Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ben Stein: Expelled

The movie "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" Appears to be just that, a movie completely devoid of intelligence.

For those of you unaware, Expelled is a movie set for release sometime this spring. It's premise, that there is a conspiracy within a small group of "elitist scientists" that do not allow any discussion of the intelligent design idea. That intelligent design can cure cancer and that there is nothing wrong with publishing articles in a scientific journal that declare that there is a designer in the universe. So far from what I've seen Ben Steins' arguments against evolution rely on the slandering of evolutionary biologists, and not so much the theory itself. This is not a threat to science students, nor is it a threat to science overall. That being said, this movie could propel even more Americans to distrust science and lead the way to stifling more and more research. The scientific climate in the US could be injured by the influence of a major motion picture like this, and pave the way for more media to be made against science.

Overall, this movie will not hurt science. In fact it may even help weed out students studying science who really aren't smart enough to grasp the concepts, maybe it will persuade those students to become business or communication majors.

My biggest concern is that it may hurt science education, and a decrease in government finance in scientific research, in the US. In the developed world science is a booming field, and it has been seeing breakthroughs at an ever increasing rate. The cures for nearly all diseases are nearly within our grasp. We finally have the tools necessary to understand subtle biochemical processes, it is only a matter of time until we understand enough to be able to cure disease, and possibly death.

If the idiots that comprise the majority of the population in the US want to throw science out the window, go ahead, but expect to pay high prices to import cures for diseases from other countries.

It is a good thing that I am not in a position of power. If I were to have the power to, I would not allow people who discredit the scientific process to be able to benefit from it. No cars, no planes, no computers, no surgery, no MRI, no medicine. None of this and more would be possible without the scientific process.

A person who doesn't understand the power of the scientific process and benefiting from it, would be like an Atheist expecting a god to answer their prayers.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Irrationality

Imagine being on a cross-country road trip from New York to southern California. On the third day of the trip you cross over into the “bible belt” of the USA. At first, everything seems normal but as you pass by the centers of the cities you see strange decorations, piles of stones, and red paint splattered near the rock piles. Eventually you pass through a lively town center one night and watch the horror as you realize that the town centers around here are not filled with decorations as you thought, but instead is the stage where weekly stoneings are take. The decorations are the mark of christianity, a crucifix, and signs proclaiming certain lines from the bible. This town in particular is observing Leviticus 20:13 “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. in this town only the homosexuals are being murdered, but in other towns people of other faiths are murdered, and still in others people are sold into slavery. This is the world of christian fundamentalism and it must be stopped before it starts again. In the following paragraphs I will explain in the best detail I know, the process of my realization that religion is completely false, reasons that I enjoy debunking it, my own subjectivities on the issue, finally some questions I have and where I stand as an insider or outsider.

I was not formally introduced to religion until about age five My grandfather had passed away and I was very upset over it. I stayed up late one night asking my mother all sorts of questions about death. I would ask, “What happens when a person dies?” “Does everybody die?” and na├»ve questions of this sort. To this I was answered that, yes indeed everybody dies, and that when you die you are re-united with god. These answers undoubtedly led to a more rigorous line of questioning. I asked “What is god?” and I received a vague, “god is who created everything that exists.” I continued asking questions and continued to get vague responses until I began to think, Perhaps I am just too young to understand these concepts; my mom is smart so I will trust her.” Thankfully my parents were never very religious so I didn't have to deal with these questions often, maybe once a year when we would go to church. Other than that religion and the concept of god occupied only the smallest of places in my mind.

As I entered high school I started to become aware of the religiosity of my peers. Many of them went to a thing called “youth group” which raised my curiosity. Terms were being thrown around that seemed like jargon to me, so much so that I truthfully did not know the difference between a catholic and a christian. Eventually I confronted my parents on this issue and declared that I wanted to start going to church, to learn about my supposed “faith.” For about six months we went weekly to a lutheran church in Ann Arbor. I wanted to know what christianity was all about, I tried to immerse myself in it. I even went so far as to have myself baptized at the age of thirteen hoping that this ritual would bring me closer to answers about the divine. Sadly it did not bring me any, but the confidence of my peers and parents in this religion was unwavering so I assumed the right questions were not being asked. For a twelve week period every Sunday after church my mother and I would meet with our pastor for bible study. The pastor would pick out a few verses every week to help explain the meaning and truth of christianity. This only brought up more questions. I would ask the pastor my questions, but he would just refer me to an event called “alpha.” Alpha is a group that meets for new christians every week at the church. At the beginning of the meeting a short film was shown about happiness, god, and how to achieve happiness by pleasing god, etc. This was followed by a group discussion. I decided to attend this group so that hopefully my questions could be answered. After watching the video with four adults, who were at least three times my age, I started asking questions. This time I had very precise questions, and the answering these questions was of dire importance. I asked about gods love. I asked, “If god loves all of us, why do many children starve to death in other countries?” The adults responded that it is because “god cannot do everything at once, he focuses on bigger things that are more important in the long run.” This answer was not satisfactory, however I was willing to let it go until a woman in the group (who agreed with that answer) informed me that god is also very personal, and that he personally helps her pick out her shoes in the morning. The rest of the group also agreed with that statement, and complimented her on her intimate relationship with god. It was at this moment I realized it was all a sham. Apparently god is too busy to feed starving children but has plenty of time to help plump middle class women pick out their shoes.

Although I was only fourteen at the time I realized the grave contradictions being made. I realized that it was not my problem that I did not understand religion, it was the fact that it truly did not make a bit of sense. Nobody could answer my innocent questions: not the pastor, not my parents, not my peers, not my church mates, and especially not the archaic text of the bible. At first I became open to all the religions of the world, perhaps one of them was true. After some searching I realized all the religions had this deeply rooted irrationality to them. I pronounced myself as an atheist. I had come to this realization, not only all by myself, but in spite of all of the major social influences in my life: my parents, my friends, and more broadly, my entire school. I thought that if I had come to this conclusion in spite of all the influences around me, certainly with a little bit of logical influence anybody would see the inherent irrationality of religion. I was wrong, dead wrong.

Since the dawn of publicly available high-speed Internet, the faithful have found a hard time making their views look anything but foolish. The free exchange of ideas and the anonymity of the Internet provides a strong backbone to the individual with less popular ideas. On the Internet, it is the ideas who compete for prosperity, not people. There is not a single rational argument in defense of religion. Without the influence of social pressure or charisma, the idea of jesus christ being some sort of deity is laughable.

I enjoy partaking in the debunking of religion because I find it amusing that humans, who have a capacity for great intelligence and reasoning, will throw it all away when the subject of religion approaches. It is as if the subject of religion is exempt from rational inquiry. This probably stems from the fact that a “faithful” person is taught that even considering the idea that god or jesus is not real is one of the greatest sins against god, and those who are skeptical are in cahoots with the devil. Some of these people will still try to debate, always failing. Consider the contradiction of omnipotence, omniscience and free will. Supposedly, god is all powerful and all knowing, and supposedly humans have free will. To be all knowing, it means to know all past, present, and future. To be all powerful, it means to have the power to do anything desired. So god created us knowing exactly how we would turn out. He is incapable of doing something without knowing all the past, present, and future outcomes of his creation. He knows before you were even born whether or not you are going to hell or to heaven. Clearly, there is no free will. Some clever debaters might say, “being all powerful means he can do whatever he wants, and so there can be free will in spite of this.This is false. Consider the paradox; can an omnipotent being create a rock that is so heavy that he himself cannot lift it? If he can’t, he isn’t omnipotent. If he can, he isn’t omnipotent. There is no such thing as omnipotence. This is just one example of the sorts of debates I like to engage in. Essentially my initial motive for debunking religion was because I thought human foolishness was humorous, but now I have a slightly more altruistic motive. I can clearly see that religion is a destructive force in all of human civilization. It is important that these religious ideas are publicly questioned and debated. For the longest time atheists just kept quiet because our ideas were considered offensive, but this silence resulted in the accumulation of religious ideas being spread around unchecked, like a disease.

Clearly anyone who has an opinion has subjectivities, and I am no different. It is subjective of me to say that religion is a disease. It is subjective of me to say that religion should be phased out, and it is subjective for me to say religion is a destructive force. However, it is objective that religion is inherently irrational. This stems from the logical contradictions of religious texts. It is objective to say that millions have been killed over religion. It is objective to say that the god of the bible endorses slavery, murder, rape, and genocide. Simply my subjectivities about religion stem from my subjective morality. I do not think murder, rape, slavery or genocide are good things, therefore I think that a religion that endorses these things is bad. It becomes destructive when these sorts of religions have a large influence on a culture. From the crusades to to the attacks on the world trade center, religion has been behind many of the most evil acts human civilization has ever inflicted on itself.

As far as being on the inside or on the outside of this “idea,” I am on both sides. I am on the inside when we are talking about atheism, but I am on the outside in most social situations in the USA. Because the amount of religious people in this country outnumbers the non-religious, I would say that overall, I am on the outside. But when compared to the average industrial nation, I am on the inside, as all industrial nations are far less religious than the USA. I have a few questions about this topic, mostly, why is it that the most religious people are typically the least educated? Why do so many people think that religion is necessary for morality, when the most atheistic nations in the world have the lowest crime and violence? What causes a person to believe something so much that no amount of evidence will sway your belief?

The scenario of driving through the bible belt to find people being stoned to death is an exaggeration. However this is common practice in area's where religious fundamentalism is accepted. With the growing levels of fundamentalism in the united states, it will not be long before things like this are a regular occurrence. Fundamentalism in the middle east is causing major problems in the world today, and the growing amount of fundamentalism in the US is only going to worsen this issue. I have learned a lot since that fateful day when I was five and I asked my mother about death. I have come to find that all religion is false, religion is destructive, and I enjoy debunking it not only because I find human foolishness humorous but also because it is important that these irrational ideas not be left unchecked.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Research Team Clones Man

A Californian research team at the Stemagen Corporation Lab in La Jolla announced on January 17th that in an effort to create individual stem cells lines they have cloned a volunteer using nuclear transfer a technique that involves the removal of the nucleus from an adult cell and transferring it into a donated egg cell. After mild coaxing the embryo will begin to develop and stem cells with an exact DNA match to the person needing them can be harvested. Stem cells without genetic differences to their recipients are intended to have the benefit of increased efficiency of stem cell therapy, and far less chance of rejection of the cells. However no stem cell lines have been able to be derived through this method as of yet. This is the first documented cloning of a human embryo from nuclear transfer according to the researchers. This method of creating stem cells is controversial because it involves the creation and destruction of human embryo's. The issue of human cloning is likely to bring up more ethical issues. The cloned embryo created by this research team were destroyed in the process of verifying that it was indeed a true clone.

Source

Personally, I am tired of subjectivities playing such a large role in the ethics of research. Certainly carefully examining the ethical questions surrounding research is of vital importance. However in cases like these where ethics is almost purely derived from personal subjectivities, it can be incredibly harmful to the research process.

Many see the creation and destruction of embryo's as "playing god." However one must pose the question whether we are "playing god" whenever we choose to not clone a human. Potentially we could be cloning individuals everyday, but we choose not to. All of those lives that could have been are now never going to see the light of day because of the decision that we make to not continually clone.

A human embryo is no more "human" than a seed of an oak tree. At the early stages of embryo it can be more easily compared to a collection of organic molecules being manipulated by a genetic code.


The Selfish Gene, a Classic, With Novel Insights



I have recently just finished devouring "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. The insights put forth by Dawkins in this book are breathtaking. The central theme introduced is that the basic unit upon which natural selection acts is not on the organism, but primarily on the individual gene acting in a selfish behavior.
The book is now in its 30th anniversary edition, or 3rd edition filled with 13 chapters and 234 pages packed with insight into natural selection and the manner in which it operates. It is written at a level almost anyone can read, and I would highly recommend that it be read. Chapter by chapter Richard Dawkins thoroughly examines and re-examines the idea's he puts forth, and elegantly explains using real world examples how selfish behavior in genes can give rise to seemingly "altruistic behavior" in organisms. The main line of reasoning behind the idea of the gene being the basic unit of selection rather than the organism is because the gene is the basic unit of replication. In the beginning it was just self-replicating molecules, whom eventually became what we know as genes. Hence forth genes have been differentiating and competing for resources, and the bodies that these genes occupy are nothing more than gigantic robots that have been the consequence of individual genes acting in ways that promoted their own replication.
It is in the eleventh chapter of this book that the concept of "memes" is developed. For those who have never heard of a meme or memes, it is the insight that ideas and concepts themselves have the ability to replicate, and as such are subject to natural selection. The biggest difference between genes and memes is merely the fact that memes have the ability to replicate much faster, and therefore evolve much faster. The idea of memes has been gaining in popularity at a rather steady pace since the original publishing in 1976, although it seems that there has been a spurt of attention paid to it in the past several years.
The last chapter of this book titled "The Long Reach of the Gene" was actually one of my favorites. He introduces the final insight of the book which he dubbed "the extended phenotype" (also the title of his 1982 book on the same concept.) In which Dawkins explains clearly how the effect a gene has on its own survival is not always clearly direct, and that the phenotype of any given gene includes all of the consequences on its environment, and not just the immediate ones of protein expression. Explaining the strange relationships between parasites and hosts. Why some parasites participate in mutualistic behavior whereas others are purely selfish. Presented in a clearly understandable train of logic it is demonstrated that this difference arises whether the two share the same vehicle for reproduction or not.
This book although over thirty years old is still extremely relevant to the biological sciences, and offers a philosophical framework in which students and others interested can use to help understand exactly how it is natural selection works. It helps students gain their own insight and develop more specific questions into how exactly various genes rise to dominance. This book will entertain you with its real life examples, and it will make you re-think the entire concept of "organism." I would rate this book a 9 out of 10, as the only criticism I have of it, is that there was a point that it seemed just a tad bit repetitive, but I suppose it was necessary in order to really drive the points home. The book presented many clear rational insights into the nature of natural selection and I encourage it to be read by anyone interested in evolution or the biological sciences.