Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Darwin’s apostles and evolutionary science: fighting “fake news”

September 6, 2020

Dr. Abby Hafer has her doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and currently teaches at Curry College. She has authored the book Unintelligent Design, among others, and claims to be famous for testicles. (Not her own; see below.) I heard her recent talk about what today’s fighters against fake news can learn from Darwin’s apostles.

She started by suggesting that pre-Trump we could not have imagined an American president establishing a bizarre, counter-factual, evidence-free narrative, yet succeeding in gulling much of the population. But “Welcome to my world,” Hafer said — every evolutionary biologist has always had to deal with such an environment of factual denialism. “Objective reality exists!” she insisted, steadfastly disregarding all the evidence to the contrary.

The Darwin apostles Hafer discussed were scientists who fought, against powerful entrenched interests, to gain acceptance for the concept of evolution by natural selection. After a long hard campaign they succeeded to a great degree (despite pockets of resistance, notably including a high proportion of Americans). Hafer cited publication, in 1889, of a book, Lux Mundi, in which notables in the Church of England discussed reconciling their faith with evolution — which they already assumed was true.

John William Draper was a scientist who authored History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874. The lesson Hafer took from his efforts: don’t quail from battling fundamentalist religion, but work with religious people wherever it’s possible.

Alfred Russel Wallace was of course the guy who figured out evolution at about the same time as Darwin. Darwin had long feared publishing would cause a big backlash. But Wallace, Hafer said, struck a different kind of terror into Darwin: not getting credit. So he finally finished up the book he’d been working on for two decades. (He and Wallace actually reached an agreement about public presentation of the theory. In this negotiation Darwin had much back-up from colleagues. I recall one writer saying they “took Wallace to the cleaners.”)

Joseph Hooker was one scientist who had long actually fought against the idea of biological evolution. But ultimately, he said, the conviction was “forced upon an unwilling convert.” He couldn’t fight the facts. That was intellectual integrity.

Darwin’s greatest proponent was Thomas Henry Huxley. Hafer discussed his lengthy battle with Richard Owen, who maintained that brain differences ruled out any close connection between humans and apes. Huxley showed Owen was just wrong on the anatomical facts: “Before I have done with that mendacious humbug I will nail him out like a kite to a barn door, an example to all evil doers.”

Huxley was indefatigable, working the “social media of his day” — newspapers. Letters to the editor, and replies, were a very big thing.

One audience member remarked that many people who most need to hear such messages refuse to listen. Hafer acknowledged this, and how a lot of these issues have become politicized. But she held that persistent efforts to debate such issues, vigorously battling error, in the public square, can have an effect. And Americans are actually leaving evangelical Christianity in droves, indeed angry because they feel they’ve been lied to.

A point she emphasized was that to overcome biases you have to tailor the message to engage people. Mention was made of Galileo’s experiments with the motions of balls, illustrating his ideas in a visually unarguable way. Hafer also pointed to her own work on how the human body actually shows un-intelligent design.* A prime example is testicles, hanging vulnerably outside the body cavity, whereas many other animals have them safely inside. It’s because human testicles have to be kept cooler. (I asked whether there was any connection between testicles and Galileo’s balls and she gave a straight-faced answer.) Anyhow, the point was that when you start talking about testicles, people sit up and listen.

She also said the current pandemic is a golden opportunity to make people grasp the importance of being serious toward science. And the virus, of course, evolved. If it weren’t for evolution, there’d never be any new diseases.

Hafer avowed that we are struggling today not only for the soul of this nation — but for its brain. Its integrity. Scientists are on the front lines of this battle.

She channeled Martin Niemoller: First they came for the evolutionary biologists . . . .

* Here’s my earlier discussion of that: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/unintelligent-design-–-why-evolution-explains-the-human-body-and-“intelligent-design”-does-not/

“10 Books That Screwed Up The World” — Make that 11

August 9, 2020

It sounded like my kind of read, found at a used book sale — Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books That Screwed Up The World.  I’d say make it 11, though that would give Wiker’s book undeserved importance. (He actually covers 15; a subtitle refers to five more.)

Reading a few pages pegged the author as religious. So I looked at his bio. Yup — big time. He’s taught at various Christian-sounding venues and is “a senior fellow with Discovery Institute.” Which, Wikipedia’s article forthrightly states, “advocates the pseudoscientific concept of intelligent design.”

Wiker begins with Macchiavelli’s The Prince. A “target-rich environment” for easy moralizing. Of course no modern leader should follow Macchiavelli’s advice. But Wiker seems to forget he wrote in 1513, when there was no concept of rulers serving, or accountable to, citizens.

Eventually Wiker gets to his real beef: “Christianity, Macchiavelli contends, focuses our energies on an imaginary kingdom in the sky and thereby turns us away from making the real world a peaceful, comfortable, even pleasurable home.”

This Wiker denounces but doesn’t actually try to refute. Doesn’t defend the idea of Heaven, nor deny its detracting from efforts to make good lives on Earth. But he does say Macchiavelli there “initiates the great conflict between modern secularism and Christianity that largely defines the next five hundred years of Western history.”

Wrong. Macchiavelli’s disparagement of religious delusions was not (alas) even a blip on the intellectual horizon. Most of those five centuries were consumed not by battles between faith and secularism but among differing Christian theologies — with the slaughter of great parts of Europe’s population. Kind of validating Macchiavelli’s point. Only quite lately has secularism, thank God, finally arisen to curb such horrors.

Next, Descartes. Responsible for “Cartesian dualism,” positing (contrary to science) something in mind or consciousness existing separately from our physical bodies. But even though some such dualism might seem necessary if our “souls” are to go to Heaven — which Wiker mocked Macchiavelli for rejecting — Wiker also mocks Descartes. For propounding “a ghostly soul banging around in a ghastly machine . . . A walking philosophical bipolar disorder.” Descartes’ idea was indeed crazyBut has Wiker got a better one to explain going to Heaven after our bodies rot?* Thus his attack on Cartesian dualism seems baffling.

Then Wiker derides Descartes’ “absolutely awful proof of the existence of God.” (Not that Wiker has a better one here either.) Basically, Descartes said that any idea in his head was presumably put there by God; so if he (Descartes) can conceptualize a being more perfect than himself, that being must exist. Though that was a glaringly poor excuse for an “argument,” Wiker goes to the trouble of explicating why. But what really irks him is Descartes’ implying God is what one conceives him to be. Wiker’s paraphrase: “we fashion God after our own hearts, rather than our own hearts and religion after God.” Causing “confusion of true wisdom about God.”

And where, pray tell, do we get that “true wisdom?” Wiker, typically, fails to say. But he presumes the conception of God that, by whatever means, got into in his own brain, was somehow the correct one — unlike the one in Descartes’ brain.

Reeling from so much foolishness, I skipped ahead to the Darwin chapter. Frankly expecting some good laughs, and I wasn’t disappointed. Wiker denies that Darwin actually originated the concept of biological evolution: “for some fifty years or more, it had been associated with political radicals . . . and gutter atheists;” it’s even traceable back to Epicurus. That’s flattering to Epicurus, a great thinker way ahead of his time. But as history these passages are bunk.** Before Darwin, some other people may have nibbled vaguely at the idea, but never had the Eureka moment, putting it together.*** Darwin’s doing so stands as one of humanity’s greatest intellectual triumphs.

But, creationist though he is, Wiker isn’t brave enough to frontally take on evolutionary biology, nor the Origin of Species. Instead he mounts a flank attack, on Darwin’s later book, The Descent of Man, trying to tar him with the “deep-down nastiness” of eugenics.Which, Wiker claims, Darwin was guilty of originating.

Eugenics is the idea of improving the species by keeping supposedly less fit members from reproducing. In early 20th century America this was sometimes done by sterilizing them. The Nazis simply killed them.

Wiker quotes Darwin suggesting that unrestrained reproduction could lead to “degeneration.” Had Wiker stopped there, it might have seemed damning. However, he goes on to quote further words from Darwin, ones that (strangely enough) he actually calls “inspiring.” There Darwin said the human being had progressed, so that their “sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, so as to extend to the men of all races, to the imbecile, the maimed . . . and finally to the lower animals, so would the standard of his morality rise higher and higher.”****

So where’s the problem? Wiker latches onto the word “sympathies.” This, finally, is his chosen line of attack: “[T]here are few moral concepts as slippery as sympathy. At best it substitutes indiscriminate niceness for goodness in human affairs . . . At worst, it . . . erases all boundaries between human beings and every other living thing.” From this claptrap Wiker goes on to deride the idea of animal rights. But that’s not all. He says that pursuant to Darwin’s own schema, “sympathy” was a trait imparted to humans by evolution. Then: “Here comes the nasty part. Evolution [which Wiker rejects, remember] is driven by competition, and competition brings extinction.” From that he leaps to asserting Darwin’s invocation of sympathy does not “extricate him from blame for the harsh racial eugenics practiced by the harder-reasoning Nazis.”

Huh? That’s it? How stupid does he think readers are? And meantime, for all Wiker’s anti-eugenics ranting, it’s never even clear why he’s against it — given his own attack on “sympathy” and expressed indifference to animal suffering.

His final chapter is modestly titled “A Conclusive Outline of Sanity.” Wiker says the problem with all 15 authors he discussed is their all positing that people have to be saved from something. As if salvation were not a fundamental concept of his Christianity. And how it could apply to Darwin is a mystery, but never mind. Anyhow, Wiker gives this example: “To save the world from male oppression, Betty Friedan would have women kill their offspring.” (Somehow I missed that bit in reading The Feminine Mystique.) Thus, Wiker maintains, all those books (including ones by Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill) are literally insane! And yet Wiker’s own final line says humanity does need saving— from that “madness of our own making.” And the savior is — guess who — the Man in the Sky.

I drew a different conclusion. That nonsensical religious beliefs like Wiker’s mess up one’s capability for rational thought. It’s his book that’s literally insane. Is this disgraceful screed what passes for intellectual work at faith-oriented institutions of “higher learning?” And what’s really scary is the parade of reviews on Amazon gushing favorably about it.

* I recently saw one Christian protesting that most of his co-religionists’ ideas of Heaven contradict the Bible. We do not go there after death, he said. Instead, we get resurrected at Jesus’s second coming. Or something like that. (Don’t look for me to make sense of this.)

** Wiker repeatedly misstates scientific history. For example, saying the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli claimed to see canals on Mars. Actually, Schiaparelli merely reported channels— “canali” in Italian, which got mistranslated as “canals,” notably by the American Percival Lowell.

*** Wallace did, around the time of Darwin’s book, but Darwin had been working on it for decades.

**** Darwin’s “bulldog” T.H. Huxley similarly said that evolutionary biology does not oblige us to play out “survival of the fittest” in our society — our aim instead should be to fit more of us for survival.

Alex Jones, Trump, and the war on sanity

August 6, 2020

Hillary Clinton is a serial killer. Worst ever. Chops up children. Literally. So declared Alex Jones on his “Infowars” show.

Cuckooland? Surely. Yet not only does Jones have a huge devoted fan base believing his ravings, it includes the President of the United States. Who’s appeared on Jones’s show, lavishly praising him (saying “your reputation is amazing” and “I will not let you down”). Trump has even often publicly parroted Jones’s words.

PBS’s Frontline recently broadcast an hourlong look at Alex Jones. He quickly learned that the more outrageously insane his show became, the more viewers he got — and the more money, not just from ads, but from hawking merch like “survivalist” gear and quack medicines.

Hence his stoking Hillary haters with over-the-top demonization — again literal, calling her Satan’s handmaiden. Jones also spread the “pizzagate” whopper, that Hillary was running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor’s basement. Frontline showed a pathetic fool who (like millions) believed Jones, and shot up the restaurant, after making a video about sacrificing his life to save those poor child victims. Of course he found none there. The victim was him (and the pizza joint).

Jones also pounded the 9/11 conspiracy theory that the attacks were actually perpetrated by the U.S. government as a pretext for martial law (or something). Never mind that there was no martial law. Some 9/11 loonies concoct what they say is evidence to support their delusion (it doesn’t), but Jones himself never needs any facade of evidence. Like his fan Trump he’ll say anything simply because he can.

Hardly was the Sandy Hook shooting over when Jones called that too a government fake job (preparatory for confiscating guns, which of course didn’t happen either). Jones launched a jihad of vilification against the grieving parents, accusing them of being actors. At least one was forced into hiding from the onslaught of Jonesian troll mobs. Again Jones offered no evidence for his wild charges. Instead telling his fans to do their own “research.”

Oklahoma City bombing? Fake too. Apollo 11 Moon Landing? Fake of course. While Bill Gates is attempting genocide, and the government is creating hurricanes to kill people.

When finally sued by a Sandy Hook parent, Jones testified in a deposition that his behavior was caused by a psychosis making him believe everything is fake. Quite an admission — or a smarmy cop-out to deflect from his culpability. And it didn’t stop him from subsequently continuing the sick shtick.

Oddly, one thing Jones says is not fake is in fact the biggest fraud ever: Trump. The pair comprise a mutual admiration society, Jones calling Trump the real deal. Because Trump validates Jones’s phantasmagoria. Presidential endorsement confers a huge cachet of legitimacy, vastly leveraging Jones’s malign influence.

How low has America sunk. This is not some harmless matter of mere theatrics. And it goes way beyond the harm suffered by Sandy Hook parents. This deranged flight from reality is destroying the country.

Think that’s hyperbole? Look around you — at all the hospitals overflowing with the dying, all the economic devastation, shuttered businesses, unemployed and traumatized people, children who can’t go to school. What has that to do with Alex Jones? Everything.

Because Jonesian craziness made enough Americans throw responsibility to the winds to vote for Trump. And that’s why our pandemic performance is the worst of any advanced nation. We completely blew it, getting both economic and health disasters, because to this day Trump, stewing in his cesspit of derangement, has been incapable of leading a serious national response.

Even with the electorate appalled by this, Trump can’t get his act together on it. Instead imagining he can win re-election with divisive racism that freaks out respectable Americans, and by ridiculously smearing longtime centrist Joe Biden as a tool of raging extremists. And by messing up voting.

While Alex Jones does his usual act crying “fake” about the virus, leading anti-mask protests. Yet saying that if the pandemic gets bad enough he’s prepared to kill, skin, and eat his neighbors.

Trump doesn’t merely ignore science and rationality, he wars against them. Knowledgeable voices about covid are shunned. But Doctor Stella Immanuel he’s recently called “very impressive” and “spectacular.” Retweeting multiple times a video in which she appears, still touting . . . wait for it . . . hydroxychloroquine. The zombie quack cure Trump refuses to let die despite every responsible scientist’s debunking. This Stella Immanuel has also said that “alien DNA” is currently used in medical treatments, that gynecological problems are caused by dream sex with demons and witches, that scientists are working on a vaccine to prevent religion. Oh, and the government is partly run not by humans but “reptilians” and other aliens.*

“Spectacular” quoth our president.

Awash in all this lunacy, it’s no surprise the administration has its head up its ass about the pandemic, and millions of Americans still reject masks and other precautions. Actually, that’s only perhaps 20% of our population. But a recent analysis reported in The Economist calculates that those 20% are responsible for almost all the spike in covid cases and deaths we’re seeing.

So that hard core of fools matters greatly. Our covid epidemic is a direct consequence of an epidemic of epistemic disease. Epistemology refers to how we know things. If someone can’t see Alex Jones is either a raving maniac or a cynically dishonest con man, that person suffers from epistemic blindness. Same for Trump. Any rational person (without even knowing his rotten history) can see just by watching Trump how vile he is, how he degrades America.

Is this reality blindness, this affinity for balderdash, something new? The American character may not really have changed; but in past eras an Alex Jones would have had no way to reach a mass audience. There were gatekeepers, who took their responsibilities seriously, and protected the public from such poison. Now there are no gatekeepers, no gates, it’s a media free-for-all. Jones’s pyrotechnic performances are more compelling to watch than Walter Cronkite ever was. And Jones actually makes viewers feel smart by telling them they’re getting the real hidden truth. A lot of suckers, even seemingly educated ones, lack a sufficient base of knowledge and understanding about the world to properly evaluate what they’re hearing, and to see that it flouts reality.

My viewing the Alex Jones documentary was juxtaposed against the John Lewis memorial coverage. Reminding me of how much good this contradictory country also harbors. Lewis too had to battle against evil and ignorance. The battle never ends. America thrills my soul and breaks my heart.

An election looms (assuming failure of Trump’s efforts to wreck it). Forget issues. Forget ideology. This election is about sanity. Can we make America sane again?

* This “reptilian” trope is the foundation for an entire edifice of meshugaas built by professional conspiracy hawker David Icke (who insists his name is pronounced “Ike,” not “Icky”). Alex Jones has also promoted “reptilian” rubbish.

Demise of the dinosaurs

July 28, 2020

I heard a talk by Frank Wind (pronounced as in “gust of” rather than “wind up”), a retired geologist, on the dinosaur extinction.

Frank started by saying Darwin is his patron saint. He also cited a book by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (concerning the one currently underway), and a New Yorker article by Douglas Preston, The Day the Dinosaurs Died. That was actually the fifth and (until now) last mass extinction of species on this planet, 66 million years ago (MYA); the first occurred about 440 MYA. The most severe was the Permian Extinction, about 250 MYA, killing over 95% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial ones.

Those early creatures must have really pissed off God. Except, of course, that he created the whole shebang a mere 0.006 MYA. To be exact, in 4004 BCE. On October 2. At 6 PM. That was the calculation of Bishop Ussher, by parsing the Bible’s chronology, in 1650. Which Biblical literalists today still take as gospel. They place Noah’s flood at 2348 BCE, which did for the dinosaurs. But even that theory is a bit problematical, unless you suppose every dinosaur species literally missed the boat. Indeed, Frank showed a cartoon with the ark departing, two dinos standing ashore, one saying to the other, “Oh, crap! was that today?

And the dinosaurs could not have died out much earlier because, of course, death itself was introduced into the world in consequence of Adam’s “sin.” But actually, the Bible has nothing at all to say about dinos, which were not even discovered until the 19th century.

The whole concept of extinction wasn’t really a thing till then, most people (well, Christians) believing life on Earth unchanging. Discovering dinosaur fossils threw them for a loop. And even science at that time was kind of stumped to explain how such a whole big range of creatures could have more or less abruptly vanished from the scene.

Not until recent decades was a good theory offered, by Luis and Walter Alvarez, father-and-son scientists. They ascribed dino extinction to a huge asteroid smashing into the Earth. There is evidence of such impacts happening periodically, in the form of 190 craters. And the Alvarezes pinpointed remains of the gigantic 66-MYA Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan peninsula and coast. They also found much evidence in the geologic record, identifying a distinct boundary between sedimentary layers at just that time, with the in-between layer being notably different, showing a very high iridium content, which could only have come from an extraterrestrial source. Such evidence is found as far away as New Zealand (can’t get much farther), proving how dramatically the planet’s environment was affected. Frank also pointed to  some fossils discovered in the U.S., showing directly how animal life suffered.

His talk included some vivid descriptions of just how catastrophic an asteroid hit that big would have been. Unfortunately I missed that part because the talk was on zoom and my internet connection cut out. But you can fill it in from various disaster movies you’ve seen.

Not all scientists buy this asteroid theory. They don’t deny the impact, but don’t think it alone can account for the extent of the extinction. Pointing instead to a spate of big volcanic eruptions that seem to have occurred shortly before. But they accept that the asteroid didn’t help.

We may miss having dinosaurs around (though we do have birds, which are their descendants). However, Frank pointed out, it was the demise of the dinos that cleared the way for the flourishing of mammals, which in turn led to the evolution of you-know-who. Though some misanthropic cynics would say this was not such a blessing.

Covid-19: The March of Folly

July 3, 2020

From the start, Trump repeatedly assured us the virus was under control; no big deal; everyone could get tested; it would go away miraculously; and applauded his own performance as “tremendous” and “incredible,” etc. All lies.

Our record on this is in fact the worst of any advanced nation (bar possibly Brazil, with a Trump clone president). Had we acted smartly and swiftly like others, the virus could have been contained without the economic apocalypse that became necessary due to Trump’s dithering. And the economic pain turned out to be for nought, because we were too lax about it, reopening too soon, so the virus is now out of control anyway. Rising in at least 40 states.

We’ve just hit a new one-day record of over 50,000 confirmed cases. So far totaling over 2.7 million. Except that the CDC says that’s an undercount by a factor of ten. Because most cases (lacking sufficient testing) are never properly diagnosed. So it’s really closer to 30 million — increasing fast. Deaths (at least 127,000, but also surely an undercount) are actually falling — for now — apparently due to a learning curve on treatment, and older people being more careful. But coming weeks and months look very dire.

It’s Trump’s fault. A total failure of leadership; indeed, of sanity. Denial of reality. Ignoring science. Promoting harmful quack cures and other misinformation. Continued under-testing. His administration crafted detailed shutdown guidance and then shelved it. The limited suggestions they did provide were neutered by Trump’s encouraging morons to rebel against restrictions. Politicizing it all. Mask wearing became demonized as a badge of wimpy Democrat socialists — virile freedom-loving ‘Murricans don’t wear no frickin’ masks.

We’ve seen the video of the jerk refusing to heed a Costco mask requirement. He said, “I woke up in a free country.” Hello, “freedom” does not mean flouting reasonable public health rules. You can go maskless at home, but have no right to risk other people’s lives. This is called living in society.

Tens of millions have lost jobs, millions sickened or killed — and you’re outraged at having to wear a mask??

Most Americans thankfully have more sense, and have been great about acting responsibly, despite Trump’s irresponsible anti-leadership. But he’s undermined their good efforts by empowering the mask rebels, like that Costco fool, who spread the virus. What is so hard about understanding that even without symptoms you can infect others? Predictably, in states (mostly red) that were late and half-hearted about precautions in the first place, and relaxed them even as Covid cases rose, with Trumpsters heedlessly packing into bars and other gathering places (including his rallies) without masks, the disease is now surging.

And whereas states like New York, the worst hit, got it under control by tremendous efforts, with infection and death rates falling dramatically, that’s likely to be undone because they can’t control traveling anti-mask assholes who will re-spread the infection. Thus Europe has banned travel from the U.S.

And what’s the administration’s posture now, with the disease surging? Trump is hoping his voters can somehow be blinded to the catastrophe, which he himself actually worsens by holding super-spreader campaign events. Mike Pence is meanwhile declaring victory, saying the “panic” about Covid is “overblown,” and we’re in better shape now than at the start. While he (and of course Trump) still refuse to push masks.* In lieu of such precautions, Pence recommends prayer.

Indeed (and unsurprisingly, given the irrationality at religion’s core), the worst of Covid folly is seen in churches. Too many pastors insist on continuing live worship services, usually without masking or distancing. These have repeatedly proven to constitute Covid-19 anti-personnel bombs. Some claim God will protect them. As if he’s ever spared his flocks from the afflictions he’s visited upon humanity. While others never miss an opportunity to say God is punishing us for something (abortion, gays, etc., pick your fetish). Some hold that trying to prevent infection is thwarting God’s will.

A “sacrament” at Florida’s mis-named “Church of Health and Healing” is a bleach solution offered as a miracle cure. And Louisiana’s Rev. Tony Spell has even been bussing in people to attend his Covid-19 spreadathons, so they can carry the virus all over the state. But no worries — Spell (who heads the also misnamed “Life Tabernacle Church”) explains that to a pure religious person, death looks “like a welcomed friend.”

But at the pearly gates, will St. Peter say, “No mask, no admittance”?

Hopes are pinned on a vaccine to beat this thing finally. But wait, not so fast. Did you forget the anti-vaxxers? The campaign against Covid vaccination is already underway. We’re told the whole pandemic thing is really a huge plot by Bill Gates to use vaccines to sneak microchips into us.

Religion. Trump. Masklessness. Anti-science. Conspiracy theories. It’s all a package. God save us from this lunacy.

* Some states are only now finally mandating masks. On June 1, Trump himself did finally tell Fox News he’s all for masking, saying it makes him look like the Lone Ranger. (Whose mask didn’t cover his nose and mouth.) But meantime Trump has also said people wear masks just to show disapproval of him, and that masks are ineffective. Science says different. But who cares about science?

Big Bang, big questions

June 22, 2020

Our Universe began with the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. It started virtually volumeless, virtually infinitely dense and hot, and then expanded. What came before, and triggered the Big Bang? That’s not a valid question, because Time itself began with the Big Bang.

This is the “standard model” of today’s science. I am a believer in science. But that’s not like a religious belief or faith; instead, a matter of epistemology. Which refers to how we know things.

This doesn’t mean everything in science is “true.” That misunderstands the point. Scientific precepts (unlike religion) are always subject to revision with more information. That can disprove a theory, but none is ever proven with finality. That said, however, the bulk of modern science can be pretty much taken to the bank. The concept of biological evolution, for example, will not be disproven by new information. And the same applies to most of modern physics.

Current cosmology devolves from Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery that most other galaxies are moving away from us. The farther distant, the faster. This means the Universe is expanding. Run that movie backwards and it contracts. Ending all crunched together: the Big Bang.

Note that the expansion doesn’t mean everything is enlarging. Instead it’s space itself that’s expanding, carrying everything along with it. And stuff all moving away from us doesn’t mean Earth is at the center. Picture instead a raisin cake rising; as it expands, each raisin moves away from every other.

Science has figured out the physics of the Universe’s start, back to a very teensy fraction of a second after the Big Bang. But then you get to a point where the extreme conditions of density and heat mean the laws of physics as we know them don’t work. We call this a “singularity.” (The same applies inside a black hole. Some scientists speculate that a black hole’s singularity can give off big bangs; maybe that’s our own origin.)

Inability to parse out just exactly what happened in that very first instant might be considered a problem in the standard model. But there’s a difference between “don’t know” and “can’t know.” While some theorists say “can’t know,” I prefer to suspend judgment on what future science may be able to penetrate. Scientists a century ago could not have imagined today’s knowledge.

Meanwhile, inability to wrap our heads around the notion of Time beginning with the Big Bang might also feel like a problem. Yet hitting that seeming conceptual wall doesn’t stop thinking about explanations for the Big Bang. Some reasonable concepts have been sketched out at least in a general way. We can say they’re not science because we have no way to test such ideas experimentally or with predictions — today. But again, a different story in the future should not be ruled out.

But here’s another problem. The Universe’s diameter is currently estimated at 93 billion light years. (At least that’s what we can see; the whole thing could be larger.) That doesn’t gibe with its age being only 13.7 billion years; it implies expansion exceeding light speed.

The explanation is inflation: during an infinitesimally small interval after the Big Bang, the Universe expanded faster than light speed. But didn’t Einstein tell us nothing can travel faster than light? Yes; but that applies only to objects moving through space. In inflation, it was space itself expanding.

And what caused this? It’s theorized that the force of gravity suddenly reversed, pushing stuff apart rather than pulling it together. Then, just as suddenly, it switched back. We have some ideas about why that could have happened.

However that, and the whole inflation theory, is mainly supported on the basis that it’s the only way we can account for what we observe.

Here’s another problem. We know the law of gravity: proportional to mass and decreasing with the square of the distance between objects. But other galaxies don’t appear to obey it, unless there’s much more mass than we can see. Scientists call that extra stuff “dark matter,” and have debated various ideas for what it might be. We just don’t know.

A possible solution is “Modified Newtonian Dynamics” (MOND). Just as some laws of physics change when it comes to the ultra small (quantum mechanics), the law of gravity might not apply to the ultra large distances associated with galaxies. Realize that gravity being far the weakest of nature’s fundamental forces — and diminishing with the square of the distance between objects — we’re talking about a force of evanescent smallness at galactic distances. A tweak to Newton’s gravity law might explain things without requiring any additional “Dark Matter.” (While I find this idea attractive, it is not orthodox physics.)

There’s yet another problem. We had assumed that after the Big Bang’s initial energy burst (and the inflation episode), the momentum of the Universe’s expansion would be slowing. There was debate whether it would eventually slow to a stop, with gravity then starting to pull things back together, toward a “big crunch;” or would expand forever, dissipating into virtual cold nothingness; or would do neither, reaching stasis (a “flat universe”). All dependent on exactly how much mass there is. The third option seemed to be winning.

But then a new discovery blew scientists’ minds: after having slowed for some billions of years, the expansion started speeding up! And is still accelerating.

What’s causing that? “Dark Energy.” Meaning, as with Dark Matter, we don’t know. Yet Dark Energy is calculated to comprise some 70% of the entire Universe. (Remember that per Einstein’s famous equation, energy and matter are interchangeable.)

So . . . the singularity; no Time before Time; inflation; Dark Matter; Dark Energy. Science likes beautiful elegant theories. The standard Big Bang model begins to look like a clunky a Rube Goldberg contraption. With a lot of question marks. Might it all be just a huge mistake? What could an alternative possibly look like?

But suppose the Universe’s expansion does ultimately run out of steam and reverse, falling into a Big Crunch. It wouldn’t necessarily have to collapse all the way back to a singularity. Before that point, the extreme conditions could conceivably trigger a new Big Bang. Going back and forth like that forever. This avoids the conundrum of a singularity and also of a “Time before Time.” Though not the mind-bender of the word “forever.”

This is called the “Oscillating (or Cyclic) Universe,” discussed in Brian Clegg’s book, Before the Big Bang. That title hooked me in, but a more accurate one would have been About the Big Bang. Anyhow, Clegg shows there are serious problems with the Oscillating Universe concept too. He says it’s either equivalent to a perpetual motion machine or else must eventually run out of energy and expire.

There are other theories, like “branes.” And multi-universes. I won’t go into them. None strikes me as anything more than complete speculation.

Anyhow, one is forced to confront an irreducible mystery. Either the Universe had a beginning, arising out of nothing. Or else something always existed, without ever having had a beginning. No human mind can really grasp either possibility.

And there is an even deeper question: why is there something and not nothing? Scientists and philosophers have grappled with this.* Their efforts are far from satisfying. (Of course religion does no better. Why should there be a god rather than no god? At least we can be sure the universe exists.)

“Why is there something” is a question deep in my consciousness. Why I have one is itself a conundrum; but that’s only one small piece of the far larger mystery of existence itself. Most of us take it for granted, but not me. In fact, it’s my understanding of the clockwork of existence — imperfect though that understanding surely is — that nags me with that final “Why?”

It seems we should more logically expect a Universe of nothingness — a non-universe. That at least would raise no deep questions whatsoever. It would just be. (Or not-be.)

But I remain a believer in humanity’s ability to gain understanding. Someday people will look back with bemusement at us primitives, just as we look back at flat earthers.

* As I’ve discussed; here are some links: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing/; https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/why-does-the-world-exist/;

The biology of the pandemic

June 14, 2020

My Capital District Humanist Society recently had a talk (over zoom) on the biology of the pandemic. It was a good scientific overview.

The speaker, Ricki Lewis, is an Adjunct Professor at the Alden March Biocenter; author of numerous scientific books and papers.

She began with a Joshua Lederberg quote saying humanity’s biggest threat is viruses; and by harking back to the great past fear over polio (another virus); as well as the once-common childhood illnesses Measles, Mumps and Chicken Pox; all now defeated by vaccines (at least until anti-vaxxers came along).

SARS-CoV-2 is the name of this virus. Covid-19 is the illness it causes. It’s common for viruses to jump to humans from other animals. Particularly bats; they’re a quarter of all mammals, can harbor viruses without dying, and spew them all over. This is a natural enough explanation for Covid-19’s source. Lewis noted that no part of its genome matches anything in labs, though she couldn’t rule out its originating in a lab without human intentionality.

A virus is not a living thing, being much simpler than a bacterium or other kind of cell. It straddles the boundary between the biological and the chemical. Now, our genetic material is DNA; DNA is a molecular template for making RNA; and then RNA makes proteins. The genetic material for a virus can be either DNA or RNA. That genetic core, in a virus, is encased in a capsule of fatty stuff. “Coronavirus” gets its name from its crownlike exterior of spikes that lock into what are called ACE2 receptors on the outsides of our living cells. That enables the virus to inject its genetic material into a cell, and grab its chemical innards to make copies of itself. Then the cell bursts, spewing out more viruses.

We have a hierarchy of defenses. First are simply physical barriers, like skin. Then there’s “innate immunity,” mainly white blood cells tasked with combating invaders in general, through what we call “inflammation.” The third level is “adaptive” immunity, when the body manufactures antibodies specific to a particular invader. But that takes a while. Lewis noted that Blood Type O seems to block the covid virus better than other types; whereas Type A is overrepresented among the victims. She also said that Africans may be suffering less than us from covid because their immune systems are already revved up due to all the various illnesses they’re exposed to.

We get infected mainly by taking in viruses in droplets spewed out in coughs or sneezes, or just breathing, by infected people. That’s why masks help a lot. Lewis discussed the possibility of getting sick from touching surfaces where Viruses have come to rest. While this can happen, she didn’t think it’s much of a factor.

Most who get infected with the covid virus suffer only mild symptoms, or none. It’s actually better from the virus’s point of view if it can do its thing without killing the host; hence Lewis saw some possibility that covid could mutate its way into such relative benignity. Meantime, however, it does make a minority of victims very sick. A lot in the body goes wrong. We have endothelial cells that kind of hold things together; and they “come apart at the seams.” The alveoli in our lungs, which transfer oxygen into our blood, fill up with “stuff,” and blood oxygen plummets. You also get blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, and organ failure. Your own immune system goes haywire trying to fight this, resulting in a “cytokine storm” with nasty positive feedback loops. (Also, those who recover from a bad covid episode seem to be left with a range of problems that will be long-lasting.)

As for treatment, the drug remdesivir seems to inhibit virus replication, somewhat hastening recovery. But Lewis was skeptical about a vaccine, saying we don’t actually know if that’s even possible, and anyhow it would take a lot longer to deploy safely than optimists currently contemplate. Meantime “herd immunity” would deprive the virus of enough potential victims to keep itself going; that would happen once about 70% of the population has been infected and are presumably immune; though we don’t yet actually know they are immune from reinfection. And we’re a long way from herd immunity levels. Reopening economies could accelerate that, with a “second wave” of infections. Lewis said she initially expected that in the fall, but now thinks it could come within weeks due to the George Floyd protests likely having spread the virus.

Reopening? Your money or your life

May 2, 2020

Jack Benny’s famous bit: A mugger demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny hesitates. Then says, “I’m thinking it over!”

Between economic sacrifices and sacrificing lives, we really had no choice. Couldn’t tolerate seeing hospitals overwhelmed and people dying for lack of care. We opted to accept the economic pain, and it’s proving to be immense. Now we’re confronting the issue of reopening. The federal government no longer endorses shut-downs. In fact, an America that once would have led a global response now won’t even lead its own states. Some (mostly Republican) are already relaxing restrictions, others planning for it.

I have a bad feeling about this.

In many places, notably New York, the restrictions succeeded in flattening the curve, with illnesses and deaths trending downward. Elsewhere they’re actually still rising. Many states aren’t testing much, so are flying blind. In any case, relaxing invites a new virus explosion. At the outset, The Economist foresaw repeated cycling between lockdowns and disease spikes until either there’s a vaccine or until something like 80% of a population has experienced infection. Creating “herd immunity,” where the virus dies out for lack of enough infectable victims.

We’re nowhere near that. On the other hand, reopening could make sense if the number infected were low enough that testing and contact tracing could feasibly contain new outbreaks. Unfortunately we’re in between those two infection levels. Ours is sufficiently high that to reopen safely would require testing and contact tracing on a massive scale, well beyond existing capabilities. Ramping that up enough could cost hundreds of billions. It would actually be worth it, as against the cost of economic shutdown in the trillions. But the Trump administration is not biting this bullet; hardly even tonguing it.*

A compromise approach might conceivably be reasonable: relaxing hard lockdown restrictions while still urging carefulness — masks, social distancing, hand-washing, etc. Perhaps gaining much of the benefit while avoiding much of the cost.

This resembles Sweden’s approach. They never locked down, but did push social distancing and the like, while also taking more rigorous measures to protect the most vulnerable. The idea was to arrive at herd immunity at limited cost in both lives and economic damage. Sweden’s death rate does exceed that in otherwise comparable countries, but it’s not out of control, and may actually represent a reasonable balance between fighting the virus and protecting the economy.

But America is not Sweden, whose citizens have a very high level of social consciousness and trust their government. America’s government is widely viewed with hostility. Certainly its president inspires zero trust in anything he says. He’s even issued lockdown guidelines while encouraging people rebelling against them. Protesting with their “Trump 2020” banners, guns, and Confederate flags — and no social distancing. These nitwits may be a small minority. But even if most Americans act more sensibly, too many (thanks to Trump’s inconsistent messaging) are irresponsibly complacent about Covid-19. Relaxing restrictions will exacerbate that. Enough foolish people and the virus can spread like wildfire.

So the danger of a big resurgence is very high. What’s our Plan B for that? Lock down again? The public’s willingness will be limited, having suffered it once and relishing their escape. And closing the economy again is the last thing Trump will want as the election nears.

During tough wars voices always say we should just declare victory and go home. Trump’s strategy may be something like that. Reopen the economy, swagger about his imaginary tremendous victory over Covid-19, and basically ignore its recrudescence. The administration may use various wheezes to actually avoid reporting infections and deaths. Even now they’re much undercounted. Trump and his dupes are masters of reality-denial. Many Americans will avert their eyes.

Coronavirus coming here was not Trump’s fault. But the human and economic damage would have been much less had he not refused to listen, in January and February, to repeated cogent warnings urging action. Since then his response has been shambolic in every way. He is directly guilty for tens of thousands of deaths and trillions in economic loss. (Talk about “American carnage.”)

And if we reopen too soon, those sacrifices will have been for nought. We’ll have paid the price without getting what we thought we were buying. “Your money or your life” — we’ll have forfeited both.

* At every stage, lying about our testing capability. Claiming it exceeds that of any other country is blatantly false. In fact we’re nowhere near having testing and tracing capability to reopen without a virus resurgence.

How old is the world?

April 25, 2020

Is the Earth around 4.5 billion years old? Or, just 6,022 and a few months?

PBS’s Independent Lens had a fascinating documentary about Kentucky’s “Ark Encounter” — to go with the “Creation Museum” I’ve written about. The documentary spotlighted some local opposition mainly to the project’s millions in tax subsidies. Surely unconstitutionally violating church-state separation.

This ark is a full-size imagining of Noah’s vessel. Really gigantic, costing in nine figures, to illustrate the ark accommodating every “kind” of animal. But apparently these Biblical literalists weren’t bothered by the implausibility of Noah and his three sons alone somehow managing such a huge project, without the modern technology they themselves used — not to mention the funding.

But of course that’s the least thing that might trouble young-earth creationists. They’ve calculated, from the Bible, Earth’s beginning in 4004 BC. October 23, to be exact! Biblical literalism taken to its ultimate, preposterous extreme.

Actually, the planet is roughly a million times older. If its history were condensed to a single year, then 4004 BC would have arrived on December 31 — at about 11:59 PM.

To swallow that 4004 story, you have to torture a lot of facts. Or just ignore them. One is our seeing other galaxies millions, even billions, of light years distant. A light year is how far light travels in a year. The light from those galaxies took millions or billions of years to reach us. Case closed.*

Likewise, to deny biological evolution you have to work awfully hard waving away practically everything we actually know about life and its history. As geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.

The impresario behind the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter is Ken Ham. The documentary showed what a slick con artist he is. Speaking to a big audience of youngsters, Ham led them in a chant mocking scientists who say the Earth originated billions of years ago: Were you there?

What a killer argument. And if you believe, instead of those scientists, the Biblical story of creation — were YOU there?? And the people who wrote that Bible story — were THEY there??

Also shown was one young woman “scientist,” part of the Ark organization, to give it a patina of “science.” I put those words in quotes because, as one (real) scientist said, one can have the training and capability to do science, but actually doing it is another thing. The young woman “scientist” declared that the Bible is true. How does she know? Because it’s true. It just is. She believes it because she believes it.

As a child I found a price guide to check my Canadian coins. “I’ve got a valuable one!” I exclaimed to my parents. The 1913 dime has two varieties, one rare, one common. My rationalist dad said, “How do you know yours is the rare one?” I said, “I just know it!” I wanted to believe.

In science, facts dictate beliefs. Not the other way around.

Then the show profiled a young man, reared in young-earth creationism. It was very important to him to protect his belief by having all the answers. Which he got from creationist websites arming him with refutations to every fact of mainstream geology and evolution-based science. Refutations which gradually he came to see through as false, misleading bunk.

I’m in awe of someone able to do that, having such intellectual equipment, honesty, and courage. I had it easy; I may have believed in my 1913 Canadian dime, but never in religion. But for people who do, the belief is very powerful. The documentary showed several whose certitude and confidence runs deep. I always remind myself that certain as I am they’re wrong, they’re equally certain I am wrong.

But: what difference does it make, really, whether you think the world is billions of years old, or only a few thousand? If you understand evolution science, or refuse to? It doesn’t exactly affect our daily lives. Or does it? The belief isn’t in a vacuum. It’s integral to a whole way of thinking, to one’s relationship with reality, with existence itself. Indeed, people shape their lives around such beliefs. That’s why they hold them so tenaciously, and why freeing oneself from such false belief is often so traumatic.

Surveys show about 40% of Americans believe the 4004 BC story. These are more or less the same people who don’t believe climate science. Who believe Trump.

* Actually, young-earth creationists answer that God could simply have made that light travel faster. Or created all the stars, and made them visible, all on the first day. Belief in such literal omnipotence is a universal cognitive get-out-of-jail free card.

Coronavirus realities

March 24, 2020

Trump, having previously said the economic shutdown could last till August, now wants a return to normalcy much sooner. (Much sooner than medical experts recommend.)

Actually we’re only just beginning to see how bad things are. The Economist’s latest issue (as usual) provides much clarity.

COVID-19 is very contagious, and the containment measures look too little too late because the virus is already very widespread. The swiftly rising number of reported cases is likely just the tip of an iceberg. Many infected people don’t show symptoms right away, if ever, but meantime can infect others.

Our efforts might, in a couple of weeks, appear to bend the curve down. But the problem is that a majority of the population won’t have been infected, hence won’t have developed immunity, and the virus won’t have disappeared from the landscape. This means that after Trump declares victory and restrictive measures are relaxed, the virus will likely spike back up — necessitating a reimposition of restrictions. “This on-off cycle,” says The Economist, “must be repeated until either the disease has worked through the population or there is a vaccine which could be months away, if one works at all.”

This virus, while new, is not a fundamentally different creature from others of its ilk, so in principle previous methods to create vaccines should succeed. But before then, most of our population could contract the illness. As we know, most would have only minor symptoms, or none. But even a death rate below 1% could still be expected to kill a million or two.

Of course, besides a vaccine, a medicine to treat the illness would change everything. While some candidates are being tested, we don’t have a treatment yet.

Note that — barring the virus’s complete eradication (practically impossible) — the more effective a shutdown is in preventing infections, the worse will be the second wave, after the relaxation, because the virus will have so many potential new victims without immunity. The Imperial College in London built a set of models (reported by The Economist) showing this effect after five months of restrictions. If they included schools, the second wave is even more severe. (China may soon be putting this to the test.) Governments need to be candid about this prospect, instead of encouraging us to imagine the whole thing will just go away in due course.

I have argued that we really have no choice but to accept severe economic pain to avoid a nightmare scenario of a health system unable to handle a flood of illnesses so that many thousands die simply from lack of care. That’s starting to look likely despite our best efforts. Realize not just coronavirus victims will be affected — hospitals won’t be able to treat accidents, heart attacks, anything else. And, says The Economist, “the bitter truth is that [those containment efforts] may be economically unsustainable. After a few iterations governments might not have the capacity to carry businesses and consumers. Ordinary people might not tolerate the upheaval. The cost of repeated isolation, measured by mental well-being and the long-term health of the rest of the population, might not justify it.”

An agonizing dilemma. But The Economist also says it can be mitigated by a massive testing regime and use of technology to trace contacts and identify who really needs quarantining. As South Korea and China have done.

Trump keeps patting himself on the back for his early restrictions on travel from China and, later, Europe. That may indeed have helped slow the virus’s spread. However, it was already underway before the travel bans, so it was delusional to think they solved the problem. What was really needed was what South Korea did — again, massive testing, right away.

But even to this day, we’re still not doing that. Still only starting to ramp up toward it.

As The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist (on American affairs) writes, this testing inadequacy at least partly owes to the Trump administration’s “decision to scrap the NSC’s dedicated pandemic unit” (established under Obama). He also points to its “sticking with a faulty viral test when the WHO could have provided a working alternative.” (As South Korea used. The tests mostly in use here now, still way too few, also don’t give results for up to ten days — almost useless in this fast-moving pandemic.) Lexington also points to overall White House dysfunctionality, and concludes: “a stunning catalog of failure.”

Add in Trump’s fountain of false and misleading information, which delayed most Americans’ taking the problem seriously. Last Wednesday he belatedly invoked the Defense Production Act, enabling government to require industries to produce stuff needed in an emergency. We’re desperately short on respirators and protective gear. But just signing an order, with Trump’s posturing flamboyance, actually produces nothing, absent follow-through. And it is absent. Trump seems to imagine he’ll nevertheless make the needed items magically appear.

Trump (never able to admit error) now claims he knew very early this would be a pandemic. Contradicting his own previous statements. And begging the question: if he knew so early, why was our response, particularly on testing, so dilatory?

The harsh truth: South Korea’s infection began exactly the same time as ours. Had we done what South Korea did, we might have avoided the need for economic restrictions as extreme as those now in force, which may well fail anyway. And avoided literally trillions in costs and losses and untold human suffering. And of course a vast number of deaths soon to occur.

Trump bears terrible blame for this catastrophe. As do Americans who voted for such a person.

Suppose there were some disease that would somehow disproportionately take out Republicans. Well, here it is. They do tend to be much older on average. But moreover, many Trump fans who took on board his early pooh-poohing of the virus still treat it less seriously than even he does now; thus are more likely to expose themselves to infection and death.

On the other hand, this thing is bollixing up voting, and Republicans will take advantage to make casting ballots harder — especially for Democrats. We must be vigilant lest our democracy be another casualty of COVID-19.