Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Digression: Lists And Spam

So, just a moment here off the topic I've been thinking about lately (science and religion as different and equally valid approaches to understanding the universe) to rant:

I keep getting email messages with lists of things that I supposedly am dying to know. I usually delete them without even wasting my time, but this one struck me: "5 Things Your Gynecologist Can Tell from a Basic Exam."  Being the smart-ass I am, I took a guess as to what these five things might be, and, guess what, I was right!

These 5 things are: when your "muscles have weakened," leading to urinary incontinence (which muscles? how could they become weak? can you make them strong again?); whether what you thought was a yeast infection and were self-treating really is a yeast infection or something else; whether you have cancer (ouch!---don't wait 20 years to see your OB-GYN!); whether you have two uterusus (uteri, please!---and, no, I didn't guess that one); and whether you have an STD.

Good. I actually did learn something: some women have two uteri.

And I learned one other thing: I'm still a chump. I had been tricked again into reading a bunch of stuff I didn't need to know. Because another thing that annoys me about these emails and articles is that when you click on the link to the article you wanted, you get shunted first to a page with a bunch of ads and/or a bunch of celebrity photos or whatever, and, either way, your browsing information has just been passed on to a bunch of people whom you don't want to know anything about you.

Okay, enough on that rant. Here's another message I got, obviously because the organizers of a conference I attended recently sold my name and e-mail address to a mass-marketer who really, no, really, wants to sell me his product. In this case, he thinks he can do it by insulting my intelligence:

He writes, "Hi Elle, You're getting this email because you're a [fill in the blank]...If you only learn one thing from me, learn this: If you want to be a SUCCESSFUL [fill in the blank], you have to do more than [fill in the blank] well. What else do you need to do?"

Here follows a list of three things that anyone who is, or wants to be, a [fill in the blank] already knows, and then this statement:

"In case you're wondering, this is advanced material."

I can write no more. I'm sputtering so hard my keyboard will be unusable if I don't get up and walk around for a few minutes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Science Vs. Religion

As Laura noted last week, "Obviously, there shouldn't even be a "vs" in there..." because science and religion have the same goals: explaining our world and our place in it.

And of course most scientists and most religious people aren't arguing about it, because they recognize that the two disciplines offer unique and irreplaceable ways of doing that.

Also, not coincidentally, most scientists and most religious people are busy doing their own work and don't have any agenda to push. It seems to me like the arguing comes mostly from misunderstandings and insecurity about perceptions, and sometimes from a desire to make money, or a reputation, from the conflict.

Case in point: Michael Shermer has taken advantage of a recent opportunity to push his book sales by hanging onto the coattails of a hateful little talk-show wanna-be comedian.

Other examples? There are too many to cite here. But to avoid a firestorm of dissent and invective, I'll just go all the way back to Thomas Henry Huxley, AKA Darwin's Bulldog, who (according to Wikipedia, and, yes, I know, I know) wasn't even all that sure about the validity of Darwin's theory of natural selection --- but supported him because he was so opposed to "the more extreme versions of religious tradition.."

I recommend the entire Wikipedia article to anyone who is interested in Huxley's work and his support of Darwinism. I admit that this article is as deep as I have dug into his life and work, so I don't know as much about him as others do. But that one phrase from the article seems like it could apply to other people, on both sides of the debate: In reacting strongly to ignorance, extreme opinions, and mischaracterizations, he swings so hard to the other side as to miss the whole part in the middle.

It's understandable, isn't it. But what is harder for me to understand is when people arguing on either side deliberately mischaracterize the other side's arguments in order to strike them down. Equally hard for me to understand is when all religious people are represented as unintelligent and irrational, and all scientists as scheming godless corrupters of America's youth. 

I note that Huxley is the one who coined the phrase "Darwin's Bulldog" to refer to himself; and I'd like to think that Darwin didn't NEED a bulldog; no one needs a bulldog in the long run, if the only issue is the approach toward true understanding. 

So I wish all these self-anointed bulldogs on both sides would just chain themselves back up, de-fang themselves, or whatever, and let the honest discussion continue.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What Do You Want Your Children to Know About Religion?

The Angel Moroni**
Good morning! It's Sunday morning, a great time to be thinking about this! I'll be going to church soon where I'll sit in a sacrament meeting for just over an hour, a Sunday school class for just under an hour, and a Young Women meeting for an hour. Yep, three hours in church, every Sunday.

(That's about 3 or 4 hours less than my husband routinely spend at the church every Sunday.)

The reason we do this is to worship God, which for us takes several forms: Taking the bread and water, emblems of Christ's atonement, and being fed spiritually by lay speakers in the sacrament meeting; discussing the scriptures in Sunday school (also being fed spiritually); and teaching young women and men (ages 12 through 18) in the Young Men and Young Women organizations (also being fed, and feeding others, spiritually).

(In my husband's case, those extra hours are spent interviewing people who are going to be accepting callings as teachers and leaders in our ward and who are preparing to go to the temple, counting the donations received each Sunday, and giving priesthood blessings to people who ask for them.)

Ah! That reminds me: Donations! All our donations, 10-percent tithing plus fast offerings (giving the amount we would pay for two meals which we forgo on Fast Sunday each month), go directly to help people in need. Our bishop, our stake president, all our leaders---nobody gets any of this money, not even any "overhead" or anything whatsoever.

And why do we do this? Because we believe in God: We believe that He created this Earth, and us, so that we can learn by our own experience to become like Him. We believe we accepted with joy the challenge of coming to this Earth, and we believe that God put in place an eternal plan of happiness for us, knowing we would not "pass" every "test"** we would face, which would include letting his own Son, Jesus Christ, come to Earth to atone for our sins and lead us to eternal life.

We believe He did all this because He loves us. We believe this because this is what we read in the scriptures, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants.

We believe these scriptures because as we read them we pray about them to know if they are true, and the answer is that they are.

And because the Book of Mormon is true, Joseph Smith's account of how he received the golden plates from which it was translated is true. And the church he founded is true. Its purpose is to help us in the great work of bringing ourselves, our families, and our friends to Christ.

This is what I want my own children, and all children and all people everywhere, to know about true religion:  It's about God's love for us. That's it. It's unfortunately also true that some people teach false principles and treat others badly in the name of religion.  But some people do the same in the name of science, in social and educational movements, in politics, and, in general, in the pursuit of power. True religion is about humble love and service. That's it.

I'll be writing soon about how we got into this mess where religion and science are supposedly in conflict with each other. True religion and true science are NEVER in conflict.

*I love the statues of the Angel Moroni on the temples. I love knowing that God has sent heavenly messengers, angels, throughout history, to bring us truth, comfort us, and warn us.

**This explains why we have pain and sorrow in this life:  We chose to come here, knowing it wouldn't be easy. We suffer because of illness, our own mistakes, and the actions of others. Our suffering is never God's "fault," never because of a lack of love or caring from Him. And we find relief from this suffering through our faith in Christ.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What Do You Want Your Children to Learn About Science?

When you send your kids off to school for their education, what do you hope the schools will be teaching them?

I was lucky as I was growing up to attend school where they taught real science, not some kind of so-called faith-based anti-science nonsense.

I was lucky that my parents loved nature and loved to take us outdoors to enjoy nature, too. One of my best memories of childhood was being awakened in the middle of one night, along with my sisters and brother, to go over to the Episcopal Church parking lot across the street to see a king snake my parents had found in a pile of logs at the very back end of the lot.

We looked carefully, and certainly did not touch the snake, so as not to disturb it any more than it had already been disturbed by our presence.

Daddy explained that some people might be scared when they saw this red king snake, thinking it was a coral snake, but it was really a scarlet king snake (as in this picture).

Thus we learned about something interesting about snakes, plus we learned reverence toward nature, plus we learned that our parents loved us enough to teach us as much as they could about the wonders of the world.

The way our parents regarded the things we learned at school was just as instructive. They had been raised with the idea that the Bible is the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly (Eighth Article of Faith), so they didn't feel a need to argue with our science lessons that made it clear that scientific evidence showed the Earth to be more than 6,000 years old and its creatures to have undergone evolutionary processes to get to where they are today.

They realized, and they taught us, that a lot of the Biblical stories are figurative and metaphorical, tools for understanding God's dealings with humans. They knew from the history of our church that revelations are given and knowledge is increased, both institutionally and personally, "line upon line, precept upon precept" (2 Nephi 28:30).

And they realized that scientific principles are learned and knowledge is increased that same way.

So when we reported that a Seminary teacher told us, straight faced, that dinosaur fossils had been placed on Earth to test our faith, they explained that God does not test our faith in this way and that fossils are one piece in the puzzle of scientific evidence about the development and evolution of Earth. Likewise, when a family member ranted on and on about how if mankind kept trying to reach the Moon, God would punish us because we were becoming like the people who built the Tower of Babel, they explained that knowing more about our universe is not the same as trying to be bigger and better than God. And so on.

All this---and most of all their calm and rational approach to my questions and doubts---gave me the freedom to explore and think for myself, about science and religion.

I guess it comes down to their having had faith in their own beliefs, knowing that if I tested them for myself I would find them to be true. Which of course is exactly what happened with me.

Next, I want to consider what people want their children to learn about religion. I think atheists and agnostics would have a very different approach to religion, to ideas about God and to believers in God, if they had learned correct principles in the first place. Because it's easy to deny a god who is cruel and capricious, and by extension to deride anyone who believes in that god.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What Does It Take to be Right?

Michael Shermer thinks that Bill Maher is right about religion, and why does he think that? According to the title of this essay, excerpted from his latest book, it's simple:

Bill Maher agrees with Michael Shermer.

Of course, it's clear that the real reason is that Michael Shermer is promoting his latest screed against religions and religious believers.

Unfortunately, if Michael Shermer ever had any credibility among thinking religious people (and, BTW, Mr. Shermer, the term "thinking religious people" is not a contradiction in terms), he lost it again in this bit from his new book.

Confession: I'm basing my opinion about Michael Shermer's rightness or lack thereof on the one excerpt I've linked to above. I can't review the entire book, The Moral Arc, published this very month, because I'm not going to read it.

Yes, you read that correctly. I'm not going to read the entire book. Life is short and best spent in activities that bring one happiness and peace. In other words, life is too short to waste a minute more than I already have wasted on the excerpt and writing this opinion piece.

Back to my original question: What does it take to be right? One thing, in fact the main thing, it takes to be right is to have your facts straight. You don't have to be a theologian to find flaws and mis-statements in every assertion Michael Shermer makes about Christianity in general and Mormonism in particular.

What it does NOT take to be right is having the agreement of a racist bigoted loudmouth television personality and/or wanting people to buy your new book.

Sorry, Michael Shermer. You're not right, and neither is Bill Maher.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Weird Word of the Week: Contronym

A contronym (also spelled "contranym") and also known as an auto-antonym (also spelled "autantronym") is "a word with a homograph (another word of the same spelling) which is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning)," Wikipedia tells us.

Wikipedia goes on, even more helpfully, to tell us, "An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god), enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd).[2][3] It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is called enantiosemy,[4] enantionymy or antilogy."

I just read the word "contronym" for the first time in an online article about how people misuse the word "literally." (Here's the article, "The Word We Love to Hate. Literally.") (This article was first posted online about nine years ago. Why did I just find it today? I don't know.) The fifth paragraph covers other contronyms, or words "used in a seemingly contradictory way."

I especially liked the article's treatment of the word "paraphrase." When people say, for instance, "To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, 'A tricycle is a tricycle is a tricycle,'" they're not really paraphrasing Gertrude Stein's famous statement about the nature of roses. If you wanted to paraphrase that, you would say something like,  "Roses are all roses, nothing more, nothing less."

Anyway, in case the Wikipedia article stuns and distracts you as much as it does me, here's a story about the "topsy-turvy world" of contronyms. 

And here's a Web page with a fascinating list of contronyms.  Check it out! These examples are what finally helped me understand what contronyms are.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sleep Dot Com

Check it out. I woke up around 2:30 this morning and couldn't get back to sleep, so I wondered if there's a Web site that could help. And there is:

It didn't help me get to sleep, but it had some interesting articles, for instance this one about some strange things people do in their sleep, in addition to just your every-night run-of-the-mill sleepwalking.
Photo from Web MD

So, like I said, it didn't help me get back to sleep. Here's an interesting article by Dr. Andrew Weil with some practical suggestions for curing insomnia (or at least providing some relief).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Need a Little Love in Your Life?

Try this! You might be able to make yourself fall in love! Of course, you have to do this with another person, who obviously has to be willing to do it with you, meaning the potential is already there. But you wouldn't want to try it with a stranger, would you?

Of course not. Not unless you were REQUIRED to take part in the experiment. I'm guessing the students who were the guinea pigs here were required to do it. At least, when I was a freshman at a prestigious university, taking a beginning psychology class, I and all the students in the very large lecture class had to enroll in three (3) experiments if we wanted to receive a passing grade. I think I'm really lucky that my three experiments didn't involve anything like this falling-in-love idea.

(In the only one I remember, I had to look at a lot of colors and match them with colors on a color chart and explain to the grad student how I made each match. It was kind of funny: He kept telling me to do it a certain way, and I kept not doing it his way. Because I didn't care...Wait! Does this  mean some of the students in the  experiment I'll be describing here might have "cheated," too? Well, who would be surprised at that? And why would anyone accept the results of ANY of these experiments as being valid in any way? Oh, yeah, how could I have forgotten: We're not really trying to make any valid conclusions about human behavior, are we. We're just trying to get more grant money for the next set of experiments. And possibly discourage as many underclassmen as possible not to become psych majors. Which definitely worked for me.)

I did a Google Image search and chose this one because this is what true love is all about, right?

Wait, where was I? Oh, yeah, falling in love, on purpose. Here's the actual study, which you should read if you can stand the obfuscatory academic jargon because it gives more insight to the minds of the experiment designers than it does to how people fall in love.

"The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings" (Google this title and you will end up with this URL which will cause the PDF to be downloaded to your computer.)

Okay, but, I know you're not going to read the whole article, so here's the gist of it, as reported by someone who actually tried it:

And here's what you will do, if you decide to try it:

Get together with the person you're trying the experiment with, and ask each other these questions:

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?

3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?

7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?

8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.

9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.

12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?

14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

16. What do you value most in a friendship?

17. What is your most treasured memory?

18. What is your most terrible memory?

19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

20. What does friendship mean to you?

21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?

22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.

23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?

25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling ... “

26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share ... “

27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.

29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.

30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.

32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?

34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?

36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

Finally, the writer and her partner-in-love looked into each others' eyes for four minutes. Did it work?

For her, it did. And you can see why answering these questions together, and the soulful staring into each others' eyes, could lead to the closeness that could lead to falling in love. Because, as this writer notes:
But what I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action. It assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him.

I wondered what would come of our interaction. If nothing else, I thought it would make a good story. But I see now that the story isn’t about us; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Crash Course Astronomy

This looks exciting! The Crash Course Astronomy classes officially started on Thursday the 15th, but you can watch the videos any time you like on YouTube. Here's a fun intro to the whole idea (except they really want you to donate, which I'm not going to do, because, hello, Bill Gates and PBS!)

And here's the first class in the astronomy course. I like this guy because he writes such entertaining and fact-filled (as opposed to crap-filled, which we've all come to accept as normal for Web writing) articles about astronomy.

And he's the author of "Death from the Skies!" (The exclamation point is part of the title, not an indication of how excited I am to be reading about death from the skies.) (It's available from

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Another Theory Bites the Dust ...

Bites the stardust? Or it may be one of those theories whose supposed disproving is later disproved itself.

You know how astronomers used to think planets were made up of asteroids (or bits of asteroids, called chondrules) that collided with each other and glommed together, with increasing mass and gravity attracting even more asteroid which added their mass, and so on?

Searching for meteorites in the desert
Frontline Desk reports that researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University have "proved through computer simulations" that chondrules "are actually a byproduct of planetary formation, not the building blocks as once believed."

Artist's depiction of asteroid impact
I don't see how a computer simulation actually "proves" this, but it's an interesting story. And it does make sense that chondrules could be the "by-product of planetary formation," existing long before the planets and moon did.

Meteor shower
 I doubt, though, that this is the last we'll be hearing about how the planets were formed. Some budding astronomer out there is going to come up with the next bit of "proof" of some other way the planets were formed, and his "proof" will be enough to set his own career in motion, which is good for him, good for us, and good for science. Go for it, Young Galileo!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Creationism Vs. Evolution --- Misunderstandings

As promised (in Bad Religion Vs. Bad Science), I'm back again to this same old argument between creationists and evolutionists. Last time I wrote about how evolutionists cast themselves as the truly humble searchers for truth and creationists as arrogant deniers of the facts.

I pointed out that because true religion (from the Latin re+ligare, or re-connect) and true science (from the Latin scientia, or knowledge) are both seeking truth, they ought to be united.

As long as either side chooses to argue against a misunderstanding of the other side's beliefs, not even a common ground on which to continue the discussion will be found.

I've found a very interesting article that discusses five areas of misunderstanding by creationists, pointing out that as long as creationists argue against a false understanding of a principle of evolution, they won't convince anyone.

Here are the five areas discussed in the article, ideas supposedly used by creationists to argue against evolution:
  • Evolution has never been observed.
  • Evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
  • There are no transitional fossils.
  • The theory of evolution says that life originated, and evolution proceeds, by random chance.
  • Evolution is only a theory; it hasn't been proved.
I myself have heard all of these arguments --- but not recently.

In fact, when I was growing up, I had a Seminary teacher who seriously told us that dinosaur bones were put on Earth by God to test us:

If we believed they were evidence of the long haul of Creation, we had insufficient faith; if we believed in the Bible's account of the Creation, we would know that those fossils were not evidence of evolution.

But here's the thing: No religious believer whom I know personally is now making those arguments.

Whoops! I guess I'm just lucky in knowing only religious believers who are not the "creationists" against whom these evolutionists are arguing.

Because, unfortunately, some people living right now, in the 21st Century, are teaching this nonsense. For an overview of their ideas, complete with some hilarious pictures, check out Conservapedia's page on dinosaurs.

Well, that aside, let's look at these five areas of concern, from an online article by Mark Isaak, (C) 1995-1997 and updated in 2003:

1. Has evolution been observed?  Yes, it has. Disease-causing microbes develop resistance to antibiotics, resulting in ever-more-deadly versions of those diseases (example: multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis). And, yes, even this rate of evolution does result in rapid speciation.

Evolution has been observed not only in the lab, not only with microbes, but in the field, with more complex organisms, as the result of unnatural selection, i.e., breeding by humans, when silver foxes were domesticated and became more like dogs.

This does not mean that frogs will become cows, which Darwinian evolution does not predict, anyway. As Isaak writes, "In fact, if we ever observed a frog turn into a cow, it would be very strong evidence against evolution."

2. Does evolution violate the second law of thermodynamics? No, it does not. If you think it does, that's because you misunderstand that law. Creationists who do misunderstand this law, thinking it means that all order eventually becomes disorder as energy is lost from a system, forget that life on Earth is not a closed system. Energy from the sun is constantly being added to the system, so order can be maintained and even increased.

Besides, even in non-living objects on earth, order appears out of disorder. As Isaak notes, "Snowflakes, sand dunes, tornadoes, stalactites, graded river beds, and lightning are just a few examples of order coming from disorder in nature; none require an intelligent program to achieve that order."

3. Are there transitional fossils?  Yes, there are. Isaak writes, "Paleontology has progressed a bit since Origin of Species was published, uncovering thousands of transitional fossils, by both the temporally restrictive and the less restrictive definitions. The fossil record is still spotty and always will be; erosion and the rarity of conditions favorable to fossilization make that inevitable. Also, transitions may occur in a small population, in a small area, and/or in a relatively short amount of time; when any of these conditions hold, the chances of finding the transitional fossils goes down."

Here's a Web page with more information about transitional fossils.  Read it! It's fascinating, listing many examples where transitional fossils exist, and many where there are huge gaps.

4. Does the theory of evolution say that life originated, and evolution proceeds, by random chance? No, it does not. While chance plays a large part in evolution, through mutations, natural selection sorts out the resulting mutations so that the organism with the qualities needed to survive does survive.

Even the origin of the very first life comes as atoms and molecules "arrange themselves" (in Isaak's words) "not purely randomly, but according to their chemical properties."

He adds, "In the case of carbon atoms especially, this means complex molecules are sure to form spontaneously, and these complex molecules can influence each other to create even more complex molecules. Once a molecule forms that is approximately self-replicating, natural selection will guide the formation of ever more efficient replicators."

Besides, Darwin's theory of evolution does not say anything about how the first life came about, only that once it was here, it proceeded through natural selection.

5. Is evolution "only a theory" that hasn't been proved? Of course not. This kind of statement reveals a misunderstanding of how the word "theory" is used in science. Quoting again from Isaak: "A theory, in the scientific sense, is 'a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena' [Random House American College Dictionary]."

So when we talk about Darwin's "theory" of evolution, this is what we're talking about---not about ideas on the order of my own pet "theory" which states that men who smoke cigars are worse drivers than other men. 

Darwin's theory only says that life evolved, through various mechanisms like mutations and natural selection, among others. There are a lot more hypotheses that contribute to our understanding of and increasing reliance of the correctness of this theory, but that's the basic theory.

Isaak writes, "Generally speaking, scientific theories differ from scientific laws only in that laws can be expressed more tersely. Being a theory implies self-consistency, agreement with observations, and usefulness."

He concludes, "Creationism fails to be a theory mainly because of the last point; it makes few or no specific claims about what we would expect to find, so it can't be used for anything. When it does make falsifiable predictions, they prove to be false."

This is where I would like to go next, when I have a chance to write about this again: Do creationists have a "theory" which can, like Darwin's theory of evolution, make specific, falsifiable claims or predictions that can be shown to be true?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Weird Word of the Week: Bildungsroman

Can you believe that the first time in my life that I heard or read this word, "bildungsroman," was yesterday? Well, maybe not. But even if I ever had heard it before, I certainly don't remember it --- probably because the only place I would have heard it would have been some English literature class I was sleeping through.

Not that I don't like English literature. Just that sometimes when I was taking those classes in college I was tired and sleepy and so I slept through the boring parts, like the definitions and examples of words like this. Not apologizing, not excusing, just saying.

So, I saw this word when I was looking for the book trailer made by author Ransom Riggs for his novel "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children." (You can order the paperback from here.) 

Anyway, a bildungsroman is, according to Google, "a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education."

I also read, on a Web site maintained by some professor at Princeton, that the word is German for "formation novel."

This person notes at the bottom of his/her page,"The article content of this page came from Wikipedia," so I have no qualms about pasting below a whole bunch of the information provided:

"The term coming-of-age novel is sometimes used interchangeably with Bildungsroman, but its use is usually wider and less technical.

"The birth of the Bildungsroman is normally dated to the publication of Goethe’s The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister in 1795-96... Thomas Carlyle translated Goethe’s novel into English, and after its publication in 1824, many British authors wrote novels inspired by it. In the 20th century, the genre has been particularly popular among women and minority writers, and it has spread to numerous countries around the globe.

"... A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience. The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune."

So it's a "Jack" tale!

So now I'm going to read this book, a copy of which I've had in a pile of "Books to be Read, Soon, Very Soon" .... soon, very soon. 

And I'm planning to see the movie, when it comes out later this year. Meanwhile, here's the author's book trailer:

(I think the trailer should get a prize just for the beginning, with the yellow rubber ducky! And another reason for reading the book and watching the movie is to see what a yellow rubber ducky has to do with the images that follow.)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Nothing's Fair, Sometimes

Little Samuel joined the rest of his excited and loving family last Saturday, December 27. In this early photo, it looks like he's saying, "Hey, can't you turn off those bright lights and let me go back so sleep? I've just been doing some really hard work, and I'm tired." Samuel's parents are providing the very best care for him. He can be tired, get hungry, cry, smile, and laugh, and eventually grow up to be an amazing person because of the love and care that surround him.

Meanwhile, a couple about 765 miles to the west of Samuel's birthplace was in court trying to explain why they shouldn't go to jail for the rest of their lives for letting their own newborn baby die.

Both parents are meth addicts, the mother so addicted that the baby was born addicted. The mother and father delivered the baby themselves so they wouldn't have to go to the hospital, afraid the baby would be taken from them if they went there. The parents used ".... a clip from a bag of chips to cut the umbilical cord and later a metal hair clip to hold the baby's bellybutton in place," according to news accounts. 

In her short (12-hour-long) life, the baby girl was carried around a Portland neighborhood by her parents while they stopped by a couple of convenience stores, a Dollar Store (where they bought a baby bottle), and a Safeway, before they went to a friend's house. When the parents realized the baby was in distress, the mother put the baby's head under water "to try to revive it" and the father wandered around looking for a mirror so he could see if the baby was breathing. Finally someone called 911.

The parents were correct to be worried that the state would take their baby away from them. This baby was the mother's sixth child; all her previous children had been taken from her because of her long-term drug use.

I'm writing about this not to work anyone up into tears for this poor baby or outrage toward her unfit parents (though if you feel that way, join the crowd), but to discuss the question of God's fairness.

Some people seem to think the fact that there are incompetent parents, abused children, bullies at school, banks that cheat their customers in order to make big bucks for themselves, countries that mistreat their own people and start conflicts with other countries, and in fact any kind of unfairness or suffering in the world means that there is no God, or that there is something "wrong" with Him.

But clearly our Heavenly Father lets people do the horrible things they/we often do, hurting ourselves and the people around us, even killing each other, not because He is insufficient as a God, or incompetent, or uncaring.

God lets us make these mistakes, and do the many good and kind things we do, because He wants us to learn from our own experiences. If He made everything perfect and easy, how would we advance in knowledge? 

So I cried when I read the newspaper account of the little baby, sixth child born to a meth-addicted mom, who died because her drug-addled parents were incapable of caring for her. But I didn't blame God.

(This post originally appeared on Aunt Louise's blog. I'm posting it here, as well, because I'm going to be writing more about this topic in the near future.)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Fiction Friday: Jan. 9, 2015: The Martian

Wow, this is such a great read! And you don't even have to be a Mars freak like me to enjoy it! Okay, I'll stop using exclamation points for everything and give a few details:

What's so great about this book is that it's not "fantasy" and it's not hard-core "sci-fi," you know, those books from the 60s with the most unrealistic characters anyone could ever imagine, zipping around in unrealistic (not sci-fi, just unrealistic!) space ships and conquering new worlds while having unlimited sex with nubile and even more unrealistic and unrealistically acquiescent female aliens and astronauts.

This book is completely science-driven fiction, a pleasant surprise. And the plot makes sense.

First, how are Earthlings going to get to Mars? Why, with Mars Direct, the brain-child of Dr. Robert Zubrin, of course.  Here's another article about Mars Direct, written by Dr. Zubrin, who not coincidentally is the founder of The Mars Society and one of my personal heroes. (It's because of him that I got to participate in three Mars living simulations in Utah and in the Canadian Arctic a few years ago.)

Second, what kinds of things can go wrong once we get there? Well, just about everything. Author Andy Weir imagines what would happen in an entirely plausible scenario: a team of scientists on Mars has to leave suddenly, but one of the crew members is stuck on the surface, his space suit torn, so they have to leave him behind. They don't just assume he is dead, but his suit's data readout says he's dead. Still, all of them, and especially the captain, are devastated that they've had to leave him back on the surface while they escaped.

However, our hero Mark Watney manages to survive that accident, return to the Habitat, and continue to survive. He's the team's mechanical engineer and botanist, which is not that far-fetched a set of skills to have if you want to be chosen by NASA for their first Mars team, by the way.

And so the book gets even better, and better, and better, Watney solves the problem of food (he grows potatoes from the ones NASA provided the crew for what would have been their first Thanksgiving on the surface), fertilizer for the potatoes (you can guess), water, air, communication with Earth, and every conceivable problem that can come up on the surface of a planet with almost no atmosphere, certainly no breathable air, no available water, and so on.

Science as plot-driver. What an incredibly brilliant and too-infrequently-used plot device.

Anyway, read it. If you want, I'll send you my copy. Nah, changed my mind. I'm keeping this copy, alongside Robert Zubrin's "How to Live on Mars," "The Case for Mars," and "On To Mars."

(Here's Amazon's page where you can order the book. Be sure to read the Amazon review, which is the best of all the reviews I've read. And be sure NOT to order the book that's right under "The Martian" on the first page you come to when you search for the right book at, which is not the book you want, but rather a "review summary" of the book---are you kidding me? What the heck is that? Some guy making a buck off a really good book for suckahs like you and me, or, more likely, students who are so stupid that they think reading a "review summary" will be a better way to spend their time than the actual book? Yeah, I guess that's it.)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Darwinism Vs. The Second Law of Thermodynamics

One of the arguments that self-proclaimed creationists use against Darwin's theory of evolution is that it violates the second law of thermodynamics, which states that when energy is transformed from one form to another in a closed system, entropy increases and energy decreases (Wikipedia definition).

Best illustration ever of the second law of thermodynamics:

The creationists argue that according to this law, entropy must be making all life forms, and indeed everything in this system, progress continually from order to disorder; therefore it must be impossible for order, i.e., creations of functioning life forms, to have evolved from disorder, or for more highly functioning forms to have evolved from less functioning forms.

In other words, I think the creationists are saying that God had to have created the earth because it takes some energy or power to create; that form cannot emerge from un-form, that order cannot emerge from disorder, without that input of energy.

However, this argument neglects the fact that Earth's thermodynamic system is not a closed system: sunlight is continually providing energy that is transformed into life-sustaining functions.

Is this photo a good illustration of entropy? These socks will stay where they are, or become even more disordered, unless someone picks them up and sorts them out and puts them away. (But there IS something wrong with the picture. Can you guess what it is?)

I will be writing more about some of the arguments creationists have used to try to disprove Darwin's theory of evolution.

I'm writing about this whole idea of science and religion not to call names on either side but to explore the arguments both sides use to try to prove their points.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Weird Word of the Week: Stochastic

The word "stochastic" is thrown around so much in the articles about the supposedly new research finding that chance mistakes in DNA replication are the cause of many cancers that I thought I'd look it up.

Here's the first definition that appeared when I Googled "stochastic": 

adjective: stochastic: randomly determined; having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely.

According to Wikipedia, "In probability theory, a purely stochastic system is one whose state is non-deterministic (i.e., "random") so that the subsequent state of the system is determined probabilistically. Any system or process that must be analyzed using probability theory is stochastic at least in part.[1][2] Stochastic systems and processes play a fundamental role in mathematical models of phenomena in many fields of science, engineering, and economics.
Stochastic comes from the Greek word στόχος, which means "aim". It also denotes a target stick; the pattern of arrows around a target stick stuck in a hillside is representative of what is stochastic.

 In other words, "stochastic" means "random." Here's an image used to illustrate a course called "Stochastic Processes," taught in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Utah State University in 2006. 

Course description: This course provides an introduction to stochastic processes in communications, signal processing, digital and computer systems, and control. Topics include continuous and discrete random processes, correlation and power spectral density, optimal filtering, Markov chains, and queuing theory.

Another image that could illustrate "stochastic" might be the pattern of clothes thrown in the general direction of the dirty clothes hamper when my home was occupied by several people with not the greatest aim. 

Unfortunately, I can't find a photo of that on the Inter Web. However, I just made my very own photo of that, with my very own pile of socks and my very own dirty clothes hamper:

Stochastic scattering of socks thrown in the general direction of the hamper (Or is this a better illustration of entropy?)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Bad Luck Vs. Cancer --- Or, Research Vs. Bad Science Writing

--- Or, How to Get Your Research Published

Pancreatic cancer cells dividing. Random mutations in DNA are behind two thirds of adult cancers, a study says. Photograph: Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Dr. Stan/Getty Images/Visuals Unlimited (I love this photo because it has approximately nothing whatsoever to do with the article! But photos like this accompany many articles even though they don't illustrate anything reported in the article.)

The front-page, right-upper-corner headline in my local newspaper last Saturday (January 2, 2015) was "Cancer often just random bad luck." I immediately figured this statement was wrong. Many studies have shown that behavior (e.g., smoking), environment (e.g., sun exposure), and genetics (e.g., kidney cancer and some breast cancers) can all affect a person's chances of getting cancer. So I assumed this was some ill-informed science writer who had gotten the details wrong. I was wrong about that, though.

Apparent digression which however will turn out to be important to the rest of this post:

Last semester I sat in on a graduate-level entomology seminar which focused not only on biological methods of controlling pests but also on what makes research papers more attractive to, and therefore more likely to published in, major scholarly journals.

With each of the four articles we discussed each session, we talked about the issues the authors addressed (such as the harmful effects of many pesticides, the effectiveness of biological controls, possible good or bad effects of combining  the two methods); as well as the experimental design, conclusions, flaws in the study, and how similar research might be done in the future.

See how I've inserted this photo here? "The seven-spot ladybird is a species of beetle belonging to the family Coccinellidae. It is used in biological control, of aphids in particular." I just want to put in some pretty pictures so people won't get bored with all the text that follows! And at least this one has something to do with biological control.
We also discussed how the researchers had pitched their work to the journal editors. (We didn't use the word "pitched," but that's what we were talking about.)

Because it is possible to do some ground-breaking research in the field of farming (puns intended) without anyone's noticing, if you don't get your work published; and you won't get your work published unless it's obvious early in the editorial/publishing process that your article will make the journal look good.

I bring this up  because it turns out that the science reporter in this case did not get it wrong. Instead, the authors of the study made a very effective pitch to Science, the scientific journal in which it was published.

Not only that, but the publicity people at Johns Hopkins, where authors Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein performed their research, made an even more effective pitch to the public via the media.

Because here's the thing: Even though the study does not report ANY NEW RESULTS whatsoever. many science and medical writers came up with those headlines about "random bad luck" directly from the subject line of  the Johns Hopkins news release, "Bad Luck of Random Mutations Plays Predominant Role in Cancer, Study Shows." Here's part of that news release:

"Some tissue types give rise to human cancers millions of times more often than other tissue types. Although this has been recognized for more than a century, it has never been explained. Here, we show that the lifetime risk of cancers of many different types is strongly correlated (0.81) with the total number of divisions of the normal self-renewing cells maintaining that tissue’s homeostasis. These results suggest that only a third of the variation in cancer risk among tissues is attributable to environmental factors or inherited predispositions. The majority is due to “bad luck,” that is, random mutations arising during DNA replication in normal, noncancerous stem cells. This is important not only for understanding the disease but also for designing strategies to limit the mortality it causes."
In other words, "random mutations" during DNA replication cause cancer in cells that were normal before replication, and this happens in more than two-thirds of the cancers this research team studied. Wait! We already knew that, didn't we? Yes, we did!

From an Evolution 101 class at U.C. Berkeley, but we've all seen illustrations like this in high-school textbooks, haven't we?

From the body of the article, which I cannot access(*) but which science writer David Gorski accessed and quoted in his analysis of the article:

In formal terms, our analyses show only that there is some stochastic factor related to stem cell division that seems to play a major role in cancer risk. This situation is analogous to that of the classic studies of Nordling and of Armitage and Doll (10, 29). These investigators showed that the relationship between age and the incidence of cancer was exponential, suggesting that many cellular changes, or stages, were required for carcinogenesis. On the basis of research since that time, these events are now interpreted as somatic mutations. Similarly, we interpret the stochastic factor underlying the importance of stem cell divisions to be somatic mutations. This interpretation is buttressed by the large number of somatic mutations known to exist in cancer cells (14–16, 30).
Gorski comments, "In other words, even if taken at face value as reported in the media, Tomasetti and Vogelstein haven’t really demonstrated anything new. We’ve known for a long time that there is a strong stochastic (probabilistic) component to cancer development" (my emphasis).

Here's a figure from the paper itself, again, not accessible by me (or you, most likely), but accessed by writers Bob O'Hara and GrrlScientist** at The Guardian. They title the piece, "Bad luck, bad journalism, and cancer."

 They write, "These data suggest there is a relationship between risk of cancer and number of cell divisions. But it says nothing about the proportion of cancers due to cell division.
They continue, "So where did this two-thirds ratio come from? It is the proportion of variation in the log of the cancer risk that can be explained by cell divisions. But this variation could be the same regardless of whether the baseline risk is high or low. For example, the depth of the water in the Marianas Trench goes up and down with the position of the moon, so this explains a bit of the variation in its depth. But that reveals bugger all about the absolute depth of the trench" (again, the emphasis is mine).

And, they add, again using figures from the paper: 

"We can see this visually below: in the two data sets, x explains just under 80 percent of the variation. In the black points, x explains more about the absolute risk rates (about 75 percent). But it explains less in the red points (which is about 30 percent, as it happens) because there is much more risk (i.e. more cases of cancer) when x is zero (i.e. it has no effect). So adding some cases to that baseline only increases the total risk by a small percentage. 
"So, what proportion of cancers are due to bad luck? Unfortunately it’s difficult to tell from the paper. The figure from the paper is on the log scale, and if we extrapolate the model to zero (no cell divisions), we’d see it assumes there is no risk of cancer."

They point out another flaw in the title/headline for the paper:

"How could we decide how much of the cancer risk is due to bad luck? Well, first, we have to decide what is bad luck, which is an entirely different argument. But after we’ve done that, the only real way to suss out how much of the cancer risk is due to bad luck this is to either estimate the rates at which people get cancer through bad luck, or (perhaps easier) to estimate the non-bad luck rates" (yes, again, my emphasis).

Another analyst, Andrew Maynard, concluded that it wasn't the science writers but the authors themselves, and the Johns Hopkins publicists, who reported the story wrong:
"In the case of this paper, it’s hard to see clear evidence of bad reporting.  There is a lack of balance and contextualization though that, it seems, has its roots in the original paper" (my emphasis).
Maynard goes on to say that he's not criticizing the paper, but asks, " can we encourage exploratory risk research without it prematurely impacting consumer and regulatory decisions?”

And I would ask this question, which I think is more important: How can we encourage researchers and research journals to be more honest, even if less headline-producing, in their reporting of research results?(***)

(*I will be writing more about this --- accessibility of articles from science, medical, and other research journals --- in the future.)

(**Check out the blog of grrlscientist. I especially enjoyed reading her review of science books published in 2014.)

(***I will be writing more about this, too --- the reliability, or unreliability, of published research results --- in the future.)

Monday, January 5, 2015

Bad Religion Vs. Bad Science

Nobody is going to win this battle!

I've been appalled lately when reading posts on evolutionists' Web sites. The problem I've been seeing with them is that they aren't content to discuss why Darwin's theory of evolution is "true" but seem intent on blasting creationists' beliefs.

The problem with that is that this is an argument nobody will win, and everybody will lose. The creationists will dig in their feet even deeper, refusing (understandably) to consider ideas that are presented as vile-tasting medicine; which will cause even more dislike and misunderstanding of the concept of evolution,  which will further pit parents against teachers, voters against legislators, and science itself against religious belief.

And the problem with that is that nobody on either side will work toward clarifying the nature of belief and faith; nor the nature of scientific evidence and what can be proven and what cannot be.

What is "bad" about this kind of religion and this kind of science is that no one seems willing to acknowledge that both approaches seek the same end: understanding of the world, our existence as humans, and human moral imperatives.

Articles with titles like "God is on the ropes" may certainly win readers, but they don't really have anything (except vaguely derogatory generalities) to say about God or the people who believe in God.

Talk about setting up a straw man so you can set fire to him! The problem with this approach is, of course, the stench of the ashes that remain, when believers and non-believers alike walk away from the flames that had transfixed them, and attempt to look at the real issues. In the case of this article, the stinking ashes come about three-quarters of the way through, when the author admits that the theory he has been lighting up the sky with is still just a theory and has not been proven (and does not address the issue of whether this theory can be substantiated).

And the concluding paragraph is stunning in its arrogant hypocrisy and self-satisfied back-patting. No wonder creationists have sometimes "paint[ed] scientists as arrogant..." Here it is:

"Creationists often cast themselves as humble servants of God, and paint scientists as arrogant, know-it-all rebels against him. But, unsurprisingly, they’ve got it all backwards, once again. England’s work reminds us that it’s scientists’ willingness to admit our own ignorance and confront it head on — rather than papering over it — that unlocks the great storehouse of wonders we live in and gives us our most challenging, satisfying quests."

Really? In what way has this article shown any lack of arrogance? In what way has it been about "willingness to admit...ignorance"? In what way is it about a "challenging" or "satisfying" quest? Just turn this statement around for an equivalent example of what a creationist might write about evolutionist ideas. But why bother? There's enough of this kind of nonsense on both sides already. I bring up this latest example only to show the shallowness, insincerity, and mean-spiritedness of this entire debate.

What I'd like to see on the side of evolutionists is new ideas presented as new ideas, without the extra fire-starting materials. On the side of creationists, I'd like to see an understanding of Darwinism instead of a series of misunderstandings and arguments that misrepresent the theory of evolution.

Most of all, I'd like to see what true religion and true science have to say about the issues that we are all struggling with, the "great storehouse of wonders we live in," the purposes and meaning of life.

I'd like to see scientists and religious people focus their energies on solving world hunger, disease, and wars.

And I'd like to point out that for many scientists, their religious beliefs do not conflict with their scientific studies, and their scientific research does not contradict their religious beliefs.

And that's because they are interested in true religion (from the Latin re+ligare, or re-connect) and true science (from the Latin scientia, or knowledge).

(I'll be writing more about this.)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Dermatology at KP Northwest

As a person who has survived skin cancer (malignant melanoma), I've been told by my so-called primary care physician as well as every dermatologist I've ever seen at various Kaiser offices in the Portland-Vancouver area, that I should have a skin check once a year.

So when I called the Kaiser appointment desk a few weeks ago to make an appointment to see a dermatologist, I was surprised to be told that I couldn't.

Why? I wondered. Because they don't have any dermatologists in my area any more, I was told. So I could drive more than an hour to one of two remote locations where they do have a dermatologist. Or I could wait until my "turn" came up on the long waiting list they have for people with "chronic melanoma."

I chose to drive more than an hour, and still I've had to wait another five weeks for the appointment. This is just one of many examples of Kaiser's actual dealings with patients, which I've written about before. 

The contrast with the advertisements is astounding.

The person on the phone was nice. She explained as well as she could, but it wasn't enough, because the system is not really there to take care of people's medical needs. And there's no way she could explain that---but that was okay, because I already knew it.