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The Question of Death

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Death’s Dance

In the film, Questioning Darwin, it is asked of ‘Darwinists’, “How does evolution deal with death?”

I have to admit, I don’t know what this question really means.  Is he asking why there is death? What happens after death?

Several people texted just this question during the live broadcast of the Nye / Ham debate and I didn’t understand it then either. In that context, they had posed this question as something of an experimental challenge to evolutionists and I interpreted it as meaning … ‘ Just wait until you die, heretic. Then you’ll see who’s right.’ Perhaps I had been to quick to this conclusion ?

If there is anyone out there who can explain just what this means, please let me know. Right now it’s nothing but an inside joke that I don’t get.

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Utility and Futility of Debate

ken-ham-bill-nye-debateOn the evening of February 4 at 7pm EST Billy Nye and Ken Ham debated on the topic of whether “creationism is a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Dan Arel wrote what many scientists have thought for a long time. Don’t debate creationists, it just eggs them on.It is typically the position of scientists to discuss data and how it should be interpreted, but not to simply debate on a larger idea that does not hinge on some critical observation. There are many reasons for this: 1) It’s too large in scope to actually present all the evidence for and discuss it rationally, 2) This debate in particular is coming about more than a century too late (when there was new data challenging the old paradigm, and 3) debate doesn’t actually solve anything.

It was also argued that Bill Nye might not be the best representative of the field of biology and its primary tenet. It would be counter productive to have a debate of questionable utility and then not send the best qualified person for the job.

But it happened. You can watch the whole debate here:

I was fidgeting in my seat waiting for the thing to start thinking, ‘this could go poorly, what do I really know about Bill Nye? By being held at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, Bill is definitely speaking before a potentially overwhelmingly biased audience. I hope he’s done his homework.’

Dino with a saddle at the Creationism Museum

Dino with a saddle at the Creationism Museum

The two took the stage, were introduced to the audience and the rules of the game were outlined (intro statements, a 30 minutes opportunity to build a case, then shorter Q&A style back and forth.)

Mr. Ham won the coin toss and went first. In his opening statements he spoke very well, redefined a couple of terms for us, like ‘science’ (which he broke into observational science and historical science) and talked a bit about the theory of knowledge (what can we know? What counts as evidence?)

I was thrown off by some of his definitions and didn’t like his assertion that we cannot use observations of the laws of nature today and apply the lessons we learn to the past, but overall, he came off fairly well and charismatically.

Then Mr. Nye took the mike and started telling a story about bow ties. I like bow ties and I think he pulls it off very well, but I didn’t like where this was going. Luckily, he came back to his message and gave a strong introduction that settled my nerves somewhat.

For the meat of his talk, Mr. Ham really went all out to establish the language that could be used and what he deemed admissible as evidence. The short story was, we can’t know anything about the past, except from the eye-witness account of history the Bible gives us (God’s Word). Anything else is ‘Man’s Word’ and inherently faulty.

-Great! we can agree on something! I also believe that humans make mistakes, misremember things, etc. This is why data beats anecdote.

So, what’s troubling about this?

Well, a lot. It means we can’t really learn anything. We cannot expect the same rules of nature to apply tomorrow as they do today. And we can know nothing about the past by studying the world as it is today. This sounds suspiciously, and tragically, like David Hume’s Empiricism, i.e. we may think we observe causation, but this is impossible – and even if we are not wrong, every instance of the world is new and different, so we can’t extrapolate from past experience at all. Mr. Nye, like myself, had a problem with this and repeatedly asked, ‘Where does this leave us? Can we make no predictions about how the world will work? ‘ (not a direct quote)

Rather than getting too hung up on epistemology, Nye did an extraordinary job discussing the Earth, Life on this Planet and What evidence we have for these things. My favorite part of his talk was the example of Kangaroos in Australia. How did they get there? (he relied on Mr. Ham’s story of the flood) If all animals left Noah’s ark, how is it that all the marsupials marched directly to Australia leaving to trail of fossils along the way?

Nye pursued several lines of reasoning, including the kangaroo story above, fossil progressions, plate tectonics and paleomagnetism. I would have included more biochemical evidence for the relationship between all life, but that’s just me.

However, I feel like it all came down to one question. One that, perhaps, should have been asked right at the beginning. If the answer to this one is ‘nothing’ then you just undermined the purpose of your debate.

“What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”

Jonathan Holowoka, writing for the Liberty Voice, claims that Nye’s performance was something that all scientists should be proud of and that he effectively rebutted the concerns expressed by the Richard Dawkins Foundations.

Dan Arel answered, admitting that Nye did not fail in any of the ways he worried about in his first column. However, he remains convinced that the debate was useless and may still have done harm.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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Is Saudi Arabia following Turkey’s Lead?

MukfellasIt’s unclear what the rationale was, but The Economist has recently reported that the Saudi Arabian Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) has come in and closed the Dinosaur World exhibit / playground. I’ve looked around a bit to see if there is any further information explaining this action (is it a reaction to the very idea that once dinosaurs roamed the earth?, perhaps some incidents of improper behavior had been reported?). In the absence of information, we can only guess.

I was alerted to this news via a blog that I follow by the evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne. Coyne’s interest comes from his concern about the suppression of science that is sometimes found amongst religious organizations. Because this action was carried out by the CPVPV, it is reasonable to assume that the exhibit was closed because it violated a tenet of the islamic faith. The CPVPV is the Saudi religious police who enforce Sharia Law by monitoring the population to ensure that people adhere to dress codes, separation of men and women, etc.

t rex exhibition riyadhHowever, it’s difficult to look at pictures of this exhibit and see what could be wrong. Although he does not say it explicitly, I have a feeling that Coyne is worried that Saudi Arabia is going the way of Turkey in suppressing science that contradicts religious interpretations of creation. This is an issue in many Christian-dominated cultures, but many people do not realize that fundamentalists of Islam are very similar in their views as fundamentalist Christians. Read more about recent actions prohibiting teaching of evolution in Turkey here.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Ideal Gas Law

Many years ago, as a grad student in Philadelphia, I used to tutor Biology and Chemistry in the evenings. This was my first introduction to working directly with students and I found it to be challenging, educational and quite fulfilling (and it also paid pretty well too). Although I consider myself a Biologist, I might have actually had the most fun tutoring Chemistry. This was mostly because chemistry is really just a couple of relatively simple equations that explain some neat stuff about the world.

Because the equations are fairly simple, the greatest challenge was to keep it interesting enough to be worth practicing. My solution to this was to adapt some Greek mythology to include questions about chemistry. Ever since then, I have wanted to elaborate on this idea and write it up in a way that others can use my examples to learn about science. So, perhaps seven years later I finally decided to just do it. Last night I began work on my retelling and have gotten fairly far along. I have an idea that it would make a fun animated book and I think the iBook authoring tool might just make it a snap to put together into something professional.

Now, I just need to contact some artists to work on the illustrations I want to put into it and finish writing out the text. I think I got about 1/3 of the way through the meat of the matter last night. Unfortunately, this situation reminds me a lot of the central problem of DownHouse Software, i.e. I can write the ideas out and maybe even set a decent design in place, but I don’t have the skills to create the artwork required. I’m ever in need of a collaborator… well, really a team of collaborators, to make my ideas come alive.

Perhaps this is a good project for Kickstarter?? I always wonder about using a product like that. Can I put enough of my creation out there that people will recognize the value without getting into a position of being scooped – because the whole problem is that I need others to make it happen. Maybe I’m just paranoid. But you would be guarded too if you didn’t have much else going for you professionally.

 

OK, enough blabbing. I want to finish my outline, flesh it out with some dialog and contact an illustrator or two. 

 

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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