identified this as a potentially fatal problem for his theory.   How could the eye evolve?  In the subsequent 150 years, the evolution of the eye has been thoroughly explained.   It is very strange that someone with a physiology background would not know this.

Evolution of the Eye from Wikipedia

Evolution of the Eye from Wikipedia

Ever since Darwin identified the eye as a potential problem for his theory, it has been a favorite point of attack for his critics.  Some intelligent design proponents describe the human eye as being irreducibly complex.  If you take out any part, it would not be useful.  This is not true.  Ask a partially blind person if they would rather be completely blind.   The eye does not have to work perfectly to be helpful.  A blurry image is better than none.   Even the ability to detect light and shadows is useful.

The panelists mentioned that Mao, Stalin, and Hitler are atheists and were responsible for huge death tolls.  Hitler may or may not have been an atheist.  Mao and Stalin certainly were.  However they did not personally kill millions of people. That took the willing cooperation of thousands of religious followers.

In another line of attack, Darwin’s seminal book “On the Origin of the Species” was criticized because he does not attempt to explain how life originated even though origin is in the title.  Focusing on just one word of a title is just childish. The book and its contained theory is about how different species came to be not how life originated.

One thing that was never mentioned is the fact that all of the scientist in the film on both sides of the debate believe in evolution.  Intelligent design proponents admit that small evolutionary changes take place.  What they call micro-evolution.  Where they disagree is in evolution that generates new species or types of animals.  What they call macro-evolution.  Many if not all intelligent design proponents are young earth creationists who believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Through this world view there clearly has not been enough time for large scale evolution to take place.  The antiquity of the earth as being billions of years old has been established even more strongly than evolution itself.

By the end of the evening I felt that the audience was being “played”.  The panelists appeared to be disingenuously pushing an anti-evolution agenda based on outdated information that should be within their spheres of expertise.  This is extremely unfair to the caring and concerned people in the audience.

The theory of evolution should not be a religious issue.  Unfortunately, it’s implications contradicts some scriptural interpretations.  When it does, some groups try to correct this contradiction by insisting that evolution is wrong.  They try to associate many societal ills with it. They try to create fake controversies surrounding it. The academic freedom facade is the latest salvo in a ongoing campaign to ‘correct’ science education in general and evolution in particular.

It seems everyone should have academic freedom, as long as it is based on outdated misinformation and propaganda.

PZ Myers in Alberta

Posted in news, Skeptic with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2009 by saskskeptic

The Center for Inquiry is bringing influential biologist, blogger and atheist PZ Myers to Alberta.  PZ will be giving a lecture in Calgary Sunday Jan. 25 and will take part in a debate in Edmonton Monday Jan. 26.

PZ’s science blog pharyngula averages 50,000 visitors per day.

Welcome To The Year of Darwin

Posted in Skeptic with tags , on January 14, 2009 by koinosuke

February 12, 2009 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin; scientists and educators have been pushing for this day to be known as “Darwin Day”. So why all fuss? Quantum Theory, General Relativity, Germ Theory of Disease, etc. … have both revolutionised our understanding of the universe, and overturned old dogma. But none have received quite as much abuse as Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. This idea, the most fundamental concept of biology, has been the target of a well organised and unscientific attack, since its inception 150 years ago.

Darwin expected criticism, and did his best, with the knowledge available at the time, to address every conceivable objection, in his remarkable abstract “On the Origins of Species”.  Much of the so called weakness of Darwin’s theory, as proposed by creationists, evolution’s most persistent nemesis, are those very same objections Darwin demolished in his abstract. Darwin did invite the reader to review the evidence for his or herself, and the scientific community did exactly that, and they, eventually, agreed that Darwin’s theory had met the burden of proof. It explained the diversity of life better than other competing hypothesis, and more important made solid predictions that could be tested. However the attacks continued, not the reasoned criticism backed by evidence, rather misinformed, deceptive attacks. Now Darwin’s theory stands at the heart the battle between reason and superstition.

Understanding evolution and its critics is to learn the difference between good science and pseudo-science, evidence and conjecture, reason and bias. It was my introduction into the world of scepticism. To celebrate Darwin Day is to acknowledge the man who though years of painstaking observations managed to solve nature’s most notorious puzzle; the origins of new species. 

Raise your glass on February 12th to Charles Darwin surely the greatest student of nature that ever lived.

Supernatural Investigator-Canadian Skeptic Documentary Series

Posted in Media, news, Skeptic with tags , , , , , , , on January 13, 2009 by saskskeptic

VisionTV is premiering a Canadian produced show called Supernatural Investigator beginning Jan. 27.  It is hosted by multiple award winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer.

The VisionTV press release:

The Antichrist lives among us, preparing for the battle of Armageddon. Sunken stones off the coast of Florida point the way to the lost city of Atlantis. Mayan priests used mysterious crystal skulls to communicate with the spirit world. And the great buildings of Washington, D.C. conceal the symbols of a Masonic master plan.

Crazy ideas? Maybe. But a surprising number of North Americans believe in these and other manifestations of the paranormal – from reincarnation and remote viewing to astrology and alien abduction.

. . .

Produced for VisionTV by some of Canada’s leading independent production companies, the Supernatural Investigator documentaries bring rigorous real-life scrutiny to the murky world of paranormal phenomena. Each half-hour episode follows an expert investigator as he or she searches for the truth behind so-called supernatural happenings.

These investigators – among them futurist Mac Tonnies, archaeologist Joel Palka, science writer and adventurer Jeff Warren, magician Jeremy Bennett, and musician Tara Slone – confront unearthly mysteries with a clear and critical eye: Have extraterrestrials visited this planet? Did vengeful demons hound a Canadian journalist to his death? Why did the U.S. government experiment with ESP during the Cold War? And did the world’s greatest escape artist somehow slip the bonds of death?

The first show is “The Antichrist” Tuesday, Jan. 27, 10:30 p.m. ET / 7:30 p.m. PT

Other than wondering why is this on the predominantly religion based VisionTV, I think this is great.  I have seen the Naked Anthropologist on Vision so they have some science.  I can not imagine this happening on a US religious channel.

Thanks for the heads up from Kent at The Million Calorie March

Robert J. Sawyer Coming to Saskatoon

Posted in Skeptic with tags , , , , on January 13, 2009 by saskskeptic

Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer has accepted a writer in residence position at the Canadian Light Source. He will be at the CLS through June and July.

From the CLS press release:

SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN –International award-winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer will be writer-in-residence at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron from June 1 to July 31, 2009. Sawyer, widely regarded as one of Canada’s most influential authors and most successful science fiction writers, will use the residency to explore the creative processes at the root of science and art, and increase public discussion of science in Canada.

The last time he was in Saskatoon he joked that Land of the Living Skies was a great idea for his next book.

About

Posted in Skeptic on January 11, 2009 by saskskeptic

The goal of this blog is to provide a skeptical view of  Saskatchewan life, politics and news.

This blog is primarily written by members of the Saskatoon Skeptics Society.  Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessary reflect those of other authors or the Saskatoon Skeptic Society.