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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Not Everyone Was Freezing Their Butts Off This March

Source: March of Global Warming: Month 4th Warmest on Record
Though cool temperatures prevailed across the eastern U.S. and Canada through March, the month was the fourth warmest March on record globally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday. It was the 38th March in a row with warmer-than-average temperatures.

Where 2014 ultimately falls in the rankings may depend on whether an El Niño develops later this year, something NOAA scientists have said has a better than 50 percent chance of happening by this summer or fall. An El Niño event is marked by warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, and is accompanied by shifts in atmospheric wind patterns. El Niño years are typically warmer than normal globally.

The global average temperature wasn’t the only sign of warming in March. The maximum extent of Arctic sea ice, reached on March 21, was the fifth smallest on record, and snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere was the sixth smallest extent in the 48-year record.

Coursera: Emergence of Life

I’ve signed up for a few online course through Coursera but, to be honest, I never end up having time to do everything required. I’m going to do my best to make time for this one though.

Source: Emergence of Life
How did life emerge on Earth? How have life and Earth co-evolved through geological time? Is life elsewhere in the universe? Take a look through the 4-billion-year history of life on Earth through the lens of the modern Tree of Life.

Course Syllabus
Week 1. Course Welcome, Geological Time, and the Nature of Science
Week 2. The Tree of Life and Early Earth Environments
Week 3. Fossilization and Precambrian Life-Earth Interaction
Week 4. Paleozoic Life After the Advent of Skeletons
Week 5. Paleozoic Plants, Reptiles, and the Transition to Land
Week 6. Mesozoic Reign of Dinosaurs and the Development of Flight
Week 7. Cenozoic Mammals and Global Environmental Change
Week 8. Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Cosmos

Americans Not Very Confident in Science

Americans don’t know a lot about the universe but they’re sure it is so complex it had to be created by a god. That’s one possible reading of the latest AP poll where people were asked about their confidence in various scientific statements. 72% agreed at least “somewhat” that, “The universe is so complex, there must be a supreme being guiding its creation.” By contrast, “The Earth is 4.5 billion years old,” only received 60% support, and “The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang,” got only 46%.

As an article in The Atlantic points out, it is possible some people knew about the big bang but just weren’t confident about the 13.8 billion year figure. Polls in the past suggest that isn’t the case however. Some excerpts from the Atlantic article follow.

Source: A Majority of Americans Still Aren't Sure About the Big Bang
Up until 2010, they asked the following question: True or false, the universe began with a huge explosion. Since 1990, the number of people answering true to that question has bounced between 32 and 38 percent. (The number was anomalously higher in 1988, a discrepancy that they do not explain.)

In 2012, the National Science Board tried to parse out why Americans were different by adding ‘according to astronomers’ into the Big Bang question for half the survey respondents. Like this:

According to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion.
60 percent of Americans said this statement was true, versus 39 percent who said so when the “according to astronomers” was not present. This would suggest that 40 percent of people know the science, 40 percent of people don’t, and 20 percent have heard the science, but believe otherwise.

Before you lament the fall of the republic, consider that very little has changed in the public awareness of scientific knowledge over the past 20 years. The 2014 report put it bluntly: “The public’s level of factual knowledge about science has not changed much over the past two decades.”

Is Making Weaker Trees a Good Idea?

Source: Cheaper Fuel From Self-Destructing Trees
Wood is great for building and heating homes, but it’s the bane of biofuels. When converting plants to fuels, engineers must remove a key component of wood, known as lignin, to get to the sugary cellulose that’s fermented into alcohols and other energy-rich compounds. That’s costly because it normally requires high temperatures and caustic chemicals. Now, researchers in the United States and Canada have modified the lignin in poplar trees to self-destruct under mild processing conditions—a trick that could slash the cost of turning plant biomass into biofuels.

I’m not an alarmist about genetic modification. Over the years I’ve gone from unsure and cautious to fine with it and even pro-modification for the right applications. This proposal however at the least raises some questions in my mind.

I wonder what the risks are of this new gene getting into the wild population. There are already documented cases of genes inserted in food crops crossing with existing, non-modified, strains of the crop. Now, maybe it would be the case that non-modified trees would just out compete any strains with this modification but nature can be complex and unpredictable. It seems like more fragile trees that are easier targets for pests and disease could be one nightmare result of this idea.

Fire Tornadoes and Barely Constrained Randomness

A couple nifty little science videos.

Fire Tornadoes
Take a dust devil, add fire, and you get this awesome looking spectacle.

“Pillar of fire” Australia- in real-time from chris tangey on Vimeo.
Via The Atlantic

Inside the Cell
Animations showing the inner workings of a living cell often look mechanistic, almost like a little assembly line. The reality is quite different. Cells are just packed full of proteins and near random activity. Science writer Carl Zimmer described it as “barely constrained randomness.” The BioVisions group at Harvard have put together this update to their previous Inside the Cell video to let you see what it is really like.

Inner Life of a Cell | Protein Packing
Via Carl Zimmer

XKCD How the Heartbleed Bug Works


Jesus Barabbas and the Allegorical Trial Scene

People have devoted entire websites to contradictions, moral failings, and falsehoods in the Bible. In a world where some hold to the untenable position of biblical inerrancy such sites have their place. However, many such biblical problems are boring and, in any other environment, pointing them out would even be a bit petty. Some problems are actually quite interesting though and I think the character Barabbas from the trial of Jesus is one of them.

For those unfamiliar here is the story as told in Mark

Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified

6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7 Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8 So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9 Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Historically Plausible?
The problem with this part of the trial story is that it has zero historical plausibility. Outside of this one gospel story no writer ever mentioned a Roman custom of releasing dangerous criminals. Given its unusual nature we can have a high expectation that we would find at least one such a mention. What’s more, what we know of Roman administration of territories positively excludes such custom for the Romans were no kind and gentle overlords.

This goes doubly for the territory of Jerusalem. Riot and insurrection were common occurrences both when Rome ruled through client (puppet) kings and when they ruled the territory more directly. If the Romans had such a custom one can be sure that each year at Passover, they would be compelled by the crowds to release the most popular rebel, thus insuring more riot and insurrection. Not to mention this is supposed to be happening under Pontius Pilate, a man with a brutal reputation in our sources, especially when it came to his attitude towards Jewish customs and laws. No, this episode simply did not happen.

But Why Include It?
The question naturally arises as to why this part of the story would become part of the early Christian tradition (it appears in all four canonical gospels). Did the authors, and their readers, simply not know how implausible it was? It appears the reasons for this story were strictly allegorical.

The Two Goats of Yom Kippur
In Leviticus 16 we find the source of the allegory. It describes a sacrifice the high priest is to perform on Yom Kippur. He is to gather two goats as sin offerings. One (selected by “casting lots”) will eventually be set free into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel. The other will be sacrificed to atone for those sins. Sound familiar?

So we have a criminal, bearing the sins of Israel (insurrection and murder) set free into the crowd, and another that stays behind to be sacrificed to atone for sin.

What’s in a Name?
The parallels would have been painfully obvious to any first century reader but just to drive it home a bit we have the sledgehammer of character’s name, Barabbas. “Bar” means son of, while “Abba” means father. So the name of the man who was set free was “Son of the Father.” In early copies of Matthew it goes even further and his full name is given as Jesus Barabbas, “Jesus, son of the Father.” The Jewish crowd picked the wrong Son of the Father! They chose insurrection and murder.

Not Even Wrong
What I find interesting about this story is that it shows that those who read the Bible as an inerrant historical document are missing the point! The story isn’t true, but it also isn’t the case of a really bad historian telling a thoroughly implausible tale. The author isn’t instead trying to lie to anyone. This is not even intended to be history, it is allegory.

Credit where it’s due. I first heard of this through biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, and later through historian Richard Carrier.

Scientia Salon is Off to a Good Start

Not much progress on the blogging front here. I have a handful of half-written posts that I’ll return to eventually. In the meantime Massimo Pigliucci’s new blog Scientia Salon is churning out some pretty great content. Massimo is a former evolutionary biologist turned philosopher. I’ve been a moderate fan ever since he started doing the podcast circuit several years ago, usually to debate creationists. His last blog Rationally Speaking was decent as well. So far though, the new blog surpasses anything he’s done in the past. He’s got together several great writers in the rationalism/naturalism/science/skepticism community to produce some pretty “heavy” material. I’m just going to link to what has gone up so far.

In Spelling out Scientism, A to Z John Shook lists off 26 possible meanings of the word Scientism. Scientism is a word that often gets thrown around when some group feels threatened by the knowledge produced by the sciences. It’s can be a statement that the person feels that the science supporter has overstepped their bounds in some way. They’ve trusted too much in science or trusted it in a domain where it doesn’t apply. As you might imagine it gets used quite a lot by people defending some pseudo-scientific belief or another. However, it also gets thrown around within the rationalism community as well. It has reached the point where it seems to be more of a vague pejorative than anything. Shook’s piece is both a call for more clarity for those charging the crime of scientism, and for those defending to say more clearly what they are defending.

David Kyle Johnson has a three-part piece defending the notion that there is a conflict between science and religion, and just what that conflict is. No “non-overlapping magisteria” for Johnson , where religion and science occupy different realms of “knowledge” and therefore can’t conflict with one another. Unfortunately for me, this totally overlaps one of the pieces in my queue, and is much better than anything I’ll probably produce. Oh well, mine is much more narrowly focused on a particular claim made by some Christians so I’ll get it published here eventually. Here are the pieces: Identifying the Conflict between Religion and Science — Part I  and Part II and Part III.

Finally we have another three parter by the famous, in some circles, Alan Sokal. In 1996 he sent a hoax paper to a postmodernist journal to see if they would accept it, as long as it conformed to their ideological stance that science was just another socially constructed truth. The paper itself was filled with wonderful gibberish such as (quoting the linked Wikipedia article):

“it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality'” is fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct”. It went on to state that because scientific research is “inherently theory-laden and self-referential”, it “cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities” and that therefore a “liberatory science” and an “emancipatory mathematics”, spurning “the elite caste canon of ‘high science'”, needed to be established for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.

Anyway, his current piece up at Scientia Salon is about three opponents of scientific progress. In What is science and why should we care? — Part I he tackles those same post-modernists and social constructivists, while at the same time advocating a leftism that takes science seriously. Part II turns to pseudo-science, like alternative medicine and religion and Part III finishes up with propagandists and spin doctors.