Archive for: December, 2009

When is a science/religion dispute about more than science and religion?

Dec 29 2009 Published by under Church/State

Jason Rosenhouse asks us if we think there's anything wrong with the following sentence, taken from Thomas Dixon's book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction:

Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.

Personally, I'm not actually sure that there's much wrong with that statement at all - at most, I'd question the use of the word "primarily". Jason, however, disagrees a bit more strenuously:

Why was Pope Urban VIII so threatened by Galileo's ideas? Why didn't the church simply laugh at Galileo, and tell him condescendingly to go keep playing with his telescope while the grown-ups talked about more serious things? The reason was that the Pope's authority was based entirely on the idea that he stood in a privileged relation to God, uniquely able to interpret scripture. If someone like Galileo could use science to challenge his claims, then the entire basis for the church's power would be seriously weakened. Ironically, DIxon himself explains this very clearly in the sentence immediately following the one above:

In the world of Counter-Reformation Rome, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, which continued to pit the Protestant and Catholic powers of Europe against each other, Galileo's claim to be able to settle questions about competing sources of knowledge through his own individual reading and reasoning seemed the height of presumption and a direct threat to the authority of the Church.

If that is not the description of a conflict between science and religion then I do not know what is.

That is, in fact, a good description of a conflict between science and religion, and I'd have to agree that Dixon's characterization of the event as one that's primarily political really doesn't do justice to the episode. At the same time, though, I'm almost as inclined to question any attempt to characterize the event as being primarily a science/religion conflict.

When you get right down to it, the Galileo affair was almost irreducibly complex. The very real conflict between science and religion over who gets to declare what the physical world was certainly a major factor, but it was only one of many. The political context - particularly as it involved challenges to the secular power of the church - was also important. So were the many longstanding interpersonal conflicts between the participants. So were the religious and political disputes involving various factions within the church. I'm not sure you can point to any one of those factors as being clearly the most important one involved.

While I'm at least partially in agreement with Jason over the problem with Dixon's view of the Galileo affair, I'm entirely on Dixon's side when it comes to the more modern ID/creationism issue. Here's Jason's perspective:

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Preliminary Injunction Issued in ACORN Bill of Attainder Case.

Dec 12 2009 Published by under Misc

Earlier this evening, Judge Nina Gershon issued a preliminary injunction barring the government from enforcing a law that bars any Federal money from going to the controversial community group ACORN, or any of ACORN's "affiliates, subsidiaries, or allied organizations". Gershon's ruling will remain in effect while ACORN's lawsuit challenging the law is active.

Predictably enough, the decision has sparked an epidemic of exploding Conservative heads, with Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) leading the charge:

“On the same day that ACORN’s violation of Delaware state lobbying laws was revealed, a liberal, Clinton-appointed activist Judge has ruled to usurp the prerogatives and authority of the United States Congress. This left-wing activist Judge is setting a dangerous precedent that left-wing political organizations plagued by criminal accusations have a constitutional entitlement to taxpayer dollars. The Obama Administration should immediately move to appeal this injunction.”

There are already others on the right expressing outrage, and there will undoubtedly be more as word of the ruling spreads. It's inevitable that others will parrot Issa's misrepresentation of the ruling, probably very soon, and probably in multiple mainstream media outlets.

I'm less confident that those same media outlets will actually take the time to inform their audience about what the judge's ruling actually does and doesn't do, say, and mean. Since all of those things are important to understanding what's actually going on, it might be a good idea for us to look at them.

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The Democratic Party Not Going To Copenhagen To Negotiate International Climate Treaty.

Dec 10 2009 Published by under Science and Politics

The Democratic Party will not be traveling to Copenhagen to negotiate an international climate change treaty.

Surprised? Then you might not have as good an understanding of the Constitution of the United States as you thought. But don't feel bad - that puts you on par with Jake Sherman, and he's got a nice job as a reporter for Politico:

House Republicans are preparing for a trip to Copenhagen and looking to derail Democratic efforts to negotiate an international climate agreement.

There is no doubt that the Republicans are going to Copenhagen, and there is no doubt that they plan to try to derail President Obama's efforts to negotiate an agreement. But Sherman's statement is still insanely, dangerously wrong - and it's all because he used a single wrong word: Democratic.

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Product Review: Finis Swimp3 1G

Dec 09 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

If your face is regularly complimented with goggle rings and you spend hours every week following the black line, this review might just interest you. If don't know what I'm talking about, it won't.

I like to swim. This is a good thing, since I'm currently employed as a head guard, and spend more than 40 hours a week at the pool. I'm required to swim at least 500 meters every workday, and I usually go well beyond that. And I really, really enjoy it - far more than I've enjoyed any other form of physical exertion.

But - let's face it - a long workout, especially distance sets in a 25 meter pool, can start to feel like Groundhog Day. Swim swim swim, turn, swim swim swim, turn, swim swim swim . . .

The Finis Swimp3 1G is one of the latest mp3 players designed for swimming. I picked up one a couple of weeks ago, and it's certainly not a purchase I regret. It's good to keep in mind, though, that it's not a typical mp3 player, and it does have both good and bad points.

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What is the purpose of an anthology of science writing?

Dec 07 2009 Published by under Public Perception of Science

Sheril Kirshenbaum and DrHGG recently wrote posts expressing their disappointment at the selection of authors that Richard Dawkins included in the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Neither of them was pleased that only three female authors were included in a book that featured 83 excerpts of writing by scientists.

Dawkins explained, in a comment left on Sheril's post, why the numbers worked out the way they did:

It is a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished. I am not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists. Presumably for other reasons, it is a regrettable fact that the great majority of distinguished scientists of the past 100 years, as measured by Nobel Prizes, Fellowships of the Royal Society, numbers of science publications, etc, have been male. That imbalance, and not an imbalance in my preference or my choice, is what is reflected in the anthology.

Dawkins response does not seem to have pleased everyone - or, possibly, anyone - who was unhappy at the extreme gender imbalance. It certainly didn't please Tara Smith:

I call shenanigans. First, Dawkins also claims that he is "...not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists." Therefore, he must know that it's other factors that have led to larger numbers of men than women in the top ranks of the scientific enterprise--one of these factors being a nasty feedback loop. Women lack role models in the upper echelons of science, leading more of us to think that perhaps this isn't the place for us, which is reinforced by examples such as this anthology. While Dawkins may not support such an attitude, his incredibly male-dominated collection, and his "too bad, so sad, that's just the way it is" response to this criticism reinforces this conclusion.

Reading the critiques, Dawkins' response, and the comments that have been left on the various posts so far, I can't help but wonder just what the people involved in this discussion - particularly Dawkins and his defenders - think the purpose of an anthology of science writing is.

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