Category Archives: Science

The Pope’s Views on Science — So What?

This is a big topic, and we fear that we are woefully inadequate to deal with it — but we’ll attempt it anyway. Our question is: Why are Pope Francis’ remarks to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences about evolution and the Big Bang such big news?

Really, that’s our question. There are no biologists or astronomers who, upon hearing of the Pope’s statements, thought: “Ah, now I can go on with my work.” But the press is all aflutter. The implication is that the Pope has declared science to be valid. But we already knew that it was, so although it’s nice to hear that the Catholic Church will continue to be congenial to science, what’s the big deal? We think the press frenzy reflects only the thinking of journalists.

Most people don’t know what to think — about anything — so the Pope’s opinion is a big deal for them. They were born with the ability to think for themselves, but it was never developed. As a result, they adopt the conclusions of those they regard as their intellectual superiors — parents, teachers, politicians, preachers, and other pundits. They also accept the opinions of certain institutions they have been taught are worthy of respect: their church, their government — even the UN. A large number actually adopt the opinions of show business celebrities. Our point is that most people get their opinions from second-hand sources. It’s rare when someone is informed, reaches his own conclusions, and is entirely comfortable doing so.

The typical non-thinker lives in a fog of uncertainty about virtually everything, taking comfort in adopting the conclusions of others — which he will dogmatically defend with memorized phrases on every occasion. But that kind of certainty is an illusion. No one can learn about anything of importance by relying on the opinions of other people — and certainly not by relying on people like journalists or preachers. Those “authorities” may be opinionated, but what do they really know of the topics on which they expound?

If a big announcement is made by a noted science research lab, you could read their paper, review their data, and decide for yourself if their conclusions are justified. But if the Pope (or some other authority) makes an announcement about something, there’s nothing to review. It’s a done deal. And most people get their opinions from such sources.

Everyone understands that you can’t become an athlete by reading about it, or by hearing lectures. You need to actually do it. Yes, you need instructors, but only as a guide to your own active participation. It’s similar to the way a toddler is taught to walk. But what most people don’t understand is that, as with walking, so it is with thinking. You have to learn to actually do it. You can’t allow others to do your thinking for you, and then merely adopt their conclusions. That’s not thinking — it’s tribalism. You don’t really have an opinion, you’re only adopting one so you can blend in.

What’s required for people to learn how to do their own thinking? For the hard sciences (physics, astronomy, chemistry, etc.), and for subjects like engineering, math and logic, the topics themselves teach the student to follow the arguments and to arrive at the inevitable conclusions. The subject matter compels the student to do his own thinking. But what about other topics? That’s where second-hand opinions seem to abound.

Wikipedia describes the perceived differences between Hard science and soft science. The hard sciences produce solid, verifiable results, and routinely abandon discredited ideas. There’s no room for personal opinions that disagree with the data. But the soft sciences — often called the social sciences — are less rigorous. Nothing in the soft sciences ever really seems to be discredited. No matter how often certain political and economic ideas fail in practice, they never fade away. It’s all a matter of popular opinion.

So what’s to be done about the soft sciences? How do we teach people to think? All we can come up with is the Socratic method of instruction, which challenges a student to defend his answers. It’s an excellent technique, but it requires excellent teachers — an uncommon commodity.

But wait — the authoritarians (religious or otherwise) will complain: If there’s no authority, if everyone does his own thinking, the result will be chaos! Really? Is science chaotic? Mathematics? Engineering? No, they’re not. But in each of those activities, people are doing their own thinking. No authoritarian approval is required.

It seems to us that chaos reigns only in those areas where people don’t think for themselves, and defer to authority instead.

So how shall we end this essay? Our points are these: (1) We need to do a much better job than we’re doing of getting people to do their own thinking; and (2) while we appreciate the Pope’s remarks about science, we don’t think they’re worth all the fuss that’s being made over them.

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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Rev. David Rives: Atoms Mentioned in the Bible

The Drool-o-tron™ suddenly went into Extreme Mode and it wouldn’t calm down. The blaring sirens and flashing lights were more strident than we can remember, and the blinking letters of its wall display said WorldNetDaily (WND). Our computer was locked onto WND’s presentation of the latest video by the brilliant and articulate leader of David Rives Ministries.

WND’s headline is Bible speaks of atoms before science ever dreamed it. What a headline!

Wowie — atoms are mentioned in the bible! This is astounding news! We had thought that the first speculation about such things was by Democritus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who was born around around 460 BC. That shows you how little your Curmudgeon knows compared to the rev.

So we clicked on the video. The actual title for it is Bible Knows Best: Atoms, the Dust of the World? The rev reveals the place in the bible where atoms are mentioned. Should we spoil things by telling you where it is? Well, okay — it’s in Proverbs 8, verse 26, attributed to King Solomon. Here’s the text (King James version, of course):

While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.

That’s it — the dust of the world. The rev says it’s a reference to atoms! Isn’t that amazing? While all those sinful secularist scientists have been blundering around in their ignorance, the information they were seeking has always been in the bible — but they ignored it. The fools!

You gotta watch this video. It’s the usual 90-second presentation, followed by a commercial. The rev isn’t wearing his bible-boy suit this time. He wearing a blazer, without a tie. He seems almost too casually attired to be telling us news of this importance, but he gives a great performance. Go ahead, click on the video and take a look. He’s so gosh darned cute! You can’t resist.

As we always do with the rev’s videos, we dedicate the comments section for your use as an Intellectual Free Fire Zone. You know the rules. Okay, the comments are open. Go for it!

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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Pope Francis, Evolution, & the Big Bang

Over the past few days we’ve seen literally hundreds of news stories headlining the Pope’s position on evolution and the Big Bang. Hint: he’s not opposed to science, as long as it’s understood that God is the ultimate creator.

We haven’t written about this (until now) because it isn’t news. What we’ve been waiting for is the inevitable creationist reaction, because that’s going to be fun. We’re expecting something along those lines soon, perhaps today. Meanwhile, we’ve finally found one news story that puts the Pope’s statements into the proper historical context, so that’s worth mentioning.

It’s also worth noting that it appears in the Times of Israel, an online newspaper based in Jerusalem. Their headline is Were Pope’s evolution remarks a break from Catholic teaching?, and there’s a comments section at the end. Their story says, with bold font added by us:

The Pope did indeed make comments about compatibility of evolution and the bible, but his comments continued Catholic teachings on science and God, a point missed by the coverage of his remarks. In a speech Monday before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City, Francis said that the theory of evolution is not incompatible with the account of creation as recorded in the Bible, and the Big Bang does not contradict divine intervention but rather requires it.

“We run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything,” he said, arguing against young earth creationism. “But that is not so.”

[...]

The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”

Those are the remarks that were headlined everywhere, but so far, only the Times of Israel seems capable of putting the Pope’s words in perspective. They tell us:

Francis’s remarks were covered breathlessly in the media, but the coverage has not reflected that they are solidly consistent with previous Church teachings.

[...]

The official position of the Catholic Church has been very clear, emphasized Murray Watson, cofounder of the Center for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim learning at Ontario’s Western University: Catholicism does not see an inherent contradiction between faith and any of the several leading theories of evolution, as long as those theories can allow room for a number of beliefs. First, that God is the ultimate source of evolution. Second, that God is ultimately guiding the process, even if indirectly through the laws of nature. And finally, that the human soul is God’s direct creation, not a random result of evolution.

In other words, Theistic evolution. Let’s read on:

Speeches and statements by leading Catholic clergy over the years has presented the same position regarding faith and science. In a 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II said that “new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

Right. We’ve written about that before — see The Catholic Church and Evolution, and before that: The Catholic Church and Science — which is why we didn’t think the current Pope’s remarks were newsworthy. But it will certainly be upsetting to the Discoveroids — see Discovery Institute’s Advice to Pope Francis.

Then the Times of Israel asks the same question that occurred to us:

Why, then, did many media outlets perceive Francis’s speech as breaking new ground for the Catholic Church?

They quote Wheeling Jesuit University theologian Andrew Staron:

Staron posited that too many observers still see “a deep conflict between religious faith and scientific inquiry.”

“Both sides of this perceived conflict posit a God who interacts with the world from outside of it by rearranging the laws of nature when it suits the divine will. Belief in such a God — whether embraced or rejected — does not take seriously enough the possibility of coming to know the Creator in and through creation and, importantly, in and through human reason. To posit a God who is only accessible to an irrational faith is to believe that we can only come to know God by denying one of the key elements of what makes us human — our reason. Instead, the Catholic Church teaches that human reason, when properly formed, opens to the divine.

That’s how we understood their position. It seems to us that the Catholic Church is moving toward a hybrid position that resembles Deism in the beginning, and then morphs into a literal interpretation of the events in the New Testament, but with the “history” of Genesis as allegorical. To us, that’s unobjectionable, but we’re waiting to be entertained by the anguished creationist reactions.

See also: The Pope’s Views on Science — So What?

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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Italian Seismologists’ Appeal Proceedings

We posted twice before about six Italian scientists and an ex-government official who were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison, plus a permanent ban from civil service, because of the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila. Our first post was two years ago: Seismologists Convicted, Idiots Delighted. Five months later we wrote Italian Seismologists Appeal Their Convictions.

We said that their conviction might be the most insane court decision since Galileo’s heresy conviction. Galileo got convicted for saying that the Earth moves, and then these guys get convicted for failing to say it would move. For background information, we’ll repeat a quote from a news story at the time:

According to the prosecutors, the experts underestimated the risk that a major shock might be on its way, and some of them made exceedingly reassuring statements to the press, implying that a strong earthquake would surely not happen. As a result, the prosecutors argued, on 6 April 2009, when a magnitude-6.3 quake occurred, 29 people who would otherwise have fled their homes during a tremor decided to stay inside and were killed when the houses collapsed.

It’s been almost a year and a half since they started the appeal. From time to time we search for news of their plight, but we haven’t found anything — until now. This appeared at the website of Nature a few days ago: Italian seismologists fight to overturn convictions. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

The six Italian scientists and one government official who were convicted of manslaughter in relation to statements they made before the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy are back in court to appeal the ruling.

[...]

The appeal began on 10 October and is expected to be unusually quick by Italian standards. The three-judge court says that it wants to wrap up the proceedings by the end of the month or by early November at the latest.

We assume it’s the appeal hearings that began on 10 October, during which there appears to have been a recital of what happened at the original trial. Let’s read on:

On 31 March 2009, after four months during which residents of L’Aquila had been unnerved by a series of small earthquakes, the seven men took part in a meeting of the major risks commission, an expert group that advises the Italian government. According to the prosecution, the meeting resulted in a reassuring message — conveyed through local and national media — that convinced L’Aquila citizens that no strong earthquake could happen in the following days.

The prosecution says that when the magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck on 6 April 2009, 29 people who might have otherwise fled decided to stay in their homes on the basis of that reassurance, and were killed when their houses collapsed. The judge said that the message of the meeting contributed directly to the deaths of those 29 people in particular, out of 309 who lost their lives in the quake.

Have there been any earthquakes in Italy since then? If there were, did any anyone dare to make any predictions? Maybe “Run for your lives!” is the only safe thing to say in that country. We continue:

Unlike the first trial, in which dozens of citizens and experts appeared as witnesses, the appeal is an affair mostly between the judges, the public prosecutor and the defendants’ lawyers. The key points are still the same: whether the defendants did explicitly reassure the population; and whether a causal link can be proven between whatever was or was not said and where those citizens chose to spend the night of 6 April 2009.

They probably meant to say: “chose to spend the night in their homes.” Here’s more:

Much of the prosecution’s case revolves around a television interview, recorded a few hours before the meeting but aired after it, in which De Bernardinis [defendant Bernardo De Bernardinis, now president of the Institute for Environmental Research and Protection (ISPRA) in Rome, and deputy head of the Italian Civil Protection Department at the time of the earthquake] said that “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy” — a statement that most seismologists deem incorrect. Although no such statement appears in the minutes of the meeting that followed, the judge argued in 2012 that the other six defendants did nothing to contradict De Bernardinis’s words, and did not sufficiently highlight the probability of a strong earthquake and its possible consequences.

That certainly justifies a manslaughter conviction for the whole pack of them — in Italy, anyway. Moving along:

In a hearing on 18 October, the defence took the stand. Carlo Sica, the lawyer representing the Italian State, asked for the seven to be fully discharged. He said that there can be no link between the meeting, which was not public, and what people did on the day of the earthquake. Instead, he blamed the media for creating a “short circuit” that delivered a wrong message, presenting the TV interview as if it were the outcome of the meeting.

Egad — the defense is blaming the media! But journalists are never to blame for anything. Another excerpt:

[The lawyer for one of the defendants, Claudio Eva, a professor of Earth physics at the University of Genoa,] Alessandra Stefano made the same point, noting that no reassuring message can be found in statements actually made by any of the indicted during or after the meeting. She also attacked local and national civil-protection officials, who were legally responsible for protecting and informing the citizens, and instead diverted blame to the scientists.

There’s a lotta blame being slung around. On with the article:

[The lawyer for Giulio Selvaggi, former director of the INGV's National Earthquake Centre in Rome,] Franco Coppi described his client’s predicament as “profoundly unjust”. Selvaggi was not a formal member of the major risks commission and was in L’Aquila only to accompany his boss, Boschi, but was nonetheless charged and found guilty.

Poor guy. And now we come to the end:

The next hearings will take place on 24 and 25 October, when lawyers for the other defendants will make their arguments. On 31 October, the prosecution will present counteraguments. The court is expected to deliver its verdict shortly afterwards.

Italian appeals are lengthy proceedings. Anyway, we’ll have the results soon. Considering the risks associated with making predictions about things that might happen in Italy, we shall prudently refrain from speculating about the outcome.

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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