Category: Evolution

Annual Creationism Conference Takes "Scientific" Approach

By Melissa Lafsky | August 18, 2008 12:15 pm

worlEarlier this month, the Sixth International Conference on Creationism took place in Pittsburgh. Sponsored by the Creation Science Fellowship and the Institute for Creation Research, the week-long event billed itself as a “highly technical, peer reviewed symposium, with planned rebuttals and discussions.” Papers submitted for the conference were put through a “technical review process” that included the following criteria:

Is the Summary’s topic important to the development of the creation model?

Does the Summary’s topic provide an original contribution to the creation

Is this Summary formulated within a young-earth, young-universe framework?

Does this Summary provide evidence of faithfulness to the grammaticohistorical/normative interpretation of Scripture?

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Are Scientists the Next Religious Zealots?

By Melissa Lafsky | August 4, 2008 1:04 pm

Is science in danger of becoming its own religion? That’s what Karl Giberson is worried about. In a recent essay in Salon, he questions whether hardcore atheists such as P.Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris and author of the popular pro-atheism (or rather, anti-religion) blog Pharyngula, are replacing religious fundamentalism with a new kind of absolutism: The belief that science (as opposed to God) holds the answer to every question in the universe, and religion is nothing more than a scam. Questioning Myers’ ongoing statements such as “we find truth only in science,” Giberson writes:

As a fellow scientist (I have a Ph.D. in physics), I share Myers’ enthusiasm for fresh eyes, questioning minds and the power of science. And I worry about dogmatism and the kind of zealotry that motivates the faithful to blow themselves up, shoot abortion doctors and persecute homosexuals. But I also worry about narrow exclusiveness that champions the scientific way of knowing to the exclusion of all else. I don’t like to see science turned into a club to bash religious believers.

Granted, there’s a back story to his argument: Giberson, the founding editor of the erstwhile Science & Theology News and the author of Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, became the object of Myers’ criticism after a previous Salon Q&A regarding Giberson’s new book. In a somewhat self-righteous move, Giberson responded with the current essay suggesting that Myers had wrongfully targeted him, and that his dismissals of the theologian’s arguments were themselves a form of dogma.

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Weekly Science & Politics News Roundup

By Melissa Lafsky | July 18, 2008 1:52 pm

• Offshore drilling: The floodgates have been opened, and many are rushing to discredit it before it starts. But will their voices be enough to squelch the demands of angry election-year constituents?

• With all signs pointing to a tanking economy, it’s nice to know that one area can still rake in the dough: The video game industry.

• Will Wikipedia shut the doors on its self-governing open edit system?

• How do scientists love thee, Wall-E? Let us count the ways. Over at Slate, associate editor Daniel Engber scolds the film for its inaccuracies about obesity, while neuroscientist and Frontal Cortex blogger Jonah Lehrer discusses Pixar’s apparent hat-tip to Darwin.

• Still, Pixar may have a point: U.S. obesity levels continue to rise.

• Whither the salmonella-laden tomatoes? The FDA shifts its eye towards peppers.

Reality Check: Science & Religion

By Melissa Lafsky | June 18, 2008 11:05 am

The intelligent design/creationism battle continues, with outspoken scientists tackling their opponents head-on. Influentials in the Catholic Church, meanwhile, have been discussing whether evolution was governed by randomness or God’s intention.

But the people—the American ones, at least—are still fond of their God-created species. Then again, maybe people’s stance on evolution depends on the way you ask the questions.

Science Finds God
Lest ye think that science and religion can never co-exist, some evolution-supporting scientists are totally into God. Others have even gone so far as to use one (science) to figure out the other (religion).

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Sacred in the Mundane: Closing Arguments on Science and Religion

By Adam Frank | April 13, 2008 6:00 pm

Adam FrankSo it’s time to finish the thread on this discussion of science and religion. Many thanks to Melissa and DISCOVER for giving me the space to paint some ideas on this most contentious but vital subject. I am also extremely grateful to everyone who shared his or her thoughts in the comments. I learned a great deal from those discussions. In closing, I think its appropriate time to ask why the issue of “Science vs. Religion” or “Science and Religion” or whatever you want to call it matters at all. Why should we care? To answer that question, it’s best to face backwards.

Some time between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, something wonderful happened inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The light went on. We woke up to a sky full of repeating patterns, to an Earth incessantly shaped by wind and water, to environments shared with a wild abundance of life. Most importantly, we woke up to interior lives that responded to this vast “found” world with an emerging culture of painting, carvings, and music.

An essential aspect of this new human culture was mythological narratives of origins and endings. These grand myth systems set us in context against the backdrop of the experienced universe. Our mythologies created meaning by both explaining the world and interpreting the human place within it. Imagination and observation were braided strands of these narratives. Builders of Neolithic monuments with their multiple astronomical orientations were, in their way, paying attention to the world while simultaneously attending to internal responses to the night sky and the cycle of the seasons.

These were our beginnings. These were the imperatives that would later evolve into the modern forms of science and religion. We have been at this game for a long time.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
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Explanatory Gaps and Scientific Theories of Consciousness

By Adam Frank | April 7, 2008 12:32 pm

Adam FrankIs there a gap which reductionist models of consciousness cannot cross? Lots of people find the idea that we are “nothing but” biological computers to be distasteful. How can all these profound feelings and experiences be just an epiphenomena (love that word) of goopy nerves as such?

Distasteful as it sounds to some, this explanation may, however, still be true. Or it may be that other levels of explanation are required. These explanations can be scientific and empirical and don’t ask for the “immortal soul” of traditional religions, yet aren’t quite as stridently minimalist as classic reduction.

This is a new domain for me and I knew, when I started writing my book, that I would eventually have to look into the emerging field of “consciousness studies.” My friend in the philosophy department here, Brad Weslake, teaches a course on philosophy of mind, and recommended the now-famous paper by Joseph Levine on explanatory gaps in explanations of consciousness.

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The Platonic Imperative: Reality and the Many Worlds of Quantum Mechanics

By Adam Frank | April 6, 2008 12:44 pm

Adam FrankFoundational studies of quantum physics hold a deep fascination for anyone interested in questions about the ultimate structure of the world. Quantum mechanics (QM) is now hovering around its 100th anniversary (depending on whether or not you take the work of Planck, Einstein, or Bohr to mark its true birth). Unlike other theories, quantum mechanics has proven to be remarkably elusive in terms of pinning down what truly, absolutely, no-kidding-anymore, really exists.

With classical physics, things were easy—it was all just billiard balls. Not so with quantum physics. As Feynman famously quipped, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Interpretations abound, but agreement does not. Given the central role QM plays in understanding what the world is made of, this situation causes a lot of consternation for physicists. The problem boils down to reality, what’s in it, and what access we have to it.

Here at the University of Rochester, we’ve been running seminars on physics and philosophy. Last Friday, Peter Lewis, a philosopher from the University of Miami, visited and gave a great talk on the now famous “Many-Worlds Interpretation” of QM. His argument turned on probabilities in the Many-Worlds Interpretation. Rather than run through his reasoning on that topic, I thought it would be worth a note on the interpretation itself because it speaks so loudly to the central issue of what scientists think we are, ultimately, aiming for.

The problem with quantum mechanics is that the basic entity of its mathematical machinery—the so-called wave function—does not give a single prediction for the outcome of experiments. Instead it provides a description of many outcomes with associated probabilities which all seem to exist simultaneously. It is not until a measurement is made that the wave function gets suspended (collapsed is the term) to yield a single answer. Or, at least, that is the way the standard interpretation of QM tells the story.

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Science, Religion and the "Ethic of Investigation"

By Adam Frank | April 2, 2008 2:23 pm

Adam FrankIn 1991, two British astronomers, Andrew Lyne and Matthew Bailes, created an uproar when they announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the neutron star PSR1829-10, a dead cinder of a once massive sun. The result thrilled and shocked the astronomical community. For two-and-a-half thousand years, philosophers and astronomers had asked if planets existed outside our solar system. Giordano Bruno’s execution formed one part of this long story. For all those years, the question remained steadfastly unanswerable. Lyne’s and Bailes’s discovery seemed to provide an answer. It was big news.

Unfortunately, a year later, at an astronomical meeting designed to present new results, Lyne stood before a large audience and announced that he and Bailes had gotten it wrong. With news cameras rolling, Lyne detailed how their analysis of the data had been in error. They were withdrawing their claim of discovery. There was a long pause, and then the audience came to its feet in a standing ovation.

Some argue that science is amoral, and that no inherent ethical conclusions can be drawn from scientific findings. There is, however, one precept that we scientists all take as holy from the time we begin as graduate students: “Tell the truth.” There is no greater sin in science than falsifying data or conclusions. Scientists are asked to let the world speak for itself, to observe without bias or preconceived ideas. In the ideal, scientists are asked to witness the world in its own great pathways of beauty, without the filter of prior desires or demands.

Brutal honesty about the character of the conclusions drawn in the investigations is a hallmark of sincere scientific practice. The scientist has to be honest with herself about the integrity of the result, and the possibility of error. That is why the audience saw Lyne and Bailes as heroes to be honored, not as failures to be shunned. Their narrative becomes part of the mythos of science, by calling its practitioners to a set a core of values that includes absolute honesty.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
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The Awe-ful Truth about Science and Religion: Part I

By Adam Frank | March 31, 2008 11:21 am

Adam Frank“Whosoever can not do this, whosoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no further.”

You can find these lines describing “religious experience” in Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. This slim volume is part of the cannon of academic religious studies programs across the world. The book was published in 1917, and Otto, a liberal German theologian, used it as an attempt to direct discussion about religion away from theoretical gymnastics and focus instead on experience. With typical German precision, he uses a razor-thin scalpel of analysis and metaphor to understand the character of these experiences. In one potent example, he invokes being overwhelmed by great music as a cousin of “religious experience,” be it a Bach etude or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (hey, it works for me).

Otto wants to make clear that awe is not simply appreciation, but something much deeper and elemental. Religious experience is, in his words, “awe-ful.” It is exactly at that point that we can step away from Otto’s ultimate concern with the metaphysics of deity (not my thing) and find a powerful and potent path to think about science and human spiritual endeavor.

Time and again, when people encounter the universe revealed through the power of science, they will use the term “awe” to describe their experience. It’s a common reaction to Hubble images of dying stars, electron microscopy of viral nano-worlds, or even enveloping descriptions of evolution’s elegance in the development of new species. I know people have this reaction because they tell me about it. After giving numerous talks on science, I can count the people who come up afterward and describe their reactions with the word “awe.” Something, for them, has happened.

Awe can mean overpowering or overflowing. That makes sense to me in this context. Sometimes it will be defined as “dread.” That seems too negative for my tastes, but from these same talks some people tell me that the grand scales revealed by astrophysics make them feel uncomfortable and displaced. So perhaps, for them, dread was a part of the experience, too. Definitions aside, the point here is simple—you know it when you feel it. And there lies the crux of the biscuit.

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Sibling Rivalry in the Womb of the Stars: Play the Game Today!

By Adam Frank | March 27, 2008 11:11 am

Adam FrankAnd now for something completely different…

In my day job, I spend a lot of time thinking about how stars form. The assembly of stars (and planets) constitutes one of the great frontiers of modern astronomy. With the discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, the co-joined questions of how solar systems form and evolve has taken on a new urgency. Life will form on planets and planets will form around stars. But where, and how, do stars form? That is a question you can now explore directly in the finest and oldest tradition in science—by playing around.

From a very unusual collaboration between DISCOVER, the University of Rochester, the National Science Foundation, and my good friends at Second Avenue Software, we are happy to bring you “Star Formation: The Game.”

Over the last three decades, astronomers have worked hard to develop an accurate picture of single star formation as the gravitational collapse of large interstellar clouds. This was a huge achievement, but it was only the first step. With better telescopes operating at longer cloud-penetrating wavelengths, it became clear that star formation was a family affair. Worse still, the families can be pretty dysfunctional. That is what “Star Formation: The Game” is all about.

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