Saturday, November 17, 2007

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Point of Inquiry

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the guest of this week's episode of Point of Inquiry. Overall it's a great interview about communicating science to the public, which was also the topic of the panel that Tyson was on at the CFI conference. The part that I found particularly interesting was Tyson's account of a question he once posed to Francis Collins. He asked him what he would say if, in the future, it was shown that religiosity and the ability to believe in something for which there is no evidence was purely electrochemical activity in a part of the brain, that is active more in some people than in others. Collins's answer, which Tyson was appropriately disappointed with, was that he doesn't think religious belief is as simple as that, and he thinks that there is something much deeper that connects us.

This statement, by the head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, plainly shows the inherent conflict between religion and science. A scientist, to be intellectually consistent, needs to believe that science has the capacity to explain all natural phenomena. And the second a scientist says "No, that is out of the domain of science" he is closing himself off to future discoveries in that field. A scientist who is religious is far more likely to do this than a scientist who is not because the religious scientists believes there are somethings that a supernatural power is responsible for. For all practical purposes, this is not such a huge problem, since there are plenty of nonreligious scientists who will keep asking the important questions. Nevertheless, I cannot buy into the NOMA theory, of anything of the sort, simply because science has to keep pushing the boundaries of what we can understand, and something like NOMA would prevent that.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Expelled? No, but perhaps it should be.

So I've just watched the extended trailer for Expelled, Ben Stein's "documentary" about science's discrimination against intelligent design. It was shown at the voters value summit, and Ben Stein addressed the summit after the trailer. It took me a while to get through the whole thing - I had to keep pausing it and giving myself a chance to calm the mounting exasperation. I'm not sure how this "documentary" can be taken seriously, but I have no doubt that it will be. It would take forever to address every point that was made in the trailer and speech, so I'm just going to bring up a few that particularly got on my nerves.

Probably the most annoying part to me was that Ben Stein makes straw men the entire way through. Life is mud animated by lightening? Who claims that? That's certainly not a theory for the origin of life that I've ever heard. Perhaps he is talking about the clay theory? Regardless, he is completely misrepresenting the opponent. He does this again when he says that it is some sort of intellectual taboo to question the origin of life. Really? Then how come there are currently scientists researching this very question? Why is there a multitude of theories out there attempting to provide answers? He probably means that it is intellectual taboo to suggest that life originated through a supernatural being: god. First of all, I don't think that is true. I have yet to hear of a scientist that was out of a job for believing in god. In fact, even proponents of intelligent design still have positions teaching science at accredited universities. Take a look at Michael Behe! He continues to be a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, even though he is an intelligent design proponent on the basis of his belief in irreducible complexity. To quote Richard Dawkins (which perhaps I shouldn't, but I don't think anyone reads this anyway):
"What he has done is to take a standard argument which dates back to the 19th century, the argument of irreducible complexity, the argument that there are certain organs, certain systems in which all the bits have to be there together or the whole system won't the eye. Darwin answered (this)...point by point, piece by piece. But maybe he shouldn't have bothered. Maybe what he should have said is...maybe you're too thick to think of a reason why the eye could have come about by gradual steps, but perhaps you should go away and think a bit harder."

Now the point of that wasn't to personally attack Michael Behe on his intellectual convinctions, however misdirected they may be. The point is to illustrate that intelligent design is in NO WAY science. It is unscientific to say that just because you cannot think of a way that some complex form could have come about, it must have been god. Ben Stein claims that free inquiry is being attacked by science, but its the opposite! Science is all about inquiry. Positing God as an answer to the big questions, such as the origin of life, is what limits inquiry. So if scientists do lose some credibility for believing in a god (which, in most situations I don't think they do), it's for a decent reason.

Stein also keeps bringing up Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. I'm not going to discuss Einstein right now. It is too big of a topic that I would like to address some other time when I can devote a whole entry to it. However, I do want to point the idiocy of Ben Stein's statement that, in his time, Galileo wasn't persecuted for believing in a god. Um...yeah, he wasn't persecuted for his religion, he was persecuted BY his religion. I wonder Stein realized the irony if his statement. Is he seriously suggesting we should regress back a few hundred years to a time of greater acceptence?

Between the trailer and speech there are a ton of other points I'd like to address...however, if I attempted to address all of those points I'd be here all night. I really hope people don't buy into this BS (but of course they will).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Short Summary of CFI Conference Day 2

This second day of the convention was excellent. First was a panel with Rebecca Goldstein, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Susan Jacoby about secularism through history. Topics of discussion were the enlightenment, Spinoza, the difference of "scientism" vs science. Jennifer Michael Hecht said something about not believing in science, and Rebecca Goldstein retorted science isn't something you believe in - it is based on empirical observations. What Hecht was saying reminded me of the whole postmodernist idea of all knowledge being relative. I found myself agreeing with almost everything that Goldstein said.

Next, there was a panel about science and the public, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, Victor Stenger, and Richard Dawkins. Although it was interesting, I have to say there wasn't much that was new to me. Ann Druyan yelled at Dawkins for interrupting her, which was funny. And I agreed with Tyson's comment to Stenger that we don't always have to have answers to all the questions that the religious ask of us. The great thing about science is it isn't so presumptuous to say that it does have the answers to everything already. We can say "we don't know yet, but we are working on it" rather than making up some story to provide an answer to a deep question that we can't explain. And I find that so much more satisfying.

Then there was a panel about Religion and Politics with Michelle Goldberg, Wendy Kaminer, Damon Linker, and Edward Tabash. They mostly discussed the threat of the religious right to the secular society and what we can do about it. It was interesting and frightening at the same time.

After the lunch break, there was the video appearance by Christopher Hitchens. However the sound quality was horrible, so I could hardly hear anything he was saying. However it didn't seem to be much different than the majority of interviews with him.

Next Paul Kurtz, Derek Araujo, Austin Dacey and DJ Grothe talked about the CFI and how they needed money to get a location in NYC.

Then Peter Singer talked about morals without religion, and how scripture has been used as justification for the maltreatment of animals. I now feel intensely guilty about the fact that I eat meat.

Finally, DJ Grothe hosted an interview with Richard Dawkins, which will eventually be on Point of Inquiry. Again, I've heard so many interviews with Dawkins, so it really wasn't anything new, but he sounded intelligent and eloquent as usual. Afterwards I was third on line to get my book signed by him, but I managed not to say anything intelligent while he signed it. I think I mumbled something about loving the God Delusion, and Unweaving the Rainbow.

Overall, the convention was very thought provoking and a lot of fun. I'm able to attend more, similar events in the future. I'll make sure I register for AAI in time next year!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Secular Society and It's Enemies

So last night and today I attended the Center for Inquiry's conference about the Secular Society and It's Enemies. The third part is tomorrow, but I think I'm going to have to pass that part up because I have a ton of homework left. However, most of the talks that I was looking forward to were last night and today anyway.

Last night, before the awards presentation and talks, there was a cocktail reception. It was cool seeing the people that I have read and watched for so long. It was especially exciting to see Richard Dawkins there, since he has been one of my intellectual heroes since my junior year in high school. Unfortunately, there were always people around him, and I'm extremely shy, so I didn't end up getting to talk to him there.

Afterwards, we all went into the auditorium, where Ann Druyan and Neil De Grasse Tyson gave a birthday tribute to Carl Sagan. It was very touching...Tyson told us an anecdote about Sagan's kindness to him when he was considering Cornell. Ann Druyan talked about Sagan's devotion to spreading the wonder of science and played us a very touching clip from Cosmos.

Then we heard from Matthew LaClair, who recieved an award for his efforts in upholding church and state separation in his high school in Kearny, NJ (which is only about 40 minutes away from me!). He was an excellent speaker, especially given that he is 17 or 18, and he really seemed to grasp the issues at hand.

After the awards presentation, Edward Tabash talked about "The Threat of the Religious Right to our Modern Freedoms." The title of the presentation was quite to the point, and it is exactly what he talked about. He stressed the importance of this election, because the next president will most likely be able to choose the justice that will replace John Paul Stevens. And if Rudy Giuliani is elected, this could be a disaster, especially given that he has attained the support of Pat Robertson by promising to appoint justices that are sympathetic to the religious right.

Today, there was a series of panels and speakers, but I think that at 12:40 am I will not be able to do them justice, so I will have to continue after getting some sleep.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Secular Society Conference

This weekend I am home from college, and I'm going to be attending the Secular Society convention in New York City. I'm looking forward to it even though it doesn't look like it will be as fun as the AAI conference in DC would have been (I missed out on going because I waited too long to purchase my ticket). However Dawkins, who I've been dying to meet, will be there, along with some other pretty interesting people (there is a list of speakers on the site). Unfortunately, Hitchens won't be able to make it because of a last minute assignment in South America, but he did record an interview that will be shown at the convention...which brings me to a point that I'm pretty pissed about. I registered for the convention about a month ago, as a student, since there was a discounted price. However, I was never told that paying the student price automatically places you in the overflow room, from which you receive a live video feed. If I had been told this ahead of time I would have easily payed full price, but I didn't find out until it was too late to upgrade my ticket. So now I'm stuck watching a video feed in a room across from where all the action is.

Oh well, I guess it's better than not being there at all. And apparently there will be book signings and such, so hopefully I'll be able to get a word in with Dawkins at some point. I'll write updates after each day of the convention.

Monday, November 5, 2007

So I've finally done it...

For about a month now I've been considering starting a blog for various reasons, but I have been procrastinating it because I had other things I needed to be doing. But it finally got to the point where I was posting articles and commentaries on my facebook that were much better suited to a blog. So I've done it...I've entered the blogosphere. I doubt that many people will actually read any of what I'm writing here, but at least I'll have the illusion of getting my opinions out there without constantly showing up on my friends' facebook newsfeeds. And hopefully in the process I will become more articulate in my opinions.

As far as content goes - it will vary, but common topics will probably be science, skepticism, religion (or lack thereof) and politics. I do not claim to be an expert of any of these subjects, so forgive me my ignorance and feel free to comment to tell me how very wrong I am.