Questionable Motives

December 31, 2009

Do you have time for some fascinating videos?

Filed under: Biology,Entertainment,Science — tildeb @ 2:32 pm

Top ten 2009 discoveries most viewed at National Geographic here.

Year end thoughts: Why is agnosticism so dangerous?

It seems to me that there are two distinctions related but separate about religious belief that concerns those of us who take the default position of skeptical non belief: the first is looking but finding no good reasons to believe in god as a supposed entity involved in human life, and the second is looking and finding no good reasons to believe in specific religious claims that attempt to define this god or that god and describe its wishes for humanity (in their own ways). Too often I read criticisms that fail to make this distinction, as if by arguing specifically against a particular set of religious beliefs from its source authority (like criticizing the various interpretations of the Old Testament, for example) one can disprove the existence of  the god of, say, the Episcopalians. Granted, proving that god doesn’t exist would undermine any religious belief based on the existence of such a deity, but as every first year philosophy student learns (or should learn), setting out to prove a negative is not a good starting position to take; the burden of proof lies with the person advancing a claim, and religious belief sets are already full to the brim with unsubstantiated claims. Disproving the claims set out by different religious beliefs sets is an approach much like playing whack-a-mole: as soon as one religious belief set is revealed to be rationally incoherent, another interpretation of that set pops up to take its place and it’s a fool’s game that never ends. It is foolish, then, to take that mantle of responsibility off those who make a claim and shoulder the burden to prove the counter claim, that god doesn’t exist. Let’s leave that burden with the theists.

Arguments for the existence of god can be dealt with using the standard criticisms that so clearly reveal the inherent problems: First Cause challenged by infinite regress; an all-powerful always-present deity but one that conveniently has to hide from us; a loving creative critter that still designs carnivores and prey to ensure constant and sadistic suffering without any moral payback except to some unimaginable greater good; an omniscient spook that knows the future but pretends our free will to believe in the unbelievable is the determining factor that presents us with the juicy reward of eternal heaven for making the right choice and eternal hell for the wrong; Pascal’s wager that presents its case as why not believe and be ‘safe’ but fails to account for which of the thousands of previous gods that have been around since the dawn of time to be the right one; the ‘if one can imagine something like a god then such a god must be real’ argument; that god to be god must have certain characteristics we deem essential like being omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, loving, but deem specific characteristics like green hair and a unibrow to be too absurd to ponder; and so on.

Usually, when all is said and done and all the evidence for god lies in a discredited heap by means of our rational and reasonable skeptical shredder, the final retreat for the devout is to claim that faith requires only belief, that sum total of our reasoning is the wrong tool to investigate theological truth claims… as if there were any others we have.

Many who delve into the theological maelstrom grow weary and frustrated that the truth claims offered up as evidence or proofs of such a critter, for both god and the religious belief sets that are reliant on the existence of such a critter, are significantly lacking excellent reasons and solid, testable, repeatable, predictive, explanatory, and falsifiable evidence to back those reasons up. What’s a nice and tolerant person who wishes to offend no one – believer and non-believer alike – to do?  The answer at first blush seems to be to assume a middle position, one that seems safe enough from the harsh criticism from both ends of the belief spectrum, namely, agnosticism. The agnostic is usually a person who cannot accept the truth claims of any one particular religious belief set because of a lack of reasonable proofs and evidence nor accept the lack of evidence for god as definitive enough to settle for the default position of non-belief, which also happens to carry with it all kinds of negative endorsements like a lack of morality or the veneer of just another militant sect but with a different kind of faith. But is this position of agnosticism honest?

I think agnosticism is as much a significant problem for its lack of a conclusion and thus inaction in its name as any unjustified belief set that fuels action and behaviour in its name. Thought of another way, I criticize agnosticism because it is really nothing more than just a failure to draw a reasonable conclusion; it is, instead, an intellectual cop out, an avoidance technique, an enabling maneuver to allow the battle between unjustified beliefs and their adverse effects to continue to wreak unnecessary suffering and further entrench intolerance against human rights and human dignity in the name of piousness. More on that point later in the post.

In a slightly different approach about criticizing agnosticism, we simply do not claim agnosticism in any other arena of life even when we accept the possibility – even the likelihood – that our conclusions will change if we have better reasons to do so rather than maintaining a prior conclusion with poorer ones. Only in a theistic context do we retract our ability to come to reasonable and timely conclusions and, instead,  substitute this cognitive holding pattern, which to me is the equivalent of good people choosing to do nothing because they do not wish to make public the decision that a conclusion has been formed and accept the consequences to either support or reject unjustified beliefs; instead, agnostics choose not to come to a conclusion at all. This is a form of intellectual cowardice.

Why is the innocuous agnosticism a matter of criticism and concern? Isn’t it acceptable, even responsible, to take no position on a matter like theology that seems to have no definitive answers one way or the other? Isn’t it right and proper to honestly admit that because one does not know something with certainty, that one admits to take the non-judgmental position of I-don’t-know-and-you-don’t-either we call agnosticism?

Earlier this month I posted an article here about a recent non-binding UN resolution put forth by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) aimed to combat defamation of their religion, to excuse and allow states to curtail freedom of expression under the banner of enforcing a ‘respect’ for religious beliefs without appearing to act counter to the rights and freedoms established for individuals expressed in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Most states in the Western world, we should remember, are secular liberal democracies where rule of law based on constitutional representative government and evolving secular jurisprudence has been well established (arguable in parts but true in general). The rights and freedoms of their citizens come first from a founding document like a constitution based on enlightenment values, which is then expressed by one set of laws for all to respect, enforced equally and impartially by the state, and thus maintained and protected by the state for the benefit of all. The ideal being sought under such a system is that it is in every citizen’s best self-interest to maintain the state and its shared laws in order to maintain one’s own constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms.

This is the very system now under attack by a form of insidiousness called stealth jihadism. This soft approach is meant to slowly dismember the foundations of our secular democracies and replace them with the pillars of Islam (read more about this here). What cannot be accomplished by force is being sought and to an extent achieved by staffing certain offices of the United Nations like the third session of the Human Rights Council with those in favour of the OIC’s agenda, which is to extend and expand the influence of Islam by means of obtaining domestic support for the generic idea of protecting all religions from defamation in these powerful countries. The purpose of such resolutions as the defamation of religion ruling is not to enhance human rights, dignity, and equality, but subvert them for the benefit of promoting Islam alone.

The “defamation of religions” resolution is premised on an expansive right of citizens not to be insulted in their religious feelings, and a right to respect for religious beliefs, that have no grounding in international human rights law. International human rights law guarantees freedom of religious exercise, not freedom from insult; it guarantees nondiscrimination for individual believers, not shelter from criticism for belief systems. Existing legal instruments, such as Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), already protect religious believers against expression that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence. To go further would mean protecting the contents of religious belief systems. (Excerpt from Center for Inquiry’s presentation at the UN here.)

And here we get to the crux of the matter: freedom of religion can only be accomplished if the state keeps its nose out of the private beliefs of its citizens so that all are equally free to believe what they will. As soon as the state begins to favour one religion over another, one belief set above another, then to an equal measure the freedom of religious in that state is reduced. The temptation is that if a sizable number of citizens already favour one religious set of beliefs, and the state through its elected governments also favours that set by suggesting that if elected they will legislatively act on behalf of that support, then there is a political payoff in popularity if the state abuses its constitutional power of guaranteeing, enforcing, and supporting freedom of religion and moves that favourtism into law.

The more a religious belief set is criticized, the greater is the pressure on legislators by the religious voters to use the state rather than proof and evidence to protect the favoured belief set from legitimate rational criticism. The cost, of course, is a direct loss of religious freedom unfelt and unappreciated by those whose belief set is being supported by the national state. Any other avenue of support, like the protection from religious defamation resolution that internationally keeps criticism away from targeting the belief sets of the religious, is just as welcomed by those too biased and narrow-minded to understand that their actions and support for the national state to help protect and promote their religious beliefs attack one of the founding principles of the secular constitution that already protects exactly that right to religious freedom. But nowhere in the founding documents is the state to be used as a tool to protect or defend belief from criticism; that, the belief set must do by merit rather than coercion.

For those who have no religious biases but, rather, a firm conclusion of non-belief, the defamation resolution can be seen for what it is: a transparent means to shut down the freedom of expression that expresses criticism of any kind against religious beliefs in general and Islam in particular. Because muslim sharia law is religious law, the defamation resolution can be used to thwart any criticism of its inclusion as a part of civil law clothed to be a reasonable accommodation for this religious group, an oft repeated but confused mantra that such an inclusion is a sign of a secular democracy’s tolerance and willingness to respect cultural differences. And once sharia law is enacted, the supremacy of constitutional law for all its citizens is effectively hobbled. Sharia law itself is an expression at the very least of gender inequality enshrined in law. Secular nations run the very real risk of becoming quasi-theocracies one tolerant step at a time, all supported by other religious supporters who will lose piece by piece the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression by their own pious hands in the name of cultural tolerance and religious respect.

Agnostics choose not to choose. But this battle against religious intolerance, this struggle to maintain our constitutional enlightenment values, this fight to protect our secular freedoms and rights based on defending our constitutions from enemies foreign and domestic, requires the taking of sides not between different religious beliefs but between the secular state and the encroachment of religious law, of coming to conclusion based on the evidence currently available rather than some false sense of certainty. The only thing that is certain is that our secular values of various freedoms and rights are being undermined one effective step at a time at the international level all in the name of defending and protecting religion – and all the actions done in its name – without criticism… under the penalty of committing blasphemy. And this proposal is obscene. Concluding nothing, about whether or not religious truth claims have truth value, is at its heart a tacit approval by well-intentioned and tolerant people to allow the unquestionable erosion of the principles on which their freedoms and rights are based. It’s time for good people to stop waffling, stop tolerating the advancement of religion into the public domain,  stop coddling harmful religious sensibilities, and step up to the ideals set forth in our secular constitutions by our forefathers. We owe them a debt for the freedoms we enjoy, and it’s time for payback.

It’s high time agnostics stop being such dangerous enablers and get down from the fence. Now is the time to make a reasonable conclusion and join the growing ranks of those who demand more for their allegiance than obedience to some set of archaic and biased rules to honour some imaginary sky father.

December 29, 2009

The Rabbit is the unanswerable question, don’t you see?

Filed under: Argument,Atheism,belief,Criticism,Entertainment,Faith,Humour,Religion — tildeb @ 8:05 pm

There is a brilliant satire over at Exquisite With Love regarding a nonsensical religious article that really pissed off the blog’s author, Miranda Celeste Hale. She writes:

Saturday’s edition of The Guardian’s Comment is free ran a piece by Mark Vernon, called “God is the question: What does it mean to accept that God is not the answer to anything, but remains the unanswerable question?” I have zero patience for this kind of rambly, meaningless, intentional obscurantism, this “God is an unknowable mystery that cannot be touched by reason or intellect and that cannot be put into words” ridiculousness espoused by this author, among others. It’s completely nonsensical word salad. It’s a bunch of empty, vague rationalizations for belief in God disguised in language that is intended to seem deep and profound.

Ouch! She continues:

This type of theologicalbabble also displays these authors’ willful ignorance about the God that most religious individuals believe in and about the horrible actions some believers engage in because of their blind religious faith. The average believer does not perceive God in the way that these authors do, a fact that the authors conveniently avoid acknowledging. By refusing to acknowledge this, they are both protecting themselves from being seen as “just a common believer” and pretending to be blind to the negative consequences of unquestioned religious belief. This type of writing is vacuous, hollow, dishonest, and willfully misleading.

She’s getting up a head of steam here, and rightly so.

So what is a person with a blog to do?

Well, she decided to rewrite the piece using the same argument but rather than use the word God, she substituted The Rabbit as the unknowable mystery to see what kind of sense we can make of it. The results are amusing to say the least.

Because it just so happens that I am a militant and strident arabbitist as well as an atheist, I had to keep reading:

You see, true enlightenment will only come when all of humanity realizes that even though The Rabbit is sometimes the answer, if and only if, in being the answer, he remains completely unknowable, there really is no answer, or, in other words, the answer is the question: “what”? Life is full of mysteries and is revealed to us as a beautifully enigmatic and puzzling question, one that cannot and will not ever be solved. So, too, The Rabbit.

Finally, a sensible answer to the question… I mean, the right question to the wrong answer… I mean, well, something profound, I’m almost sure…

Tell me, is there anything as clear or as simple as that?

Other than quantum mechanics, I don’t think so.

My strongest hope is that humanity will start to try to understand The Rabbit, He who is something so deep and so profound that we cannot possibly even begin to understand Him. Truly, that will be a blessed day indeed.

Blessed indeed. I am so close to being converted.

Make up your own mind with the entire piece here.

Is this good news?

Filed under: belief,Critical Reasoning,Media,Religion,Skepticim,Society — tildeb @ 3:04 pm

A Gallup poll of Americans’ attitudes towards religion released on Christmas Eve found significant recent increases in those responding either that they have no religious preference, that religion is not very important in their lives, or that they believe religion “is largely old-fashioned or out of date.”

Only 78% of Americans now identify as Christian, while 22% describe their religious preference as either “other” or “none.”

Most of these changes have occurred since 2000 and represent the first significant shift since a sharp decline in religious adherence during the 1970s. Over the last nine years, the number with no religious preference has grown from a level of around 8% to 13%. The number for whom religion is not very important has climbed from just over 10% to 19%. And the number who believe religion is out of date and has no answers for today’s problems has jumped from slightly more than 20% to 29%.

These changes do not appear to have affected the majority of Americans who still consider religion “very important” in their own lives. That figure remains at 56% — roughly the same as for the last 35 years — while 57% still say religion has answers to most of the world’s problems.

The biggest difference is that in the late 1990s, up to 68% of Americans thought religion had answers to the world’s problems — even though only about 60% said religion was personally very important to them. It seems as though over the last ten years a significant number may have gone from believing that religion is a positive factor in the world, even if they’re not particularly religious themselves, to seeing religion in a far more skeptical or even negative light.

So is this good news? Yes it is. That 78% are still living in the dark ages is sobering, but the trend at least is in the right direction.

Re-posted from The Raw Story.

December 27, 2009

Does the vegan’s diet hold the ethical high ground?

Nu uh.

“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.

Oh my.

Most meat eaters at least kill their food and put it out of their misery before mastication; vegans eat their prey while it’s alive! Eating live food may be ethical in some Auschwitz-ian moral landscape, but I’m not so sure we should cede (or perhaps ‘seed’ would be the more appropriate word here) vegans the ethical high ground just yet.

Read the fascinating article from Science about plants in their struggle to survive here.

What does critical thinking mean?

Filed under: Argument,Critical Reasoning — tildeb @ 11:36 am

A short but excellent reminder from QualiaSoup:

December 26, 2009

Isn’t religion all about love?

I come across this description all the time, usually by well-pampered middle-class white folk who think their various innocuous religious interpretations of caring, compassion, and love represent the ‘mature’ version of modern religious belief. Any religiously-inspired action that defies this caring and compassionate version of god-inspired love is almost always dismissed as nothing more than an ignorant fringe element that does not represent the true meaning of faith in god… no matter how prevalent or abhorrent the religiously-inspired actions are. In this way, the religious believer can erect a false barrier between actions that are not about showing the love and actions that are, claiming the former is not caused by faith in god – in spite of religious faith being the direct and admitted root cause of the latest atrocity – while the latter is ONLY caused by faith in god. It is a neat trick. God gets only good press, so belief in god must therefore be only about the love.

It is the same story when believers attribute the miraculous survival of one person in the midst of a disaster to god’s benevolence while conveniently attribute the mass death and widespread destruction of a disaster to either natural forces or as god’s justified punishment – usually as a response to something about homosexuality. So here’s a fun little activity to try.

Try singing out a loud ‘Praise God!’ in response to news of  a mounting death toll from the latest mudslide, avalanche, flood, famine, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, cyclone, volcanic eruption, earthquake, or fire, and see what kind of response you get: people will think you’re rather sadistic, and understandably so. But sing out a loud ‘Praise God’ when one person survives this onslaught of the indifferent forces of nature and believers will not criticize your sadism because they don’t see the flip side of the beliefs. They only see what gives their god good press. This kind of belief has nothing whatsoever to do with love and everything to do with maintaining duplicity, which is dishonest. Religion is all about being dishonest in one’s attributions about god.

So it is without surprise that the forces of ‘love’ once again do battle in the name of honouring god…

In Nigeria, religious fundamentalism holds sway. Both Christian and Islamic fanatics are holding the nation hostage. They seek to foist their dark, retrogressive vision on the country. They show total disregard for human rights and basic freedoms including the right to life, freedom of thought, association and expression.

In July, religious fanatics once again unleashed mayhem in Nigeria. On the 29th, a Wednesday, a mob of about 200 people from the Liberty Gospel Church invaded the Cultural Centre in Calabar Cross River State. The Cultural Centre was the venue of a public symposium on witchcraft and child rights organised by the Nigerian Humanist Movement and Stepping Stones Nigeria.

Incidentally, the attack by the Liberty Gospel Church happened at the same time as the Nigerian police and the army were doing a battle with an Islamic sect called Boko Haram in Bornu State in Northern Nigeria. This fanatical group had declared a war against the state. They attacked and beheaded police officers and civilians in a violent campaign to foist their own version of sharia law on the country.

The picture is about Jane (left) and Mary, in Eket, Nigeria, who had been accused of being witches. Jane’s mother tried to saw off the top of her skull after a pastor denounced her and Mary’s mother doused her in caustic soda. There are THOUSANDS of such abused children and we have religion to thank for it.

You can feel and see more of the love by reading the report here.

So what, right? These religious nutbars are somewhere in Africa and the whole place is nuts.

Well. Guess again. Sarah Palin thinks the world of these religious nutbars.

An African evangelist, Pastor Muthee has given guest sermons at the Wasilla Assembly of God on at least 10 occasions in his role as the founder of the Word of Faith Church, also known as the Prayer Cave.

What has this to do with Palin?

She said, As I was mayor and Pastor Muthee was here and he was praying over me, and you know how he speaks and he’s so bold. And he was praying “Lord make a way, Lord make a way.”

“And I’m thinking, this guy’s really bold, he doesn’t even know what I’m going to do, he doesn’t know what my plans are. And he’s praying not “oh Lord if it be your will may she become governor,” no, he just prayed for it. He said “Lord make a way and let her do this next step. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Yup. The lord works in mysterious ways, mysterious being code for sadistic.

The pastor speaks of his offensive against a demonic presence in the town in a trailer for the evangelical video “Transformations”, made by Sentinel Group, a Christian research and information agency.

“We prayed, we fasted, the Lord showed us a spirit of witchcraft resting over the place,” Pastor Muthee says.

After the spirit was broken, the crime rate dropped to almost zero and there was “explosive church growth” while almost every bar in the town closed down, the video says.

The full Transformations video featuring Pastor Muthee’s story has recently been removed from YouTube but the rest of the story is detailed in a 1999 article in the Christian Science Monitor, as well as on numerous evangelical websites.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, six months of fervent prayer and research identified the source of the witchcraft as a local woman called Mama Jane, who ran a “divination” centre called the Emmanuel Clinic.

Her alleged involvement in fortune-telling and the fact that she lived near the site of a number of fatal car accidents led Pastor Muthee to publicly declare her a witch responsible for the town’s ills, and order her to offer her up her soul for salvation or leave Kiambu.

Says the Monitor, “Muthee held a crusade that “brought about 200 people to Christ”.” They set up round-the-clock prayer intercession in the basement of a grocery store and eventually, says the pastor “the demonic influence – the ‘principality’ over Kiambu –was broken”, and Mama Jane fled the town.

According to accounts of the witchhunt circulated on evangelical websites such as Prayer Links Ministries, after Pastor Muthee declared Mama Jane a witch, the townspeople became suspicious and began to turn on her, demanding that she be stoned. Public outrage eventually led the police to raid her home, where they fired gunshots, killing a pet python which they believed to be a demon.

It is this kind of religious nonsense, this is the kind of attributed thinking that powers the faith of people like Palin, and it ain’t about love. Religion is just as much about superstition, fear, and intolerance.

Read more of this travesty here.

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December 25, 2009

Why continue to post about unjustified beliefs and criticize them?

I have often been asked why I bother to post every day, why I take the time and effort to expose unjustified beliefs as stories and articles about them hit the media. Why cannot I leave them and their unjustified beliefs well enough alone?

The short answer is that I can’t because it is wrong to do nothing. Because I can do something, I feel that I must do my small part at the very least… hence my posting. Ignorance must be challenged and brought into the light of critical thinking to expose it for what is usually is: an expression of cancerous fear that is not worthy to be held respectable but owed our justified and published contempt.

The longer version of the answer I will borrow from a poster with whom I have the greatest respect: Calilasseia, who writes here

To those like myself who have followed a scientific academic career, such are the things of beauty that fill our intellectual realms; such are the fragrant blossoms of our requisite enchanted gardens. They speak of the way the world works, they allow us not only to marvel at that world, but to work within it and build upon it. From the world of biology, the butterfly that forms my avatar, Morpho rhetenor from Peru, is another scintillating marvel about which I can wax lyrical – did you know that its wing scales, when viewed under the electron microscope, possess structural features allowing them to act as light amplifiers for specific regions of the visible spectrum via constructive interference? Breathtaking as the butterfly is in life, and one day I hope to see it for myself in its natural habitat and experience the wonder of its flashes of blue iridescence as it flies upon those jewelled wings, the thought that its scintillating beauty has an explanation that can be deduced by the mind of Man should also be something we pause for a moment to gasp at.

But there are those whose eyes and whose minds are closed to such things. Not for them the joys of inquiry, of discovery, of learning: rather, they seek their sustenance not in the bright sunshine of free thought, but in the perennial darkness of doctrine. Worse still, these persons are not content with inhabiting those catacombs themselves – they seek to cage others within the darkness, shut them out from the light, deny them forever the fragrant blossoms of the enchanted gardens I have just described. To do so, they will resort to subterfuge and intrigue, eating away at the wonderful edifice of learning that, if they paused for a moment to consider, gives them too gifts in their lives for which they appear to show not one atom of gratitude.

They must be stopped.

It is indeed an imperative that they are, for if that magnificent, hard-won product of the Enlightenment is lost to us, the consequences will be disastrous. From an era in which we can sit at home, and at the touch of a button be connected with manned spaceflight in real time, or with thousands upon thousands of other people on different continents in media such as this forum, living lives free from the perils of famine and pestilence, we shall descend into a new Dark Age, in which those vanquished spectres will emerge wraith-like to claim more, and those who are left will be subject to arbitrary, Inquisitional terror.

If some, like myself, are inclined to be polemical about this, it because we know precisely what is at stake if the purveyors of ignorance and bigotry win – we know how much of a calamity it will be for our very species. We know intimately how precious those gifts of the Enlightenment are, and what will befall us if they are wrested from our hands. We know also that to perpetuate those gifts is something we cannot leave to chance, it must be worked for, the price that the rational man must pay for the wonders of free thought is eternal vigilance in the face of those forces that would destroy it. That is why I, for one, am not only prepared to launch polemically into the fray, but consider it my moral duty so to do, because the consequences of indolence, were they to result in the victory of the forces of ignorance and bigotry, would be worse than calamitous, they would be truly apocalyptic. And make no mistake, those who would replace the glories of free thought with the concentration camp of mysticism seek not only to destroy those glories, but from their own words have given a chilling insight into the pleasure they would derive from that destruction, and the pleasure they would derive from having people like us at their mercy.

What we have is far more beautiful, inspiring, and worthy of defending than any doctrine. Let the hordes come – my sword is at the ready.

Evidence for dark matter… in Minnesota?

Filed under: Astronomy,Discovery,Physics,Science — tildeb @ 4:09 pm

Laurence Krauss is one of my favourite science writers because his writings are accurate, fascinating, and accessible. Read his entire article here.

In early December, the Cold Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment located in the deep Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota leaked a tantalizing hint that they may have discovered something remarkable. The experiment is designed to directly detect new elementary particles that might make up the dark matter known to dominate our own Milky Way galaxy, all galaxies, and indeed all mass in the universe—so news of a possible breakthrough was thrilling.

The actual result? Two pulses were detected over the course of almost a year that might have been due to dark matter, CDMS announced on Dec. 17. However, there is a 25% chance that the pulses were actually caused by background radioactivity in and around the detector.

So when the physics community heard rumors that one of these experiments had detected something, we all waited with eager anticipation. A convincing observation would vindicate almost half a century of carefully developed, if fragile, arguments suggesting a whole new invisible world waiting to be discovered.

For the theorist working at his desk alone at night, it seems almost unfathomable that nature might actually obey the delicate theories you develop on pieces of paper. This is especially true when the theories involve ideas from so many different areas of science and require leaps of imagination.

The reported results are intriguing, but less than convincing. Yet if the two pulses observed last week in Minnesota are followed by more signals as bigger detectors turn on in the coming year or two, it will provide serious vindication of the power of human imagination. Combined with rigorous logical inference and technological wizardry—all the things that make science worth celebrating—scientists’ creativity will have uncovered hidden worlds that a century ago could not have been conceived.

December 24, 2009

Are you in touch with your inner fish?

Filed under: Biology,Evolution,Science — tildeb @ 3:03 pm

In Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin tells the story of evolution by tracing the organs of the human body back millions of years, long before the first creatures walked the earth. By examining fossils and DNA, Shubin shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our head is organized like that of a long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genome look and function like those of worms and bacteria. We have compiled the figures from the book into a deck of PowerPoint slides for use in the classroom here.

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