Archive for the ‘ Religion ’ Category

Future History: Apocalypse Then

End of the world predictions and scenarios abound, we have always been fascinated with our own demise it seems. Last year I covered the predictions of Harold Camping and the relatively small following he had in his advertising the apocalypse campaign.

This year we have the Mayans to blame and it’s rather more wide spread than a few eccentric Camping followers. In my previous post I essentially put together and End of the World retrospective, surveying a small number of past predictions that failed. This time showcase the many predictions that still lie in our future.

Behold the Future History of the Apocalypse!

[Edit] I tested the Vodpod code on the Sciblogs platform and it didn’t work but the syndicated version does. If you still have trouble viewing then go Here  or Here to see the timeline.

NB. Where I couldn’t find or couldn’t be bothered looking for exact dates 1-January was substituted. Click the individual events to find the person who predicted it, move the sliders at the bottom to zoom in and out of timeframes.

Timeline Key:

Sources are given by letters, links below or can be copied from the timeline with a right click.

ABHOTA , AV  , MB , CoB , RT , L , WZ

Sources are of varying veracity and humour.

What I found interesting was the fact that the dates are mostly clustered in the period covering the next 40 years or so. Further, about 40% (9 events) occur within the next 10 years. This matches with data showing that a significant number of Christians (in America at least) believe that the second coming will occur in their own lifetime.

It’s a point I made in the previous post, but it is not a little disturbing that many people who ridicule putting a date on the “End Times” don’t do so because they think it’s not going to happen but because they think it’s a “mystery”. An interesting research project might be whether this propensity to feel the end of the world is nigh is a general human condition or a feature of religious individuals in particular. Presumably there is some innate propensity there that religious traditions use.

Anyway, plenty of opportunities for End of the World parties ahead! YAY!

[EDIT 3/05/12: I have just learned of another End of the World Event (a EWE if you will), this will be a combo of nuclear war and second coming of Jesus. Quite economical really. If I may indulge myself, a quote from the page:

"When I began writing posts for this site, I initially envisioned the possible need of writing more often, primarily due to our preparing for the possibility of “great tribulation” beginning at the very start of this final three and one-half year period. However, great physical tribulation did not begin at that time, and it thankfully has not yet begun. So the need to write more often in order to help people deal with tribulation that could have begun early on has not been needed. But rather, in the midst of horrifying prophecies for this end-time, God has revealed in a most powerful manner one of His greatest attributes toward His creation—toward mankind. It is the awesome quality of “mercy”!"

I'm not sure why this guy has put mercy in scare quotes but it is coincidental that God's "mercy" looks exactly like nothing happening at all. Looks to me like a built in excuse when the end of the world fizzles. More economy, handy that. Via UnreasonableFaith]

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God, UFOs, Life After Death: What do New Zealanders Believe?

Reading the paper today I learned that 1/3 of New Zealanders believe that we have been visited by extra terrestrials. I thought this was an interesting juxtaposition of stories given that a page or two later there was a report about a possibly habitable planet. Maybe aliens are visiting us from Kepler-22b.

Keplerites aside, I decided to look up the report from UMR Research about the beliefs of my fellow citizens.

The report makes for interesting reading (if somewhat disconcerting in places) and I’ll be looking for the follow-up reports around Maori culture and Herbal remedies. The first thing to note is that this was an on-line survey, so right off we should be wary about how representative these findings are of the general population. In that vein there was some attempt to make the results as representative as possible with quotas and weighting of responses. I couldn’t find details of how this was carried out so with that in mind do take the results with a grain of salt.

One of the first things that jumped out at me was how uncertain people were regarding their answers. The questions seems to have 4 possible answers for both the affirmative and negative, from Absolutely Certain through Fairly Certain, Not Too Certain and Not At All Certain.

So while 61% believe “That there is a God or some sort of universal spirit” only 28% are absolutely certain of this. If we lump in the fairly certains then it goes to 41% (from now on I’ll consider both groups to make up the “Certain” category). Compared to 38% who don’t believe (27% of who are certain-ish). 38% non-believers in NZ. It’s difficult to compare data sets but this appears to be up somewhat from ~34% (depending on how you count) religiously unaffiliated at the 2006 Census.

57% of us believe that there is life after death. 32% are certain. 31% are certain this isn’t the case. 55% of us believe in psychic powers, 27% are certain; 27% are certain that they don’t exist.

Now we get to the headline grabbing UFO question. 33% believe we have been or are being visited. How many are certain? 11%.

That’s a bit of a relief.

Then there’s Astrology. 24% think there is something to that malarkey. Only 6% are certain though. Whew…That’s lucky. Still, those horoscopes are everywhere.

It seems that the hardcore believers tend to only make up a minority of the population, even for the mainstream beliefs. With the more mainstream the belief the more evenly spilt the believers and non-believers. i call that interesting. As well as somewhat heartening.

The report breaks down the results further into gender and ethnic responses but I’m happy with looking at the top level stuff here. Check it out to see how women answered differently than men and how ethnicities are split between the different questions.

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Thoughts About Taniwhas

This is probably a very ill considered post. I do feel compelled to write something on this subject however.

Today in the NZ Herald Kepa Morgan has a piece relating why we should listen when Maori raise concerns regarding respect for the traditional dwelling places of Taniwha. I think he raises a very good point that the imagery of Taniwha may be used in place of real and complex issues that may impact any proposed civil engineering project. Unfortunately I disagree that this means that any concerns must therefore be automatically be taken seriously and addressed.

Mr Morgan raises valid points about subsequent real damage that might have afflicted the State Highway that was re-routed due to a Taniwha and actual damage sustained by the Ngawha Prison complex. In each case though this is post hoc reasoning – in hindsight we should have listened to these concerns because something bad happened after we did or didn’t.

This has no bearing in the legitimacy of the claims as they were stated at the time, or in the current case. Yes, the Taniwha may represent potential material issues that affect building projects but framing the issues in this way adds absolutely nothing to the discussion. We could substitute any number of supernatural beings into the claim, such as fairies  or leprechauns or even gremlins[1] and the informational content would remain unchanged.

Were the claims to be brought forward in terms that civil engineers could understand and address then we could engage in a ration discussion about the pros and cons of proceeding as planed. As it stands, this is impossible. We can either accept the claims at face value and bow to, at best, poorly articulated real concerns and at worst blind superstition. Or we can carry on oblivious and be labelled culturally insensitive.

Neither of these options appear particularly enticing to me.

Kepa observes:

“If the initiative had allowed a more thorough investigation of tangata whenua concerns, it is possible the current situation may have been avoided. “

I agree, in theory. In practice though how much effort should be expended investigating these concerns from every possible angle without any supporting evidence or even any suggestion of where we should focus our attention?

Further he notes:

“…in most cases the information that engineers are relying on to make decisions is incomplete and fallible.

Therefore it is prudent to take into account all sources of knowledge, rather than assuming that a poorly informed mono-cultural understanding of an issue is the only one that really matters. “

Again, agreed – but how do vague concerns about a mythical creature increase the amount of knowledge engineers have to work with?

Cultural sensitivity is not my strong suit[2], but it seems to me such issues need to be moved past before a truly productive and mutually respectful dialogue can take place.

Or I could be wrong.[3]


1. Where’s William Shatner when you need him?

2. Heck, I don’t even care about my “own” culture, whatever that is.

3. Please school me, I readily admit these things often pass me by.

[Edit: Just noticed that the wrong link was put in, the wordpress link dialog has been causing  me issues. Apologies]

It’s the End of the World as we Know it and I Feel Fine

By now you will have probably heard that this Saturday (21-May-2011 for future historians) is the beginning of the end, the Rapture. Don’t panic*, please conduct yourselves in an orderly manner at the appointed time. I recommend congregating in open spaces with no overhead power lines or air traffic. Safety first[1].

Ok that’s enough fun. I have seen a number of stories[2] regarding this alleged event and while many make note of the fact that the main promoter of this year’s doomsday has been wrong before I have not yet seen anyone attempt to put this latest foretelling in historical context. By one estimate there have been at least 275 end of the world predictions in the last two thousand years. 116 of those were predicted for the years 2000 to 2010[3].

That’s a whole lot of wrongness right there. Those guys couldn’t have been more wrong if their name was W. Wrongy Wrongenstein.

One of the more remembered failed apocalypses was the one predicted by William Miller for 1843. Offshoots of this group became the Seventh-day Adventist Church once the predicted day came and went without incident.

While that is a memorable one in “recent” times, end of the world predictions go back to the first century. The writings attributed to Paul the Apostle, if read literally, imply that the end of the world would occur sometime in the first century[4]. At least within the writer’s lifetime. As this obviously didn’t happen room was left for subsequent predictive hopefuls to insert their own dates for the apocalypse.

Here is a (small) sampling:

  • Pope Clement I predicts the world could end at any time ~90CE
  • Sextus Julius Africanus predicts Armageddon for 500CE
  • John of Toledo Predicts the end of the world in 1186CE
  • Pope Innocent III thinks the last date is 1284CE
  • Gerard of Poehlde predicts the end of the world date to be 1306CE
  • Melchior Hoffman thinks the real date is 1533CE
  • Benjamin Keach put’s his money on 1689
  • Charles Wesley (one of the founders of Methodism) goes for 1794CE as the date.
  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses First predicted 1914 as the date to remember[5].
  • Pat Robertson predicted 1982. This and other failed predictions do not seem to have dimmed his popularity in some circles.
  • Peter Ruckman (an Independent Baptist Pastor) calculated the date to be around 1990-ish. Other than that he is a completely reliable source.
  • The year 2000 alone had about 32 predictions of the “End Times” to contend with[6]. We’re lucky to have made it out of that year alive. Or not.

Most disturbing is the number of Americans who believe that we are actually are living in the end times. This specific prediction is laughed off as being naive or false teachings but the concept itself is embraced. Harold Camping may be ridiculed but the only thing that is fringe about his beliefs is that he dares put a date on them. Now that’s scary stuff right there. Think about that and try not to have your opinion of humanity lowered just a little.

Quite frankly, when I decided a few of weeks ago to post about this near the date predicted I had no idea that this would be taken up by the media to such an extent. Just goes to show; any crazy thing can be news worthy – given a low enough threshold of “news”.

Still, some good may come of all this hysteria. If we take the opportunity. If some research psychologists out there are willing to exploit the disappointment that is bound to strike the adherents of this belief we may gain some insight into the workings of the human mind. While it may seem like there is no overlap between you and those that hold the Earth to be ending soon the mechanisms that they use to deal with the eventual disillusionment are the same that help you function in everyday life.

The extreme case may illuminate the more mundane.

Everyday we must reconcile the actions we take with the self image we have created. Sometimes this is easy, I’m a good person so I help out my co-workers when they are having trouble. Sometimes we run into difficulty; I’m honest but I also lied to my mother about being busy so I didn’t have to attend that awkward family thing. Discrepancies like this can cause us discomfort – this is referred to as Cognitive Dissonance[7]. In this case we come up with personal stories that explain to ourselves why we acted in  a manor inconsistent with our self image.

Those who wake up May 22nd to the realization that they are still here will have to do some fancy mental footwork to fit their belief in a failed prediction into the image of themselves as intelligent, rational people. Rich fodder for investigation into the human psyche.

Now I’ve had a bit of fun at the expense of this belief but I want to point out that these people are not objects for our amusement. In some cases on May 22nd there are going to be individuals who realize that their lives are ruined. No jobs, no money and families to support. Those who propagate damaging ideologies such as this have some responsibility towards those whose lives they destroy.

By some estimates[8] Harold Camping’s media empire is in control of millions of dollars worth of assets. How much of this will nice old Mr Camping be willing to part with in order to help those who have lost everything because they trusted him?

The depressing part is that the inevitable failure of this prophecy will have absolutely no impact on those who fancy themselves end of the world prognosticators. People will continue to generate beliefs based on untestable propositions. Those people will continue to influence others to their detriment. Post non-rapture the world will go on and with regard to con-men and scam artists (sincere and otherwise alike) it will be SSDD.



*Sorry Douglass.

Verse 17

2. Like here or here or here.

about half way down. This is likely to be a low estimate.


5. The Witnesses have turned end of the world predictions into something of a cottage industry having at least 9 different dates for the last days.


7. I cannot recommend Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts” Highly enough for a look at our inner justifications.


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Miracles: What Do We Mean?

Have you ever described an event as miraculous? Perhaps it was a near-miss accident, recovery from an illness or some other fortuitous moment in your life. Did you stop to consider what you meant by that description or did or roll off your tongue like so many other cultural conventions, without a second thought?

One of the reasons I write this blog1 is to allow people the opportunity to examine the world and themselves in more detail and more reflectively than they might ordinarily be inclined to do. In this I have largely attempted to do so using science directly, by showing research that reveals facts about ourselves and the world around us that are not necessarily intuitively obvious (such as biases in our reasoning).

I thought I would deviate from the strictly scientific today to discuss miracles, especially the depiction of miracles in the media and what is really meant when we resort to the designation of “miracle” in describing events.

Recently I have started reading popular philosophy books, trying to be a well rounded person or something, or possibly just so I sound intelligent at parties2. I may delve a little bit into philosophy here but hopefully can keep it light enough that you won’t even notice.

One of the books on my reading list brought up the concept of miracles and attempted to outline the different definitions that are attached to this word3. This sparked in me a thought about how the word is used by those around me, in the general population these multiple versions of the meaning get seem to get merged into an amorphous description that verges on meaninglessness.

Many of the definitions of the word that I could find invoked some sort of supernatural component, in particular the assertion that such an event contravenes the laws of nature. By this criteria I have never witnessed, nor seen credible reports of a single miracle, yet I hear the word used all the time4. How can we reconcile how the word is defined and how it is used?

Let us note one instance of the (over)use of this word, last year when an aeroplane crash landed in the Hudson river after hitting a flock of birds soon after take off the event was labelled a miracle. Currently no fewer than ten news stories with the word “miracle” in the title are listed in the Wikipedia article about this event and I suspect there are many more not mentioned. This seems to be the type of event that attracts exclamations of “Miracle” yet if we delve into the details there is no point at which we can reliably determine that the laws of nature have been suspended or otherwise altered to allow the final outcome.

If we are committed to the definition that for a miracle to have occurred the laws of nature must be violated then this event does not qualify.

Of the multiple meanings that I mentioned above it would appear the most frequently used makes the word “miracle” synonymous with “unlikely coincidence”. This though is insufficient to describe what most people would consider to be miracles as it ignores whether or not an event has any beneficial consequences, so lets add that requirement into our ad hoc definition.

The trouble with this definition is that it leaves us unable to determine what we might term “True Miracles” from merely random (beneficial) occurrences. Especially in as much as, like the Hudson river crash above, said miracles have no religious significance5. This pre-supposes however that we would wish to make such a distinction, if (as I suspect) our use of the word actually no-longer assumes the intervention of supernatural forces then our definition of “True Miracles” becomes superfluous, no different than what we might consider a regular miracle.

In this case the word simply becomes short hand for an amazing6 coincidence that is of benefit to a person or persons7. It would then seem that our definition of miracle actually stems from our own inability to sufficiently appreciate how probability acts in our lives. How many of us are in a position to calculate how probable any particular event is? Our normal day-to-day experience is a poor guide regarding this but if we cannot perform the calculation then by what basis do we conclude that an event is likely or unlikely?

I will readily admit that musings like this are have little practical significance but I think are still worth considering in order to develop for ourselves a more consistent and precise outlook. I hope that there are others beside myself that also see value in this.


1. In general not this particular entry.

2. Who am I kidding? I don’t go to parties.

3. The definitions were broken down into 4: a) Violation miracles where the laws of nature are violated; b) Willed miracles where miracles occur via an act of a supreme being’s will; c) Inexplicable miracles where the event is unexplainable via the laws of nature though does not necessarily violate them; and finally d) Coincidence miracles, as discussed in this article.
See Nicholas Everitt’s “The Non-Existence of God” p112-ish.

4. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but certainly more often than my experience tells me it should be used.

5. Try putting the word “miracle” into google news and see how many look explicitly religious.

6. Or not so amazing, depending on your point of view.

7. Miracle is definitely easier to say, though it does leave us open to misinterpretation by those who apply a more strict definition of the word than we do.

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Intelligent Design Flaws: The Evidence for Natural Selection in Our DNA

Here in New Zealand the debate between religion and evolution is a muted affair, while news on the topic regularly makes headlines in the US, here it goes almost beneath notice. That is not to say the clash does not exist here, merely that it tends not to intrude into the public sphere. Over time the form of the argument has changed but at its heart the source of the conflict has remained the same, discoveries in science have unseated the traditional view of a divinely created world in which Humans are the pinnacle of creation.

At this point I would like to make it clear that the findings of science are not incompatible with such a view.  Even so, to accommodate the conclusions of scientific enquiries into nature certain tenets that were previously held to be literal truths (such as 7 day creation) must be reinterpreted symbolically. As in any human endeavour there exists a spectrum of approaches to the religious significance of science’s discoveries. To some, science represents the deepest truth we can know about the world, provisional as it may be, and as such must also inform the religious outlook. For others revealed scripture is the ultimate authority and where this disagrees with science, well, so much the worse for science. Most people fall somewhere between these two extremes.

I seldom wade directly into this debate but recently came across a paper that outlines some of the peculiarities to be found in our genome (in particular but multicellular life in general) which was framed in the context of refuting design. The paper is “Footprints of Nonsentient Design Inside the Human Genome” written by John C. Avise and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Before getting to the crux of his argument Avise spends some time to give a brief history of three concepts that have a bearing on the discussion of design in nature. Touching on Socrates, Reverend William Paley’s famous work “Natural Theology” and Darwin’s own thoughts on the topic Avise gives a primer on how the natural world was considered in pre-Darwin times. From here we move onto the rise of modern Creationism and Intelligent Design, charting it’s progression from the early 1980s to the more recent strategy of proposing the concept of “Irreducible Complexity“.

Finally there is a similarly brief sketch of Theodicy, or the attempt to reconcile the existence suffering in the world with the traditional view of an all-powerful and all-loving deity (if you are playing charades I recommend doing “sounds like” and then try acting out Odysseus’ journey following the fall of Troy). This last seems somewhat out of place in a paper such as this but the relevance becomes clear once the author begins to expound on the multitude of human ailments that are the result of imperfections in the architecture and the replicating processes of our genome.

The numbers involved and breadth of disease in this section are truly staggering, to quote from the paper itself:

Various mutations are known to debilitate the nervous system, liver, pancreas, bones, eyes, ears, skin, urinary and reproductive tracts, endocrine system, blood and other features of the circulatory system, muscles, joints, dentition, immune system, digestive tract, limbs, lungs, and almost any other body part you can name.

In covering the various methods we use to keep track of genetic diseases, one of which being the reference text “Mendelian Inheritance in Man” Avise notes that “the current version of which describes thousands of human genes, of which more than 75% are documented to carry mutational defects associated with a disease condition.” and concerning another effort at documentation the “Human Genome Mutation Database” states “recent versions of which describe more than 75,000 different disease-causing mutations identified to date“.

After all of this preamble we finally get to the design flaws we have been promised, the first being “Split Genes”. Here is where things get technical. A quick “Genetics 101″, while we may think of genes as being discrete entities in our cells that code for the proteins making up our bodies, one gene to one protein, things are actually a lot more complicated. What actually occurs for many genes is a long stretch of DNA, some of which is needed for the gene and some of which isn’t. These parts are called Exons (needed bits) and Introns (extra bits), imagine reading Harry Potter and finding someone had randomly glued in pages from the dictionary. This means each time our cells want to make a new copy of a protein the extra bits need to be chopped out and the needed bits stitched back together first.

This process is both wasteful (unnecessary copying and fixing of the gene coding regions) and harmful, to quote once again:

“An astonishing discovery is that a large fraction (perhaps one-third) of all known human genetic disorders is attributable in at least some clinical cases to mutational blunders in how premRNA molecules are processed”

Next up is is a section discussing gene regulation and surveillance of errors. I have to say, this part is too complicated for me to parse ant this late hour. So I’ll leave that one for the adventuresome. Suffice it to say that the regulation (turning genes on and off) and copying of our genes is a complicated and error prone business, too much so if we are to consider it the perfect solution to the problem of creating human life.

The next stop on our curious ride is the mitochondria, or more specifically mitochondrial DNA. You may recall the oft repeated refrain that the mitochondria is the “powerhouse of the cell”, not to be confused with midichlorians which mediate the power of the Force. The mitochondria contain the reactions that allow us to extract energy from our food, without them you would die in very short order. It is one of the more intriguing facts about our cells that the mitochondria are equipped with their own DNA, and yet this DNA does not contain all of the information required to carry out the life giving energy reactions, it is supplemented by the DNA contained in the nucleus of the cell, your genomic DNA. Not only this but the interior of the mitochondria is a poor place to keep DNA, it is after all where energetic reactions are being carried out and toxic waste products are produced. Would you keep a valuable library in a working furnace?

These facts are all but inexplicable (and a great many more are mentioned in the paper) by appeal to a perfect designer but they are relatively easily dealt with via the paradigm that mitochondria are the remnants of a symbiotic bacteria. One which long ago insinuated itself into our cells and over the millennia has shed much of it’s own genome while housed in it’s comfortable new habitat. An analogy might be the loss of certain mathematical abilities in modern students who rely on electronic devices to to the hard work of calculation for them.

The paper goes on to deal with repeating sections of DNA, the existence of duplicated genes and pseudogenes and roving DNA that copies itself around the genome. But you can read about those for yourself, this post is already more than typically verbose. I would just like to sum up with the final hopeful run-on sentence (cousins of which plague my own writing) of the author:

“The evolutionary-genetic sciences thus can help religions to escape from the profound conundrums of ID, and thereby return religion to its rightful realm—not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence but, rather, as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters, including ethics and morality, the soul, spiritualness, sacredness, and other such matters that have always been of ultimate concern to humanity.”

Not exactly an uncontroversial sentiment itself.

Avise, J. (2010). Colloquium Paper: Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (Supplement_2), 8969-8976 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0914609107

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Intelligence, Monogamy and Journalistic Licence
Last week news came out about a study linking intelligence with liberal attitudes and atheistic beliefs, oh and in men an increased tendency for monogamy. Today I read the NZ Herald‘s short take on the study, a semi-chauvinistic piece pointing out how we evolved intelligent men can think our way to monogamy while those sexually immoral women can’t. I felt just a little dirty reading it. Ok, perhaps it isn’t really that bad but having being familiar with the study before reading the story that’s how it stuck me.

The full published study is locked behind Social Psychology Quarterly’s pay wall but the lead author, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, rather nicely provides copies of his papers on his own website. I like him already. The paper, rather provocatively called “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent.”, discusses a concept Kanazawa calls the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis. Essentially this states that our behaviours were shaped by our evolutionary past and that intelligence may allow us to adapt these behaviours and introduce new behaviours that are “evolutionarily novel”. In this scenario general intelligence (IQ) evolved as a mechanism by which we could adapt to novel situations that our genes alone had not equipped us to deal with.

To investigate this principle three types of evolutionarily novel behaviours/values were examined to determine if there was any correlation with intelligence. To wit the behaviours looked at were liberalism, atheism and monogamy. Throughout the paper the relation of monogamy to men as being evolutionarily novel specifically excludes women, not because women’s behaviour in this regard cannot be moderated by intelligence but because monogamy is not a novel concept for women. In our evolutionary past women (according to the hypothesis) would always have been more monogamous and so this would be classed as an evolutionarily familiar strategy which does not require higher intelligence to change thus the prediction that intelligence would not be correlated with greater monogamy in women where it would be in men.

In fact multiple studies have already shown that across cultures women tend to be more monogamous so what this study implies is that men have to be more intelligent (in order to overcome our stupid genes) just to get on a par with women. Frankly though this is the least interesting part of the study. More fascinating (though also more potentially inflammatory) is the association of intelligence with liberal and atheistic modes of thought. For the purposes of the study Kanazawa simplified the definition of liberalism to:

“the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others.”

Stated in this way the concept actually looks a little unfamiliar to me as well as my hypothetical ancestor. But if I consider it for a while I can squint my eyes and see it as encompassing most of those values I generally lump together as being liberal. In any case Kanazawa’s argument boils down to the conjecture that our ancestors would not have lived in societies in which we would have been surrounded by large numbers of unrelated individuals such as we are now. In this case they would not have had much incentive to develop behaviours which valued unrelated strangers as much as ourselves, in fact I could see this sort of behaviour as actually being detrimental.

This may explain why liberal people are more intelligent than their conservative counterparts but it does not address the question as to why intelligence might lead to the adoption of these principles, why aren’t we just more intelligent conservatives? What’s so great about being liberal?

The question might be slightly clearer in the case of atheistic beliefs as those that espouse this point of view tend to make it into an argument about truth. Certainly there must be an advantage to knowing the truth about the world around us but how this might relate to a more or less abstract truth such as the existence or absence of a deity is not obvious. I would be interested to see if intelligence is more highly correlated with believing more concrete truths about the world independent of actual scientific training (which presupposes that the beliefs formed about the world in this fashion are approaching trueness).

Fun as these topics maybe to speculate about it’s difficult to say how much these sorts of studies tell us about the evolutionary origins of particular behaviours as I have seen in comments to this study elsewhere it smacks of just so stories. I’m not an evolutionary psychologist so I’d rather stay away from interpretation in this vein but perhaps we would do well to take any conclusions with a grain of salt, especially if those conclusions are what we want to hear.

Kanazawa, S. (2010). Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent Social Psychology Quarterly DOI: 10.1177/0190272510361602

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Backing Up Evolution

I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again but we know science works because it makes predictions that we can then measure against the universe and determine if the models we have created to describe it are accurate or not. One of the more successful models is the theory of evolution by natural selection. A criticism levelled against the theory of evolution by detractors is the claim that new information can not be introduced into the system, only taken away. This is actually false but lets consider how we might tackle this question scientifically

First, the underlying assumption here isn’t unreasonable, let’s explore it. The accepted mechanism of introducing change in an organism, change that natural selection can then act upon, is mutation. Mutations involve a mistake in the copying of an organism’s DNA, this might consist of a change in a single base of a gene (an insertion of an extra base, deletion of an existing base or swapping one base for another) or it might involve large stretches of DNA. The basic principle that is relevant here is the same, a change is made to the blueprints of life in our cells.

As you might expect there are many more ways of being wrong than there are of being right, any random change is more likely to introduce a defect in the complicated machinery of life than it is to create an improvement (bearing in mind that “improvement” is a value judgement that really cannot be applied here but don’t focus on the wrong part of the story). So on the surface it would seem that random change is very definitely a bad thing, mutations would likely lead to loss of gene function, and by extension, loss of information and specifically death of the individual.

How might evolution get around such a problem? One solution would be to make copies of critical genes, this way is one copy is damaged through mutation the other can still function and produce a viable organism. The “spare” gene would then be free to mutate and the resulting gene may be selected for or against by natural selection (or human breeders).

If you have been reading closely you will have picked up on our prediction, the genomes of organisms should contain copies of various genes that allow mutations to occur without harming the individual that accumulates them. It turns out this is exactly what we find.  A recent study found a significant amount of redundancy in the genome of Zebrafish which allows mutations to occur in genes critical to development without lethal consequences to the fish.

The researchers intentionally gave mutagens to populations of Zebrafish and looked for changes in fish morphology indicative of mutations. In particular they created a mutation that lead to the loss of most of the fish’s scales, similar to that of Mirror Carp. The mutation was traced to a gene critical to normal development, further investigation revealed that the gene existed as a redundant pair, only one of which being required for normal development.

It is tempting to talk about this phenomenon in terms of intention, the gene was duplicated so that it could mutate and provide raw material for evolution. This is a mistake however, evolution can not move towards any putative desired future state. the genes that are duplicated in this way will be random and the mutations that affect the genes will be equally random, there are likely many genes in the Zebrafish that are not duplicated and would cause death to the individual if they were to change. This does not detract from the fact that a proposed mechanism for introducing new information into an organisms genome has proven correct.

Science is Awesome.

Beware the Demons!!!!!*

Catching up on blogs from over the weekend this one on the Center For Inquiry blog particularly stood out in the category of conspicuous displays of crazy. Beware of demons in your Halloween treats. I try not to do posts that are just “Look at this other Blog” but this one was too good.

*And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head.’Terry Pratchett,Maskerade

Evolution Survey

Just a quick post to spread the word about a survey covering the public acceptance of evolution in New Zealand and the effect (if any) of religious/spiritual beliefs on the the extent to which evolution is accepted in the wider community. The survey can be found Here, and the results will be presented around November 2009.

The survey is being conducted by Drs Marc Wilson and Peter Ritchie of Victoria University in Wellington. I hope to secure an interview with the two Drs closer to the release of the data to get their views on the implication of the findings. In the mean time go participate in the survey, it will only take a few minutes and will be time well spent.

Matthias Rath – steal this chapter

A longer post than usual, luckily I didn’t have to write it. This post was written by Ben Goldacre of Bad Science blog fame, enjoy.

This is an extract from
BAD SCIENCE by Ben Goldacre
Published by Harper Perennial 2009.

You are free to copy it, paste it, bake it, reprint it, read it aloud, as long as you don’t change it – including this bit – so that people know that they can find more ideas for free at


The Doctor Will Sue You Now

This chapter did not appear in the original edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath was suing me personally, and the Guardian, for libel. This strategy brought only mixed success. For all that nutritionists may fantasise in public that any critic is somehow a pawn of big pharma, in private they would do well to remember that, like many my age who work in the public sector, I don’t own a flat. The Guardian generously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hopefully follow.  Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents.

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(Edit: For those interested in the toxic components of the vaccine please look here.)

Recently I  read a letter in a New Zealand paper decrying the widespread acceptance of the new HPV vaccine Gardasil. The letter contained references to suitably scary statistics from a impressive sounding report, in it it was claimed that Gardasil had contributed to the deaths of 18 people and had over 8000 reports of harm due to the administering of the vaccine. The letter ended with the sentence “This vaccine is essentially a large-scale, public health experiment. With doubt about its safety and efficacy, my daughters will not be getting it.”  I thought it might be useful to provide some information that casts a little more light on the situation, the statistics used in the letter and information on efficacy.

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Why should we \”Go\” anywhere when we die?

The following post is an attempt to explain my own views on death, if your existential sensibilities are easily offended stop reading now…….otherwise, read on.

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Chilling Research

Recently a study was published on the free science journal site PLoSmedicine that looked at the effect of political climate and controversy on scientific research. In particular this study investigated the effect on research regarding sexual behaviour, during 2003 more than 200 NIH-funded grants, most of which examined behaviours that affect the spread of HIV/AIDS came under attack as being “much less worthy of taxpayer funding” than research on “devastating diseases”. I would just like to note that none of the studies that had their funding subsequently reviewed lost their funding, so the controversy was not directly halting research, but it did have an effect.

So what kind of effects did it have? in this study multiple consequences were found, from simply removing potentially controversial words from grants to the extreme – leaving the research for more secure positions. Such self-censuring tactics were employed by close to half of the respondents in the survey sent out as part of the study. While some may see this as simply the price of doing science in the current political climate I see it as a disturbing precedent where political ideologies, independent of whether they have any scientific validity, are influencing the kind and quality of research being performed. This seems to be to be a first baby step towards the kind of society where scientists must carefully proscribe their activities to avoid harmful repercussions.

What other practices did the researchers engage in to avoid the notice of ideologues? Approximately 7% of those who responded reported that they changed the focus of studies in order to be less politically damaging, for instance studying sexual health in monogamous, heterosexual couples rather than single individuals who were considered to have more fringe preferences. Possibly more concerning a larger percentage (17%) actually discontinued studies they thought were politically “non-viable”. It’s not all doom and gloom however, approximately half of the scientists surveyed declared that no amount of controversy would discourage them from continuing their research and 37% felt pride at their inclusion on the list of studies to be reviewed and several researchers considered their role in the affair to be a “badge of honour”.

Resources - Article showing where State approved censureship can lead, even in the modern world.

Alison Campbell Interview

Time for another awesome interview, this time with someone outside of showbiz…

As a resident of New Zealand I am naturally interested in the education of my country and especially how science fairs in the education arena and what sort of competition it has to deal with. To this end I sought to interview a local academic regarding these topics. I could not have done better than Dr. Alison Campbell, biology Lecturer at the University of Waikato in Hamilton. Alison not only runs a science themed blog but also has a hand in the Cafe Scientifique casual public science forum and aided in the writing of the revised New Zealand Science Curriculum. Without further ado, here is my interview with Alison:

[Scepticon]First off, you post a daily blog, BioBlog, hosted on the University of Waikato site, could you briefly describe the sorts of topics you write about?

[AlisonCampbell]Pretty much whatever takes my fancy – but I do have some limits! I originally began blogging because it seemed a good way to improve the support available to students sitting the Scholarship examinations (intended for top students in their final year of secondary school), & so that’s what guided what I was doing. I wrote about how to prepare for exams, why Scholarship is hard work, things like that, & also started reviewing & summarising new stories in the literature, because students at this level are expected to have quite a broad general subject knowledge.

And I talk a bit about university life, because that’s where most of these kids are headed. And also give them a bit of a feel for what I do – I want them to see me as a person, not some faceless academic in an office somewhere. I would hope that that last thing also says something about the uni in general, in the sense that its staff are real, approachable people who do actually have a life outside the ivory tower :-)

I’ve also got into writing the occasional post about what I’m reading – I love books & want to share that & let people know about good popular science books. And I also have a go at pseudoscience (& how the media deal with it) from time to time. This is partly because I’d hope that doing this will help with the Schol students’ need to develop better critical thinking skills – but also because I’m really bothered by what I see as a quite widespread & uncritical acceptance of pseudoscience in the wider community.

The limits to all this are what I impose on myself – they’re not laid down by the University. I’m very aware that what I do does offer a public face for the uni & so I don’t write anything that would reflect badly on it – no bad language or things like that. But also, I know where my strengths lie & I’m not about to start pontificating about things on which I know absolutely nothing!

[S]I understand you helped set up the new science curriculum for schools, how detailed is the curriculum and what sort of process is undertaken in it’s creation?

[AC]The new Science curriculum document is much less detailed than the one it replaces. The ‘old’ one contained quite a lot of detail, including suggestions on what students could be doing to learn about a particular topic, & how teachers could assess this. There’s nothing like that in the ‘new’ one, which sets out some very broad guidelines about key concepts at each level but leaves it to schools & teachers to flesh out the details.

It had a robust development process with a lot of consultation, & I think does reflect the outcomes of that consultation fairly well. And one of the things that I really really like about the science document is that for the first time it places understanding of the nature of science right out there at the top of things. Previously this was a ‘strand’ that was supposed to be interwoven with the ‘subject’ strands (physics, chem, & so on) & as a result often got overlooked in practice. But now students from new entrants up are expected to learn something about what science is, what sets it apart from other ways of ‘knowing’ about the world, how people do science, how to communicate & participate in science. That’s a big achievement & an essential one, given that the need for a scientifically-literate society is so pressing.

[S]Where there any points of contention with the curriculum where you felt the science needed to be defended from ideological pressure?

[AC]Evolution :-) The ‘pressure’ was in the form of feedback during the consultation process, some of it quite well organised. It wasn’t a problem among the panel, however, although there were concerns about how teachers would deal with the prominence of evolution in the new curriculum. And it is prominent – wasn’t mentioned until year 12 in the old version, but now it’s there from new entrant classes onwards. Tailored for the age & conceptual understanding of the children, but very definitely there.

[S]Concerning the curriculum feedback process and the concerns raised about evolution, was this feedback from teachers regarding broaching the evolution topic in general or were there parents or special interest groups that were actually opposed to the concept?

[AC]There was a bit of concern from teachers, expressed as individual submissions to the curriculum project’s website, mainly to do with dealing with students/communities who opposed the concept. However, there was also at least one special interest group that attempted to organise its members to put in bulk submissions opposed to the extensive profile proposed for evolution. :-)

[S]You have twice been interviewed on national radio with regard to attempts to insert creationism into our schools, in the U.S. there are laws regarding the introduction of religious concepts in the classroom. What safeguards, if any, do we have in New Zealand to ensure only science is taught in science class?

[AC]erm – I’d like to say, the curriculum document, but the ‘old’ one (still in use, the ‘new’ one doesn’t completely kick in until 2010 to give teachers time to develop resources for it) has a few gaping holes in it: it speaks of students learning about the ‘theories’ of how life developed, which leaves the door open for teachers to present the ‘theory’ of intelligent design as if it’s really science. And they would argue that they aren’t teaching a religious concept; after all, it’s a ‘theory’, isn’t it? (Not helped by a couple of confusing pronouncements from Ministry staff, along the lines of ‘you can’t observe evolution in the laboratory’.) Most teachers wouldn’t – but some would. And private schools that get no state funding can pretty much teach what they like, especially to junior students who aren’t preparing for state exams, & so you see schools teaching young-Earth creationism in science class. But I do have to add that these are a minority.

[S]In the U.S. a large proportion of the population do not accept Evolutionary Theory, this gives rise to a “grassroots” resistance to the teaching of evolution in schools. The resistance seems to also come from teachers themselves either through reluctance to be seen to be challenging student beliefs or their own ideological biases. Are these factors we should be concerned about in New Zealand?

[AC]I’m inclined to say ‘yes’. I’ve seen comments from teachers (from Auckland schools) to the effect that they avoid or minimize teaching evolution, simply because they would come up hard against the majority of students in their classrooms. And while I was involved in the curriculum writing group I had teachers saying very similar things; they were a little apprehensive about what implementing the curriculum was going to mean for them.

[S]In your experience how well is science taught in New Zealand? Are our teachers doing a good job of showing students how the enterprise of science works?

[AC]Generally it’s well taught, I think, in the sense that students get a good grounding in a lot of science concepts, & are more & more coming to get an understanding of what science actually is. Unfortunately science is compulsory in secondary schools only until the end of year 10 (4th form), which I think a pity. And I remember seeing an item in the paper a few weeks back where primary students didn’t particularly enjoy science classes (it wasn’t that they weren’t interested in science, but that they felt they weren’t getting enough of what they considered science), which is also a bit of a worry.

[S]If people are concerned about these issues what courses of action are open to them?

[AC]If I had concerns over my own child’s classroom experiences then I’d be inclined to raise them with the classroom teacher in the first instance. Followed by the HoD Science & the principal, in that order. It’s not really something that’s within the ambit of the Board of Trustees (our system being – thankfully! – different from that operating in the US). If it’s something more systemic, then write to the Minister of Education (& the shadow Minister).

[S]You, along with Dr Penelope Cooke and several others developed the Evolution for Teaching website, what prompted this, what are it’s aims and how has it been received?

[AC]The idea was to provide a resource written for New Zealanders that NZ teachers & students could use. Penny & I are both ex-secondary teachers & knew what was (& wasn’t available), and we’d also been encouraged to work on it by teachers. (I need to add that there were two other team members involved, Kathrin Otrel-Cass & Kerry Earl.) It’s been enormously well received, both in NZ & overseas: we get around 400,000 page requests a month from all over the place. And I really must get on to updating it again…

[S]You are also involved in the Cafe Scientifique science “outreach” program, what sort of feedback have you had about this and do you think you get a good cross-section of the community attending or are you “preaching to the converted” in terms of those who are already interested in science.

[AC]Funnily enough we’re just doing a research project at the moment, looking at what the Cafe ‘clients’ think of the evenings (& other things besides, like where they get their science information from). The feedback is generally extremely positive: people like the format, like the variety of speakers & their approachability/accessibility… about the only thing that’s mentioned in a negative way is the venue – it can be noisy in a pub & some of our attendees would like somewhere quieter.

We’ve got a group of regulars – the ones already interested in science – but we get others coming in, particularly when it’s a contentious or topical issue. (About 50% of those who come are involved in science one way or another.)

We also have a website, where we advertise the sessions & also mount the handouts that most of our speakers provide – I know quite a few school teachers use those as a teaching resource.

[S]With regard to the pseudoscience and culture of belief rather than evidence that seems to be growing, what do you consider to be the biggest threat(s) to rationality in New Zealand at the moment?

[AC]That whole thing about all points of view being equally valid. So that when the media run a story on a particular issue, they seem to think it essential that they present ‘both sides of the issue’. Even when, as with evolution, there really is only one side. And the almost universal lack of investigative journalism, at least in regard to science & pseudoscience. For example, take the case of an Auckland school teacher doing a ‘trial’ of the efficacy or otherwise of fish-oil capsules with respect to students’ learning (I blogged on it last week). Totally uncritical coverage in the papers. A couple of people wrote in to the ‘letters’ section of the Herald, pointing out that whatever else was going on, it definitely wasn’t science. And someone else took them to task for being boring old fuddy-duddies who wanted to take all the fun out of school science!

[S]Are there any other topics that you feel are particularly important in education today?

[AC]Some sort of crash-course for journalists?

Not really an education topic – but I’d love to see science receive greater recognition & appreciation in society. I work with the group that selects and trains the NZ team for the International Biology Olympiad competitions. And we do it on the smell of an oily rag: the total estimated costs each year are around $70,000, but we do it on a fraction of that due to donated time & materials, & a lot of fund-raising by the team members. Little or no help from the Ministry of Education, & funding bodies – such as the charitable funding agencies – simply haven’t wanted to know up until now (I understand things have changed somewhat for next year & like the rest of the group, I’m hugely grateful). Yet at the same time they’d give money to send a school sports team away… We seem to place such huge emphasis on sporting success, and yet it’s science & technology that underpin much of our economy. Scepavatarsmall

I would like to thank Alison for taking the time to answer my questions, I hope you enjoyed reading her answers as much as I did.

Read more from Alison at her BioBlog and if you live in the Waikato area check out the Cafe Scientifique home page for more sessions to come in the new year. For more information about student attitudes to science and the New Zealand National Education Monitoring Project Science assessment results visit, and for more on the International Biology Olympiad visit


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