The god that is failing

The above image is a screenshot of an article from  Yes, the title is completely accurate.  John Bohannon writes,

My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany.  We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes.  And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data.  It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research.  Which is to say:  It was terrible science.  The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

At first glance, to the non-scientist, Bohannon’s assertion may seem very strange.

I know what you’re thinking.  The study did show accelerated weight loss in the chocolate group—shouldn’t we trust it?  Isn’t that how science works?

That’s certainly how modern education has taught us to think.  The problem is, you can’t trust the results of a study if you only know the results.  You need to be able to see the process.  We might call this the Weasley Principle, following the words of J. K. Rowling’s character Arthur Weasley:  “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain!”  It’s quite easy to get whatever result you’re hoping to get if you let your results influence your process.  Read more

Debunking the myth of the “Dark Ages”

I have another book to put on my Christmas list.  I’m not sure how I missed the publication of James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, or why it’s taken me this long to discover it, but from the review I just read, it looks like a fascinating work.  Usually, you hope a book is as interesting as the review says it is; in this case, I hope it’s as interesting as the review, and for that matter the reviewer.  The reviewer in question is an Australian medievalist named Tim O’Neill who appears to specialize in the history of medieval science and technology.  He’s also an atheist who gets as irritated as I do at the ways atheists abuse and misuse history to smear Christianity.  (Rest assured, I get just as irritated at the ways Christians abuse and misuse history.  In this area, my first allegiance is to the discipline.)

O’Neill writes,

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who hangs around on discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

Perhaps it’s because I can’t think of any parallel consolation, but I’ve had to accept that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is indeed so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.  I’d like to believe that atheists and secular humanists are worse than Christians in this respect—but, no.  Indeed, as O’Neill notes in passing, the myth of the Dark Ages is as much the creation of Protestants attacking the Roman church as it is of atheists attacking Christianity in general.

It’s an excellent review essay because O’Neill has a fine eye for nonsense, a firm command of his subject, and apparently no use for people who value scoring cheap rhetorical points over getting their facts right.

In the academic sphere, at least, the “Conflict Thesis” of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists cling so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent, objective, peer-reviewed historians. This is strange behavior for people who like to label themselves “rationalists”.

Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While writers like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along, claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine’s encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy, and Boethius’ translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the so-called Dark Ages. . . .

Hannam . . . gives an excellent precis of the Twelfth Century Renaissance which, contrary to popular perception and to “the Myth”, was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out among the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.

Read the whole thing—it’s well worth your time.

Good for Nebraska

This is good news:

The Nebraska legislature has signed off on a bill that Governor Dave Heineman will sign today that could head to the courts and ultimately weaken further the Roe v.Wade Supreme Court decision that has resulted in 52 million abortions. The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the well-established concept of fetal pain.

By a vote of 44-5, the Nebraska unicameral legislature this morning gave final passage to the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act introduced by Speaker Mike Flood.

One small step toward a more just and compassionate society.

Climategate and the fundamentalist spirit

One of the most interesting stories of the past couple of months has been the whole Climategate scandal. I’m not going to dig that up and rehash the substance of it (though if you didn’t see Bill’s posts on the Thinklings about the lousy quality of the computer models behind the anthropogenic global-warming argument and the dubious nature of the standard assertions that the results of such models are truly properly peer-reviewed, you ought to), I just wanted to throw an observation out there. To wit, I recognized the spirit in those leaked e-mails, with their insistence that the theory must be right regardless of the data, and their willingness to adjust the facts as needed to fit the dogma: it’s the spirit of fundamentalism. It’s the exact same tone one meets in people arguing that the Earth must be only 6,000 years old and therefore, whatever facts that would seem to indicate otherwise must be incorrect.

Now, to call someone a fundamentalist doesn’t mean they’re wrong, by any means. I don’t happen to believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and I don’t happen to believe in AGW, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one or both couldn’t be correct. But the spirit in which many who call themselves Christian fundamentalists argue (which is not, be it noted, equal with fundamentalism itself; one can hold to fundamentalist positions without this sort of attitude and approach) is one which is absolutely certain it has discovered the truth, unquestioningly convinced of its own rightness, and thus is committed to maintaining its position by whatever means necessary. This is the sort of spirit one also finds in Islamic fundamentalism—and it’s the spirit that’s in view as well in Michael Mann and the leaked CRU e-mails.

Again, that doesn’t mean their position is wrong; to argue that would be to commit the genetic fallacy. It does, however, give the lie to their claims that they alone are scientific and their opponents are anti-science. In truth, what we have here is a religious dispute, complete with threats by the high priests against the heretics; and the pretensions of those high priests to be above ideology, their insistence that they are disinterested seekers of the pure flame of fact, have been shown to be a sham. This will be, I think, the long-term effect of Climategate: it’s knocked AGW proponents off their pedestal, and I don’t think they’re going to be able to climb back up.

Translucent concrete?

Believe it.

LiTraCon, short for light transmitting concrete, is an innovative new combination of optical fibers and light concrete. The resulting concrete is just as strong as conventional concrete, but it transmits light like glass. The optical fibers are small enough that they aren’t visible in the finished product; the surface of the concrete is homogenous while the structure remains sturdy.


Are you sure you’re looking for the right thing?

There are scientists who like to insist that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” At least, there are those who like to do so when the subject is the existence of God; I don’t know if they chant the same mantra with regard to SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Certainly, though, there are many outside the scientific community who consider SETI a waste of time and money, and who make essentially that argument against it—and not without scientific support (see for instance the Fermi paradox).

Against that, though, xkcd’s Randall Munroe raises an important question: are we looking for the right sort of evidence? Can we really say that the evidence for which we’re looking is sufficient to draw any conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial life? Put another way, do we know so much about extraterrestrial life that we can be certain that any such beings would necessarily produce evidence of their existence that meets our pre-determined criteria? Or are we, like these ants, looking for the wrong sort of thing?

This is a cluster of questions deserving serious consideration—and not only when it comes to the existence of extraterrestrial life, but also with regard to the existence of God. As the philosopher Edward Tingley has pointed out, much of the argument offered for atheism rests on the dogmatic insistence that if God exists, he must necessarily be subject to scientific proof based on evidence deemed acceptable by people who are philosophically and emotionally committed to atheism. The insistence is, essentially, “Prove yourself on our terms”; which is, essentially, a justification for the fixed intention to disbelieve. God didn’t take that from the Pharisees, and there’s no reason to think he has any interest in taking it from the scientific community, either. One suspects he probably has that in common with the aliens, if there are any.

A brilliant parody of scientism

courtesy of that consistently brilliant parodist, John Cleese—who truly is, as my wife says, at the top of his form with this one. (Scientism, if anyone is wondering, is the dogmatic faith in science which folks like Richard Dawkins use to replace faith in God.)

The great thing about Cleese, evident here, is his unflagging willingness to skewer everybody, including himself and those with whom he agrees. For an instructive comparison, check out Christopher Hitchens’ biting critique in the latest Atlantic of folks like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Al Franken, who (though they consider themselves satirists) are unwilling to do so.

The moon is a harsh mistress

so said Robert Heinlein; forty years ago today, the human race took the first giant leap toward finding out if he was right.

Then five more landings, 10 more moonwalkers and, in the decades since, nothing. . . .

America’s manned space program is in shambles. Fourteen months from today, for the first time since 1962, the United States will be incapable not just of sending a man to the moon but of sending anyone into Earth orbit. We’ll be totally grounded. We’ll have to beg a ride from the Russians or perhaps even the Chinese.

Maybe I read too much science fiction, but I agree with Charles Krauthammer: that’s a crying shame. It marks, I think, a grand failure of vision, imagination, and nerve on the part of this country.

So what, you say? Don’t we have problems here on Earth? Oh, please. Poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us. If we’d waited for them to be rectified before venturing out, we’d still be living in caves.

Yes, we have a financial crisis. No one’s asking for a crash Manhattan Project. All we need is sufficient funding from the hundreds of billions being showered from Washington—”stimulus” monies that, unlike Eisenhower’s interstate highway system or Kennedy’s Apollo program, will leave behind not a trace on our country or our consciousness—to build Constellation and get us back to Earth orbit and the moon a half-century after the original landing.

I can’t imagine a better stimulus than to crank up the space program once again; not only would it stimulate the economy by creating lots of new high-paying jobs, it would also stimulate the national spirit. I wasn’t around for the first missions to the moon; I’d love to have a chance to see the new ones.

Someone who was, Joyce over at tallgrassworship, illustrates the very real significance of those missions, posting on her childhood memories of the Apollo 11 landing. I can understand the awe she reflects; even forty years later, watching the videos, it comes through.

Just for fun, here’s a map NASA produced overlaying the Apollo 11 expedition’s exploration of the lunar surface on a baseball diamond (HT: Graham MacAfee):

Clearing out the links drawer

Here are a few things I’ve been meaning to get around to posting on (for quite a while—I think I ran across all of these back in March) that just aren’t likely to get their own posts at this point; so I’ll toss them out for your interest, and if I ever do get around to putting up a longer post on any of them, well, the duplication won’t hurt anything.

Beryllium 10 and climate
The science in this is not immediately transparent to the non-specialist, but it’s interesting evidence that climate change is far more about what the sun does than about CO2.

A Dozen Sayings of Jesus That Will Change the World—If Christians Ever Believe Them
Dan Edelen’s always challenging—sometimes problematically so; this is a post that ought to make Christians in this country uncomfortable.

Generational Disconnect
Chaille Brindley has put his finger on a real need in the American church.

Anatomy of an Internet Joke
I think this post by James Wallace Harris fits very well with Brindley’s comments.