The Taliban isn't the same as atheist

According to an article on the, Lady Greenfield, the former head of the Royal Institution, has criticized physicist Stephen Hawking about his stance in his new book, The Grand Design, in which he said that the universe can be explained without a need for a god.

Greenfield criticized the smugness that she perceives in non-believing scientists like Hawking by saying:

Of course they can make whatever comments they like but when they assume, rather in a Taliban-like way, that they have all the answers then I do feel uncomfortable. I think that doesn’t necessarily do science a service.

I really don't think "Taliban" means what she thinks it means. The Taliban are an extreme religious group that repress women, enforce an brutal version of Sharia law, execute those that they disagree with, and deny many of the fundamentals of science. Atheists on the other hand, don't do any of that. If you deny religion, by definition, you can't be part of the Taliban. You would think that someone of her statue would know that.

If you don't want to hear my religious views, don't knock on my door with yours

When I was in college, I lived in a cluster of townhouses not far from a Jehovah's Witnesses' church. They used to stop by at least every other week in order to peddle their religious beliefs. Early one Saturday they knocked on my door. As anyone should know, you shouldn't visit a college student that early in the morning, especially on a Saturday. I was pleasant with them, as pleasant as I could be in my hung over state anyway. However, they seemed oddly uncomfortable as they told me the "Good News." After they handed me their weird ass magazine and left, I turned around and saw what was making them uncomfortable. The night before, which I had forgotten, some friends, who were Wiccan, and I had made a big pentagram on the floor, complete with candles and empty Keystone Light cans. Today, I can't remember why we did it. If I had to guess, to my friends it was sort of a cross between a sacred ceremony and an experiment to see if some spell actually worked. To me, I'm sure it was a cross between a joke and an FU to the gods.

If the spell was to keep the Jehovah's Witnesses from coming back, it worked.

That was really my last experience with that odd little sect. Even though I've moved several times since then, I can only remember Jehovah's Witnesses stopping by my house just once, and that seemed only halfheartedly. Maybe it is because they are on to me. In the new issue of their magazine Awake!, the have a very scary article called, "Is Atheism on the March?" Without the slightest hint of irony they write in the first sentence:

A new group of atheists has arisen in society. Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen! The church that wakes you up early on the weekends so they can preach to you about how you should join their sect are upset that atheists won't keep their views to themselves.

It's enough to make you laugh, if you can get through it. It is really a pretty badly written article. They claim that the new atheists like to "wave the banner of science over their camp," which is true, but then they try to debunk the atheist's claims using science. It really is a train wreck of logical fallacies.

They pull up long debunked arguments that evolution it wrong, that Einstein is a Christian while Pol Pot is an atheist, and that morality can only be found through God. It's really quite annoying. Can't they make up any new arguments?

Here is a hint, if you are going to use science to combat atheists, don't use the Bible as your sole reference. Try using, I don't know,.... ACTUAL SCIENCE! But if you do that, you might find out that science undermines your entire religion and the atheists were right all along. And you wouldn't want to do that would you?

Yet to be Verified

When I see a headline like this, "Panspermia theorists say India's red rain contains life not seen on Earth", I can't help but think they left off the most important words. Yet to be verified.

In July 2001, red rain fell in India, most likely tinted by sand and dust from a desert. In this rain, a researcher named Godfrey Louis found cells. That in and of itself isn't that big of deal. There isn't a natural drop of water on earth that is sterile. However, Louis claims that these cells contain no DNA, only reproduce when above 121°C, and fluorescence under UV light. If this is true, WHICH IT HAS YET TO BE VERIFIED, it would be very interesting. But to Chandra Wickramasinghe, a leading panspermia theorist from the UK, this is proof of panspermia, the theory that life could travel from planet to planet by hitching a ride on rocks and comets. He has even narrowed down the origin.

The team also found an unusual pattern in the way the cells changed colour under UV light, known as "fluorescence behaviour". They said it was "in remarkable correspondence" with red emissions from the Red Rectangle planetary nebula some 2300 light years away, "suggesting, though not proving, an extraterrestrial origin".

A planetary nebula is a relatively short period in a star's life, last just a few tens of thousands of years. It happens toward the end of the life of a sun sized star when it blows off it's outer layers and forms a beautiful nebula. The Red Rectangle nebula is 2300 light years away, so we are seeing it as it was a couple of thousand years ago. Here is a key point to keep in mind, even if the life around a star or nebula did emit a corresponding light, WHICH IT DOESN'T, light travels a lot faster than rocks or comets. The light from the nebula has traveled 2,300 years to reach us. If a comet containing the seeds of life left that system at the same time, it wouldn't get here for millions of years, and by that time the nebula will have been long gone and there would be no way to compare the fluorescent life with the source nebula.

This is just shitty science reporting. There are a lot of other things wrong with this article, but I would like to hear Dr. Scott's take on it, as biology is his field.

Leading Global Warming Skeptic Reverses Course

Bjørn Lomborg, a very high profile climate change skeptic, has changed his mind. Perhaps he realized that with all the weird weather this summer, from the Pakistan floods to the Russian heat wave to the massive loss of ice from the Arctic ice sheets to the record high temperatures around the globe, the evidence for man-made climate change was overwhelming. Or perhaps he realized he could make more money by putting out a book embracing global warming.

Was Darwin Wrong?

No, no he wasn't. Like many other news sources, we are using that misleading headline as blatant attention grabber to get more views. However, there is a dispute that is evolving in the field (See what we did there?). As an article titled "Scientists Square Off on Evolutionary Value of Helping Relatives" in the New York Times reports:

Why are worker ants sterile? Why do birds sometimes help their parents raise more chicks, instead of having chicks of their own? Why do bacteria explode with toxins to kill rival colonies? In 1964, the British biologist William Hamilton published a landmark paper to answer these kinds of questions. Sometimes, he argued, helping your relatives can spread your genes faster than having children of your own...

But in the latest issue of the journal Nature, a team of prominent evolutionary biologists at Harvard try to demolish the theory.

Dr. Hamilton argued that since we share half of our genes with our siblings, sometimes we can pass on more copies of our genes by helping our relatives survive and have offspring than we could if we had children ourselves.

Each organism faces a trade-off between putting effort into raising its own offspring or helping its relatives. If the benefits of helping a relative outweigh the costs, Dr. Hamilton argued, altruism can evolve.

Dr. Hamilton called his theory inclusive fitness and published it in 1964. Since then, biologists have used the theory to explain how animal societies, such as bees and ants, evolve. It has even been applied to our own evolution.

However, a team of biologist from Harvard has cast doubt on Hamilton's theory.

The scientists argue that studies on animals since Dr. Hamilton’s day have failed to support (inclusive fitness). The scientists write that a close look at the underlying math reveals that Dr. Hamilton’s theory is superfluous. “It’s precisely like an ancient epicycle in the solar system,” said Martin Nowak, a co-author of the paper with Edward O. Wilson and Corina Tarnita. “The world is much simpler without it.”

The researchers developed a mathematical analysis of natural selection to test the differences between different behaviors in a population. They tested altruism versus selfish populations. What they found didn't support inclusive fitness theory.

The researchers found that inclusive fitness theory worked only under special conditions. All the effects that the animals had on each other had to take place on a one-to-one basis. In the real world, individuals may benefit from many other individuals as a group.

Standard natural selection, the scientists argue, explains everything inclusive fitness theory was supposed to, without these special conditions.

However, many scientists disagree with those findings and still back inclusive fitness theory. They argue that the study is flawed. It doesn't include how closely the animals are related, and therefore kinship can't be ruled out as a driving force in social evolution.

“This paper, far from showing shortcomings in inclusive fitness theory, shows the shortcomings of the authors,” said Frances Ratnieks of the University of Sussex.

The supporters of inclusive fitness theory are sending a reply to Nature to challenge the Harvard researcher's paper.

This is what I love about science. A vigorous debate is going on about the details of a larger theory. I have no idea which side will end up being correct, but I'm positive that scientists will weigh all the evidence and follow where it leads them. While I'm sure this news story will show up on some creationist's blog about how scientists are disagreeing over evolution, this in no way voids Darwin's theory. It only makes the theory richer and more subtle.