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No Minister… September 14, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Pseudo-Science, Science.
44 comments

Minister for Science Conor Lenihan will not now launch a book in Dublin which describes evolution as a fantasy and a hoax, after the author asked him to withdraw in the wake of controversy on the web.

Right.

The Minister was to launch The Origin of Specious Nonsense by John May at Buswells hotel tomorrow, with actors playing the parts of Charles Darwin and King Kong.

Uh-huh…

Mr May is also offering €10,000 to anyone who can prove evolution at a biochemical level. He describes himself on the website http://www.theoriginofspeciousnonsense.com as “like Abraham Lincoln, self-educated, and might be viewed as a polymath, left school young and commenced my real education”.

And the Minister?

Speaking from Galway earlier last night, Mr Lenihan said while he “remained to be convinced” by Mr May’s arguments, he would be attending the launch in a personal capacity and as he believed “diversity of opinion is a good thing”. However following Mr May’s request he has withdrawn from the launch.

Oh brother.

Go go go go go massive UFO*… More from those UK Government Files. March 28, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Pseudo-Science.
18 comments

You may recall some time back a piece on the CLR which dealt with recently released files from the British government on UFO’s. As a complete sucker for UFO’s (which I hasten to add I’m also a complete sceptic about) and for archives, what happier combination could there be? One story in particular was of striking issue, which dealt with… well, I’ll requote the relevant sections of the post…

Then what of omissions? File DEFE-24/1940/1 on Page 114 details photographs taken of a UFO in Scotland in August 1990. Apparently ‘six colour photographs of a diamond shaped UFO and a Harrier jet were taken by two men. The pictures were given to the Scottish Daily Record who passed them to the MoD.’

Spookily… ‘however, the file does not contain the photographs’.

As interesting is the accompanying text of a ‘Loose Minute’ cc’d to the head of Sec, DD GE/AEW, DDPR (RAF).

1. ….Such stories are not normally drawn to the attention of Minsters and the MoD press office invariably responds to questions along well-established lines emphasising our limited interest in the UFO phenomenon and explaining that we do not have the resources to undertake any in-depth investigations into particular sightings. On this occasion however, the MoD has been provided with six photographic negatives of an alleged UFO by the Scottish Daily Record and has been asked for comments almost certainly for inclusion in a forthcoming story. For this reason it is felt that US of S(AF) should be made aware of the background and the line adopted by the DDPR (RAF) in responding to the newspaper.

2. The photographs, which were received on 10 Sept, are alleged to have been taken near the A9 road at Clavine, north of Pitlochrie on the evening of 4 August. They show a large stationery, diamond-shaped object past which, it appears, a small jet aircraft is flying. The negatives have been considered by the relevant staffs who have established that the jet aircraft is a Harrier (and also identified a barely visible second aircraft, again probably a Harrier) but have reached no definite conclusion regarding the large object. It has also been confirmed that there is no record of Harriers operating in the area at the time at which the photographs are alleged to have been taken. The negatives have now been returned to the Scottish Daily Record.

it continues:

3. In consultation with DDPR (RAF) it has been agreed that the attached lines to take should be used in responding to the Scottish Daily Record. These are consistent with the position adopted in the replies to the many public and occasionally parliamentary enquiries on the subject of UFOs.

And this instruction on lines it transpires is on a typewritten sheet with the following on it…

SCOTTISH DAILY RECORD – PHOTOGRAPHS OF UFO

DEFENSIVE LINES TO TAKE:

– Have looked a photographs, no definite conclusions reached regarding large diamond shaped object.
– confident that jet aircraft is a Harrier
– Have no record of Harriers operating in location at stated time/date.
– No other reports received by MoD of unusual air activity or sightings at location/date/time.

IF PRESSED

Who in MoD studied pictures?

– All sighting reports (including on occasion photographs/drawings etc) received by MoD are referred to the staff in the departments which are responsible for air defence of UK who examine them as part of their normal duties.

Other reports of UFOs from Scotland?

– UFO reports from Scotland are rare.

Sort of begs a fair few questions – doesn’t it? For example, if confident that the jet is a Harrier, does that imply that the photograph is ‘real’? Or that the diamond-shaped object is ‘real’. And what of the non sequiter about “UFO reports from Scotland are rare”. So what? But it’s the incuriosity about the sighting which is so odd. Do they take it seriously or not? Was it a photographer who mocked up in a cusp of Photoshop age some Harriers and a fake UFO? Or what?

…………

But lo! Strangers things on earth and the heavens… etc. The photograph has been released in the latest tranche. Or at least a photograph.

You can find it here.

and the file location is here.

And here it is.

ufo

In the precis of the files it’s noted by the following:

p37 – 38
Image (poor quality photocopy) of a large diamond-shaped UFO hovering over Calvine (Scotland) and what was later identified as a Harrier.

That latter surely has to be a masterpiece of understatement… “…later identified as a Harrier”.

Is that really a Harrier in front of the image. How big is the original photograph? How much has this been blown up in size? What of other aspects of the background that aren’t visible in the image as shown here? Whatever the truth I’m certain that this is all rather more prosaic than interstellar or interdimensional travellers.

There’s been a fair bit of talk that many sightings could be of covert US surveillance aircraft, and in particular the long-rumoured Aurora hypersonic aircraft which – so it is said – has been operational for decades now. And in this instance the almost blase attitude is remarkable. Which makes the notes reproduced in the file of the continuing investigation into the sighting all the more intriguing when they suggest that the…

“…sensitivity of material suggests very special handling”.

You’ve got to love that.

* Apologies to the Golden Horde for rewording their lyrics.

This one’s for UFO… UK National Archives releases files on sightings. October 24, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in History, Pseudo-Science.
11 comments

Perhaps it’s a post-modernist joke, but the link the Irish Times provides to the latest files on UFO sightings, released this week by the UK National Archives, doesn’t work.

And that’s a pity, although it’s hardly difficult to track down the recalcitrant web pages.

I’m willing to bet that these have been amongst the most downloaded of all recent files from National Archives. For me the fascinating aspect of this – and I’ll bet anyone having some experience of trawling through RoI, UK and Stormont Government files will know what I mean – is the way in which these seem so oddly familiar. There’s the same officialise, the same coding systems and yes, even in PDF format, the same bad printing and omissions. And yet, after all, these are as valid a topic of research as any other.

Problem is, just what sort of research are we talking about? Is it historical, in the sense are these historical events that are described? Or is it anthropological or social historical? And by that I mean are these representative of societal dynamics?

I think it will come as little surprise to you that despite having read far too much literature in this area I come down on the latter interpretation. Pesky rationalism. Vile logic.

What intrigues me most are the details that are concealed behind blocks of black ink with the words SECTION 40 over them. These concern the identity of informants. For example in defe-24-1940 we learn that one sighting of an aircraft described as having a ‘strange shape of [a] “Wright” brothers era’ plane which silently flew over the informants location in Henley was made by someone with an ‘Ex-Army’ background. The informant noted ‘at the beginning of the conversation’ that ‘he is listed in Who’s-Who.’.

In a way that seems more interesting than the sighting itself. Although, on second thoughts, a “Wright brothers era aircraft…” One wonders what he saw. Or perhaps what he didn’t. Who’s-Who, bottle of gin… ex-Army. You see where this is going.

There are oddities. Significant oddities that make even a skeptic like myself pause for thought. What are we to make of the report from 1990 of six RAF Tornado jets whose crews reported ‘being over-taken by a giant UFO while on an exercise’.?

The UFO was shaped like ‘one large aeroplane’, had ‘5 to 6 white steady lights. 1 blue steady light’, and was a quarter of a mile ahead. Under ‘Other Info’ we learn that ‘another 2 Tornados seen (sic) it and possible idented it as a stealth aircraft’.

And there’s a thing. Anything can be explained in one way or another. An unidentified sighting in 1990 is probably an encounter of the Cold War kind.

Then what of omissions? File DEFE-24/1940/1 on Page 114 details photographs taken of a UFO in Scotland in August 1990. Apparently ‘six colour photographs of a diamond shaped UFO and a Harrier jet were taken by two men. The pictures were given to the Scottish Daily Record who passed them to the MoD.’

Spookily… ‘however, the file does not contain the photographs’.

As interesting is the accompanying text of a ‘Loose Minute’ cc’d to the head of Sec, DD GE/AEW, DDPR (RAF).

1. ….Such stories are not normally drawn to the attention of Minsters and the MoD press office invariably responds to questions along well-established lines emphasising our limited interest in the UFO phenomenon and explaining that we do not have the resources to undertake any in-depth investigations into particular sightings. On this occasion however, the MoD has been provided with six photographic negatives of an alleged UFO by the Scottish Daily Record and has been asked for comments almost certainly for inclusion in a forthcoming story. For this reason it is felt that US of S(AF) should be made aware of the background and the line adopted by the DDPR (RAF) in responding to the newspaper.

2. The photographs, which were received on 10 Sept, are alleged to have been taken near the A9 road at Clavine, north of Pitlochrie on the evening of 4 August. They show a large stationery, diamond-shaped object past which, it appears, a small jet aircraft is flying. The negatives have been considered by the relevant staffs who have established that the jet aircraft is a Harrier (and also identified a barely visible second aircraft, again probably a Harrier) but have reached no definite conclusion regarding the large object. It has also been confirmed that there is no record of Harriers operating in the area at the time at which the photographs are alleged to have been taken. The negatives have now been returned to the Scottish Daily Record.

it continues:

3. In consultation with DDPR (RAF) it has been agreed that the attached lines to take should be used in responding to the Scottish Daily Record. These are consistent with the position adopted in the replies to the many public and occasionally parliamentary enquiries on the subject of UFOs.

And this instruction on lines it transpires is on a typewritten sheet with the following on it…

SCOTTISH DAILY RECORD – PHOTOGRAPHS OF UFO

DEFENSIVE LINES TO TAKE:

– Have looked a photographs, no definite conclusions reached regarding large diamond shaped object.
– confident that jet aircraft is a Harrier
– Have no record of Harriers operating in location at stated time/date.
– No other reports received by MoD of unusual air activity or sightings at location/date/time.

IF PRESSED

Who in MoD studied pictures?

– All sighting reports (including on occasion photographs/drawings etc) received by MoD are referred to the staff in the departments which are responsible for air defence of UK who examine them as part of their normal duties.

Other reports of UFOs from Scotland?

– UFO reports from Scotland are rare.

Sort of begs a fair few questions – doesn’t it? For example, if confident that the jet is a Harrier, does that imply that the photograph is ‘real’? Or that the diamond-shaped object is ‘real’. And what of the non sequiter about “UFO reports from Scotland are rare”. So what? But it’s the incuriosity about the sighting which is so odd. Do they take it seriously or not? Was it a photographer who mocked up in a cusp of Photoshop age some Harriers and a fake UFO? Or what?

And so on, and so forth. You see the seductive appeal of all this. There’s just enough room between the individual facts to fashion something – unusual. Tantalising. Odd.

And yet, an interesting insight into how the state deals with questioning.

I guess I’ll keep reading every file that’s issued. The truth might just be in there…

It’s summer, the sun is shining, it’s a bank holiday… so let’s read a book about sea levels rising… and rising… and… August 3, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Pseudo-Science, Science, Science Fiction.
2 comments

IT IS Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?

Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder?

When Orwell wrote those words just after the Second World War he hardly envisaged a planetary murder. Or to be more accurate… well, we’ll come to that.

I’m usually averse to the sort of 2 for 3 deals one gets in bookshops around this time of year. So it’s fortunate that I was handed the latest Stephen Baxter book “Flood” as a gift – sticker still attached. It’s an interesting – albeit not entirely (or even slightly) cheery – read.

Baxter is probably the leading contemporary exponent of Arthur C. Clarke style science fiction. Highly polished, low levels of characterisation, technologically correct and generally set within a framework of what is scientifically plausible. No coincidence then that they collaborated on a couple of novels some years ago. Baxter has straddled a number of areas, projections about space exploration in the near future, far-future space opera, historical novels with a science fiction twist and even near fantasy works. There is a harsh tone to some of his fiction. Much of it consists of humanity far in the future, often utterly changed by evolution filling some niche or another. It is hard to pinpoint an overriding message, but if one exists it is that the capacity for intelligence in no way is a guarantee for evolutionary success – indeed if we are not careful this phase of self-awareness on the part of the species (and perhaps indirectly on the part of the planet) may be but a blink of the eye.

Still, when some while ago I read on the internet that he had written a book called Flood, about rising sea levels I did wonder, not least because it seemed to shift very slightly towards James P. Hogan territory of cataclysmic planetary catastrophe. It’s not that Baxter doesn’t have form in this regard. He wrote Moonseed, a novel where the accidental dispersal of moondust with qualities not unlike nano-technology eventually reshapes the Earth in a very bad way. Very bad indeed. While the source of the ‘moonseed’ is never clearly explained the implication is that it is a technology used to spur the human race into space. One can think of easier ways.

There’s much though to like in Flood. The sense of contemporary civilisation collapsing is dealt with effectively. A fractured United Kingdom where millions move onto hills and then uplands and then mountains is remarkably potent as a vision. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t end well for Ireland – but then it never does. There are some lashes at the internet and the culture around it, and in particularly a poignant little vignette about the hubris of the trans-humanists awaiting a singularity that cannot occur as technology is literally washed away.

The potential power of the corporations and the super-rich, and the way in which they are supported by exploitation, to survive as national governments collapse is well detailed although some of the developments seem unlikely. For example there is no clear description of what happens to shipping, or why governments in such circumstances wouldn’t produce more of it. Nor does a civil war in a Spain groaning under mass migrations from North Africa and a right wing coup in the early 2010s seem to me to be hugely likely (and most unlikely of all? No mention of President Adams and the Green Party majority government in Ireland in 2016 – ahem!).

But if I have a major issue with the book that is the science underpinning it. Baxter has based his premise on research published in New Scientist amongst other places which proposes that there is water locked into the Earth’s mantle.

And not just a bit, but lots and lots…

Based on what they witnessed in their lab, the researchers concluded that more water probably exists deep within the Earth than is present on Earth’s surface—as much as five times more.

It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Five times as much – eh? A great starting point for a novel about that water somehow being unlocked – as it were – and released into the seas…

And some of the articles reporting this have stated baldly that this water consists of oceans of water beneath the continents.

Well, yes and no, and mainly no. Firstly it is highly theoretical with no clear evidence for vast quantities of water. Secondly even were it correct there is no obvious mechanism by which it would be released (seeing as it largely consists of molecules locked within rock) into the oceans in substantial quantities. Baxter uses some clever sleight of hand, bringing James Lovelock’s Gaia theories into play with the suggestion that the planet itself is self-regulating in some fashion, perhaps brought to this point by human activity. If so the regulation seems a tad excessive.

And Baxter himself is not unaware of these problems because in writing this he locks – indirectly it has to be said – into a discourse where many scientists fear to tread. At one point a character during a meeting with the IPCC refers to these underground seas by names drawn from the Biblical flood to the consternation of an onlooker…

‘Big mistake,’ murmured Nathan. “You don’t bring in Noah with these guys.’

Indeed. And the IPCC is depicted as an enormously conservative organisation unwilling to accept sea level rises much higher than predicted in their models. In a way that’s a modish dig – an inversion of the tiny industry and corporate linked rump unwilling to accept what is palpably evident. But it scans oddly in a book written by an arch-rationalist and proponent of evolution.

Not least because if one goes to here you will find creationists desperately scouring for scientific (!) evidence that the Biblical Flood happened (or that oil doesn’t take millions of years to be produced – so handy, so self-serving, no?). For them the reports on the subterranean ‘oceans’ has been a vindication of their stance. This is – of course – far from Baxter’s philosophy, but it indicates the dangers of underpinning fiction with speculative research.

So, do we treat this as part of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ sub-genre that was perfected by John Wyndham? Novels such as the Kraken Wakes saw the death of millions, but this was never described in detail. It always happened ‘off-screen’ as it were.

Somehow “Flood” doesn’t fit that category. It is a compassionate book, but the eventual outcome is bleak in the extreme. Indeed the more I think of it the more I suspect this book belongs more with the works of John Christopher (A Wrinkle in the Skin, the Death of Grass) written in the 1960s and with a much harder edge than those of Wyndham. But the fact that the science isn’t quite there – and in a way quite distinct from the tropes of most science fiction such as FTL – does make me wonder is it simply intended as a cautionary tale, in other words, this demonstrates in an exaggerated form what might happen. But that is problematic if only because the scenario rapidly becomes so extreme that one is relieved that we might only (only!) be facing a five or ten metre increase. Indeed the actual problems our planetary environment face seem – well – diminished to near insignificance by the novel.

Which is certainly not how it should be. Consider if you will some of the projections for close to home and they are quite terrifying particularly if the worst comes to the worst. It’s unlikely any of us will live to see that worst, but – who knows? The dislocation caused by the relatively minor sea level rises that face us wil be quite enough. Perhaps some people will remember Richard Cowper’s “Road to Corlay”, written in the 1970s and set centuries or so hence in precisely this sort of drowned world. At the time there was more talk of ice ages and rising sea levels seemed implausible.

So why not write about the actuality? Perhaps because the actuality doesn’t have the dizzying pace of fiction. Climate change is steady and inexorable, but it’s slow. As it happens I live in an area under considerable threat of minor sea level rises. It’s unlikely to happen today or tomorrow, but ten years, twenty? Fifty? Put it that way and the question becomes a little more academic, the threat a little less real. A century (or possibly less) to see sea level rises of six metres. Awful, but not quite as apocalyptic as Flood. Mind you looking at the same set of images in the last link, the melting of the Antarctic ice cap would definitely be catastrophic.

And to add a frisson of discomfort to the weekend, consider that in geological terms we’re close to the lowest figures ever recorded (although sea level changes were in these eras more to do with the structure of ocean basins). The trend remains downwards, but another way is up. If you’re willing to wait around millions of years.

There is a further thought that strikes me. I don’t know if this is almost a precious complaint, but there is something almost inhuman about the way in which fictions can for our entertainment consign millions, or billions to an untimely and unpleasant end. Of course the novel, and those like, is not real, but if it is for no greater purpose than entertainment then somehow that seems to be amorally glib. In a way I am reminded of reading Nevil Shute’s “On The Beach”, one of the first post-apocalyptic works and tracking the progress of the radiation as it progressively overwhelmed one town after another in Australia as it moved south. I was maybe twelve at the time I read it and although grim it didn’t touch me as anything other than a widescreen epic story of the end of humanity. It was only later that I realised Shute’s purpose in detailing that inexorable dynamic. For him the names of the towns were a short hand for those who lived in them and the novel demonstrated in fiction the dangers of a nuclear weapons equipped world.

Yet perhaps that is Baxter’s intention, at least in part. To write a novel which by exaggeration, by positing how ill-equipped we are even for the threats we currently face (a message implicit in his depiction of a London overwhelmed by floods – and how significant it is that that event comes early in the book giving an example of what could happen even under the present forecasts of climate change – and the fact that he has lobbied for serious disaster plans by the UK authorities), demonstrates just how containable climate change we face actually is. That far from being an extinction level event it is an opportunity to reshape our engagement with the planet, to rework our technologies so that they are smarter and more appropriate for a world which has finite limits. And in that respect perhaps this is a morality tale, because in pointing to the extreme it delivers a warning about just how disengaged we are with the present crisis. And that’s not a bad lesson to learn. Particularly while the sun is still shining.

For some interesting visuals and more on that consider this article.

Animal Crackers March 18, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Environmentalism, Libertarianism, Media and Journalism, Pseudo-Science, Revolutionary Communist Party.
20 comments

(This began as a comment in response to Worldbystorm’s musing about the attitude of the Spiked crowd to animals, but became a little unwieldy, so it gets its own post).

Animals – their welfare and their rights – is one of the key issues that recurs again and again with the Revolutionary Communist Party group, but doesn’t seem to generate the same debate as their more high-profile, or controversial, preoccupations.  An article by Brendan O’Neill on the old favourites – the environment, child protection or liberal elitism – may generate hundreds of responses on Comment is Free, but discussions around animals don’t tend to receive the same kind of intense level of interest.  However, as Worldbystorm rightly points out, it’s something that they are fascinated with, and keep coming back to.  For that reason, I thought it might be interesting to take a sample of the articles on Spiked about animals, and see how they reflect many of the tropes of a typical RCP article.

For clarification, I’m using the term Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) to refer to the entire range of writers and personalities associated with what might mostly broadly be called Furedi and chums.  This includes Living Marxism/LM, Spiked, the Institute of Ideas, the Manifesto Club, Sense about Science and all the rest.  I’m assuming that readers will already be aware of the background of the network and of the links between the different groups (both the overtly Furedian ones and the front organisations).  Those interested in finding out more might usefully start with the Sourcewatch article on the LM group and following the links – in particular the piece entitled “Strange Bedfellows” from The Ecologist.

I admit, of course, that treating all of these individuals as a single collective is something of a blunt instrument.  Different writers will adopt different styles and different approaches, depending on their audience, the medium they’re using and their particular interests.  However, on many issues – in particular in relation to animals – there does appear to be a single, unwavering line common to all.

With those disclaimers in hand, let’s look at some of the rhetorical tactics of the RCP’ers.

1: “The real reason they oppose it …”.

Take, for example, the 2006 Spiked article “Stop weeping over whaling“, by Helene Guldberg.  In it, the author tries to demonstrate that anti-whaling sentiment is actually motivated by cultural imperialism and anti-Japanese bigotry.  Or, to be specific, the author asserts that as the case and doesn’t provide any evidence in support of the claim.  The entire article is a mismash of various logical fallacies and indicates a deliberate unwillingness to even to begin to engage with the substantial anti-whaling arguments.

We see this again and again with the RCP’ers.  Rather than address the actual arguments of those they oppose, they prefer to speculate wildly about the motivations of others.  We see it over and over with the debate on climate change.  Those who highlight, for example, the impact of increased air travel, fuelled by low-cost carriers, on the environment are doing so not from any concern about global warming, but because they are liberal elite killjoys who want to prevent ‘ordinary people’ (always a loaded phrase) from enjoying themselves.

This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the large red banner currently across the front page of Spiked linked to their ongoing campaign: Beijing 2008 – Challenging China-bashing.  To believe the RCP’ers, there is a huge upsurge of racist, anti-China feeling sweeping the land: a latter-day version of the ‘Yellow Peril’.  Concerned about the consequences of continued Chinese economic growth reliant to the burning of fossil fuels?  Racist anti-China bashing!  Alarmed at what you saw about infant abduction stemming from the one-child policy on the recent Channel 4 documentary China’s Stolen Children? Patronising anti-China bashing!  Don’t like what you’re seeing on the news about the occupation of Tibet and the violent crackdown on protestors?  You’re both self-loathing and imperialist (a rather contradictory combination, some might think.  Don’t worry, though.  Brendan O’Neill is large; he contains multitudes).  Of course, one might question why a group supposedly so concerned with individual freedom would consistently ignore China’s appalling human rights record, but that would no doubt make one an anti-China basher, a liberal elitist and a scaremonger about the Yellow Peril.

In all cases the motivations of those opposed to the RCP worldview is called into question; the actual arguments they make seldom are.  One wonders why.

2: That’s how it is!

In this particular manoeuvre, the RCP’er will make a particular assertion in order to refute a position he or she disagrees with, but will proceed as if their assertion is already universally accepted, when it’s actually the very point at issue.  “Begging the question”, to put it another way.

Take the 2006 article ‘A Great Aping of Human Rights’.  In it, Josie Appleton writes about a proposed Spanish parliamentary resolution in support of the objectives of the Great Ape Project, that is to extend the protection of certain fundamental rightsto the Great Apes.  Josie Appleton, unsurprisingly, is against this.  She argues that:

The Great Ape Project emerged out of disillusionment with human beings and human values, and effectively looks to apes to provide a new moral compass. Great apes are cast as wise and knowing figures that can help to renew a corrupted human civilisation.

Unfortunately, however, this isn’t true as anyone who had read collection of essays in The Great Ape Project (which Appleton cites in her footnotes) would know.  The argument is, essentially, that there is no moral justification for limiting basic rights to humans and preventing their extension to non-human animals which share certain intellectual attributes with humans.  This, of course, isn’t a particularly mainstream opinion and is far from non-contentious.  However,  Appleton argues as if this point, central to the argument, has already been refuted without bothering to do so.  It’s the long-winded equivalent of Mick Hume’s ‘Animals Count? No they don’t‘ piece (thesis: Animals Matter; antithesis: No they don’t; synthesis: They just don’t! Shut up!).

To see the same approach in a non-animal context, look at Jennie Bristow’s 2007 article ‘Abortion: stop hiding behind the science‘.  In it, Bristow argues that, contrary to the argument of anti-abortionists, greater scientific understanding of foetal development doesn’t impact of the moral case in favour of access to abortion and that this case should be restated.  She writes:

But when it comes to the principle of abortion, science can tell us no more than it ever has. Women who need abortions should be able to have them: some people agree with this, and others do not. Scientific evidence, however sound it may be, will never tell us what society should do about abortion.

This happens to be a position I’d agree with myself, and I believe that the moral case for the right to choose should be restated.  However, nowhere in Bristow’s piece does she do that.  She simply asserts that women should be able to access abortion services, without ever explaining why this should be the case.

3: Infantile Contrarianism

Occasionally, one finds oneself agreeing with an RCP’er (don’t worry – remember the old saying about the stopped clock).  Other times, one disagrees but accepts the sincerity of their arguments.  All too often though, pieces like ‘In defence of fur‘ are published, which can’t possibly be genuine.

No doubt Josie Appleton either likes the feel and look of fur, or doesn’t really care about it one way or the other, but the article itself reads like a heavy-handed and obvious attempt to appear controversial.  Take that, conventional wisdom!  Have at you, bien-pensants!  The RCP is on the job, demolishing the ivory towers of the elite, undermining what you think you know and totally blowing your mind!

Except, they’re not, of course.  There’s little more tiring than a self-conscious controversialist.  These pieces are, invariably, attempts to appear radical by mindlessly opposing what’s seen as the consensus view on some issue or other without really thinking through the basis for the position.  Kneejerk first, argument later.  Which often leaves the writer clutching desperately for something – anything – to support the view they’ve adopted.  Who could read Josie Appleton’s defence of the use of fur

Just as a butterfly is never aware of the beautiful patterns on its wings, so a mink will wear its soft coat until death without ever appreciating it. For the mink, fur is just something that it carries around in the battle to survive, like claws or teeth.

By being made into a fur coat, that mink’s pelt is raised into something higher, just as a tree made into a violin is raised, or a cow made into a sumptuous steak is raised. A raw material becomes part of the human world; fur isn’t just on the back of an animal scratching around for food, but is instead worked on and admired as art. Indeed, it is only really by becoming a coat that a mink’s life can be said to have had any purpose at all.

without feeling at least a little embarrassed for her?

For more of this ‘I hate you Daddy’ defiance of mainstream thinking, see all of Brendan O’Neill’s output.

4: If it’s global warming, how come it’s cold today?

Climate change isn’t a tactic of the RCP per se.  The various articles the Furedists produce on the subject employ the full range of rhetorical tropes, including those highlighted above.  However, given that it’s such a key issue for them, as well as such an important issue more generally, it merits specific consideration on its own.

It’s rare to see an RCP’er deny the reality of man-made climate change outright; rather, as we see in the Polar Bear article that WbS highlighted early, they prefer to muddy the waters, to cast doubt on the accuracy of the available evidence and malign the motivations of those trying to tackle the problem.  In this case, the attempt is made to highlight a report pointing to possible flaws in forecasting methodology used in predicting the impact of climate change on the bears, with the underlying implication that all evidence for climate change is similarly flawed.  The authors of the article – Armstrong, Green and Soon (a professor of marketing, a research fellow in business and finance and an astrophysicist respectively) – are favourites of the RCP, two of them having previously made similar points about forecasting in the IPCC report, covered by Brendan O’Neill here.

To be fair, it’s possible that there may be some truth in the suggestion that the forecasting methology employed in various climate studies is flawed.  And it’s difficult for the lay-reader to determine the plausibility of this.  However, when viewed in the context of a wider and consistent campaign by the RCP against those who argue that climate change is occuring, and needs to be tackled, it’s reasonable that one should caution against taking anything published on the site on the subject with a pinch of salt.

What makes the RCP’s attitude towards the climate change question so fascinating, as well as confusing, is the fact that in some ways it runs completely contrary to their stated philosophy on some many other issues.  Look at the review of Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge to see this tension at its most pronounced.  While it attempts to support the primacy of rational enquiry over superstition and pseudo-science, it has to pull back at the end and, essentially, say ‘except for environmentalism’.

Also interesting is the RCP group Sense about Science, which describes itself in the following terms:

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates. We do this by promoting respect for evidence and by urging scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult.

We work with scientists to

  • respond to inaccuracies in public claims about science, medicine, and technology
  • promote the benefits of scientific research to the public
  • help those who need expert help contact scientists about issues of importance
  • brief non-specialists on scientific developments and practices

One might imagine that a group of this kind might have something to say on the issue of climate change, possibly the most important ‘scientific’ issue facing the global community, and one on which a certain amount of scientific knowledge on the part of the public would be, at the very least, desirable.  Unfortunately, while the group is ready to launch  any number of press releases denouncing homeopathy, anti-GM protests or the collected works of Gillian McKeith, all they have produced on the question of climate change is a short document on the complexity of forecasting.

On this, as on so many other issues, it’s difficult to know what their motivation is.  It’s tempting to simply suggest that they’re insincere, and that they have a vested financial interest in pushing the positions they’re taking.  Certainly, the links between the RCP (et al) and various large corporations has previously been highlighted.  Perhaps even odder is the suggestion that they actually do believe all this, with what can only be described as a quasi-religious fervour.  There’s a blind faith at play in the perfectability of humanity and of scientific progress that borders on the fanatical.  One can see this in the Little Atoms interview with Brendan O’Neill of last November.  After a long diatribe treading very familiar ground on the perfidy of environmentalism, the presenters finally ask Brendan what, precisely, he would do to combat Climate Change.  His response – he didn’t care; science would look after it (indeed, to suggest that this might be a little naive displays nothing but the questioner’s contempt for mankind’s potential). 

Perhaps it would be a little cruel to view the RCP as the post-Marxist equivalent of the Heaven’s Gate cult, waiting for Frank Furedi’s instruction to cut off their sex organs and meet him behind the comet.  Certainly, at their most extreme they recall some of the more extreme groups in Ken McLeod’s Fall Revolution novels.

Who knows, though: they might be right.  And come the Singularity who’ll be first against the wall?

My God! It’s full of stars… or journey to the true centre of the universe with John Waters (and Galileo) in the Irish Times… January 22, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, media, Media and Journalism, Pseudo-Science, Religion, Science, Skepticism, Society.
38 comments

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Okay, this Monday we’re treated by John Waters to a remarkable overview of then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, and his intriguing relationship with Galileo (incidentally, credit where credit is due, Waters had a rather good piece on Wayne O’Donoghue a week or so back which was both sympathetic and rational albeit that his suggestion that O’Donoghue should just assume a ‘normal’ life was probably unfeasible). But talking about the rational… how’s this?

It was widely reported last week that Pope Benedict cancelled a visit to Rome’s oldest university, La Sapienza, after a number of academics and students accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo.

The Vatican said it was considered opportune to postpone the visit due to a lack of the “prerequisites for a dignified and tranquil welcome” following a sit-in by 50 students and a letter signed by 67 professors, including several allegedly eminent scientists.

The signatories said Benedict’s presence would be “incongruous” because of a speech he made at La Sapienza in 1990, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which he quoted the judgment of an Austrian philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, that the church’s trial of Galileo was “reasonable and fair”. The letter declared: “These words offend and humiliate us.” This episode is emblematic of our latter-day blogosphere culture in embracing both ideological spite and indifference to truth, manifesting the classic symptoms of a whirlwind created on the internet by neurotics exchanging bites of information by way of stoking each other’s narcissistic obsession with expressing their democratic right to make fools of themselves.

Truth, as I’ve taken some time to demonstrate on these pages, is very much what our correspondent defines it.
As to the rest? Oh sugar, he’s talking about many of us! Well, that’s a tad rude John, play the ball, not the women and men. And, so what? . Such a profoundly mean-spirited statement as regards perhaps the broadest number of people (yet still pitifully small) in human history to engage is telling. Sure, some of it is frivolous, shallow, tedious and self-regarding. But much of it is fascinating, informative and generous.

Anyhow, ever onwards…

His title was The Crisis of Faith in Science, referring not to declining belief among scientists but a wider loss of confidence in the capacity of science to address the core questions of existence.

Far from attacking science, he was highlighting instances in which scientists have questioned the basis of secularism in the modern world. Among his points was that there are implications, other than cosmological ones, arising from Galileo’s discoveries.

Never! Implications other than cosmological? Well, I never. But, then again, that’s not entirely surprising. For example, one might point to how Galileo’s discoveries undercut a considerable portion of the authority of the Church to speak on such matters with any degree of credibility. But… that’s not necessarily what our correspondent means…

[Marxist philosopher Ernst ] Bloch held that Einstein’s revolution meant it was possible to perceive the Earth as fixed and the Sun as mobile. Ratzinger quoted Bloch’s surprising conclusion: “Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.” In other words, once you accept Einstein’s theory, you could reasonably conclude that the Christian worldview should be kept out of astronomy, but Christianity is right to continue seeing the Earth as the moral centre of the cosmos, and placing human dignity at the centre of the creation equation.

Okay… now, I’m a tedious old rationalist and materialist. But what on earth is Bloch saying, and why on earth should Ratzinger quote it as if it actually means something? Or rather, sure it’s saying something, but it’s confusing two very different approaches.

“Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.”

An interesting quote, but one which is entirely problematic. The linkage between relativity and a ‘right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the Earth in relation to human dignity’ is – on a rational level – meaningless. These are category errors, and no less so simply because one might put the prefix ‘Marxist’ in front of Bloch’s name. Bloch is making a broad rather diffuse point that is not uninteresting, but it’s not convincing. Yet again there is a blurring, deliberate perhaps, between cosmology in the scientific sense and a worldview generated from a religious perspective. Indeed whether Bloch’s words are as advertised is a different matter, but why does Waters see fit to take his view as of any significance on this matter one way or another? Well, the answer is that he does so because the then Cardinal Ratzinger quoted him.

It was here, somewhat agape, that Ratzinger cited Feyerabend, an agnostic and sceptical Austrian/American philosopher (1924-94).

Ratzinger said: “If both the spheres of conscience are once again clearly distinguished among themselves under their respective methodological profiles, recognising both their limits and their respective rights, then the synthetic judgment of the agnostic-skeptic philosopher P Feyerabend appears much more drastic. He writes: ‘The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimised solely for motives of political opportunism.'”

But again, why should we accept Feyerabend (agnostic and all) as being in any particular position to argue the faithfulness to ‘reason’ of the Church as against Galileo (indeed it’s interesting is it not how Waters reifies one sort of expertise or enquiry – that being the useful, but nebulous area of certain aspects of philosophy, over dull old scientific research or expertise as we’ve seen in his railing against those who use tedious statistics which undermine his argument)? Why not actually ask someone who understand the methodologies of reason – and in particular the scientific method, such as it was that Galileo was attempting to work within – such as.. such as… well, y’know, a scientist. Perhaps one who has attempted to deal directly with these issues. But to do that would be to move away from the rather fluffy terrain that the argument is constructed upon, one which tangentially engages with ‘reason’ but only in the limited terms that the argument is formulated and move on to dealing with it in the context of people who know precisely what they are trying to do.

Indeed if we examine what Waters writes we will see that at no point is there an engagement with ‘truth’ or ‘reason’ in any sense that allows us a clear definitions of these terms. Does he mean a process of deduction, the application of logic, empiricism? Any or all? We are left none the wiser. Or rather, we can be fairly clear that this is not at all what he means. Consider the following passage.

From here, Ratzinger moved to the failure of the church to deal correctly with the ethical implications of the Galilean perspective, which, in its wider interpretation, he noted, CF Von Weizsacker had identified as creating a “very direct path” to the atomic bomb. Ratzinger concluded: “It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics. The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality, but from its fundamental affirmation and from being inscribed in a still greater form of reason.”

I love the idea that the atomic bomb is the logical outcome of Galileo moreso say than being the logical outcome of the first sea dwelling ancestor of ours to flop a flipper onto the sand of some ancient shore and start the long slow crawl that took us to the Moon. It’s so brilliantly absolutist as if all modernity is summed up in that single device (and yes, Des Fennell, has argued something not disconnected from that idea, and no, I don’t buy it either). Why not penicillin? Gameboys? Cinema? The mapping of Mercury which is happening as we speak by a US probe? Could it be that these are insufficiently existential (although for my money the last is pretty existential if one wishes to see a useful purpose for humanity as the – so far – only fully self-aware and reflective aspect of the universe… a notion which as it happens fits right into a rational discourse and perhaps a religious one also). One too might raise an eyebrow at the idea of ‘hurried apologetics’. Just how long would it take? A millennium? Two, perhaps?

But how does that expression of the ‘absurdity’ of an hurried apology (367 years and counting as it was for poor old Galileo when Ratzinger made his speech in 1990) sit with those reprobates who ‘accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo’. Perhaps I’m being foolishly rational here. But at the very least he’s sailing close to the wind in terms of defending that condemnation. No, one could plausibly posit that he’s implicitly defending it.

One wonders though what Waters thinks about the actual Gallileo controversy? Does he know that this wasn’t some arcana with different cosmological (and the beauty of that term in the context of this article is that it diffuses meaning rather than pinpoints it) hypotheses in some sort of genteel dispute but that Galileo was able to prove empirically by observation that the Earth moved around the Sun. That he could point a telescope into the night sky and make these observations, and then make them again, and again, and again. And these observations were replicated by Jesuit astronomers. The Church – beyond the astronomers – was unable to dismiss or demonstrate that they were fundamentally incorrect. This wasn’t theory unsupported by evidence, but this was, in the context of the scientific method of the time, fact. Not belief, but ‘truth’. And that truth (or rather the potential truth based on observation) was directly in contravention of an entirely different sort of ‘truth’ based on a literal reading of the Bible. There’s no ifs and buts in this discussion. That’s it. It’s irrelevant if Galileo’s work did lead to the bomb. It’s entirely irrelevant what is said 367 years later in a lecture. Galileo, using a methodology based in science, imperfect and contradictory as science was at the time, produced evidence based theories which were proven correct and the other sort of ‘truth’ which isn’t truth at all, but simply assertion, wasn’t.

And all the handwaving that Ratzinger does by recourse to Weizsacker and Feyerabend doesn’t alter that one iota.

And here we have it, yet again. Shadow boxing as a substitute for argument. Consider again part of his opening piece…

His title was The Crisis of Faith in Science, referring not to declining belief among scientists but a wider loss of confidence in the capacity of science to address the core questions of existence.

Far from attacking science, he was highlighting instances in which scientists have questioned the basis of secularism in the modern world. Among his points was that there are implications, other than cosmological ones, arising from Galileo’s discoveries.

The problem with these arguments is that who is to say what the ‘core questions of existence’ are? I don’t know? Does anyone? Which means that we get a smorgasbord of complaints and worries and agonised fretting about some sort of ‘meaning’ which seems almost profound until it is examined at close range at which point it merely seems to be a sort of discontent that a religious interpretation of existence has been superseded by something arguably more honest if not approaching the rarified heights of ‘truth’ that our correspondent thinks we should all be herded (and I use that term deliberately) towards.

The universe is fascinating. Cosmology – the real stuff – is an area that any thinking human should consider deeply. There are implications that are profound, issues that are unresolvable, developments that some hardened materialist scientists suggest may point to interesting questions… even if they are unable to provide evidence of answers. It is an area that those of faith can find some comfort in as much as those without find intellectual satisfaction.

But… wouldn’t it be nice to hear something positive, something that doesn’t take the form of yet another attack on people both specific in terms of the scientists and students who quite reasonably find little in Ratzingers words but a sort of apologia for events that were profoundly anti-rational (and let’s not even begin to get into the socio-political reasons why the Inquisition acted the way it did which was for reasons rather more mundane than differing views of cosmology and considerably more rooted in preserving power elites) and general in terms of societies which find that religious interpretations are less and less useful as a means of judging and assessing the world and universe about us. One might find that depressing, or one might find it – as I do – an opportunity for religious thinking to move towards a more fully rigorous relationship with empiricism… as indeed those who have toiled long and hard for the Vatican in the area of astronomy have managed to do which brings me to the last line…

The theme of the pope’s planned address at La Sapienza, incidentally, was: “There is a danger in modern times that man may stop seeking the truth”.

Except let’s not look too closely at the Vatican Observatory, because, surprise, surprise a report in the Independent under the heading “Science bows to theology as the Pope dismantles the Vatican observatory” suggests that:

Science is to make way for diplomacy at the Pope’s summer residence, with the dismantling of the astronomical observatory that has been part of Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, for more than 75 years. The Pope needs more room to receive diplomats so the telescopes have to go.

The whole observatory is being moved some 10 miles to a nearby disused convent. While: Father Jose G Funes, the present director of the observatory, known as the Specola Vaticana, insisted that there was no sinister significance in the move. “It is not a downgrading of science in the Vatican,” he said. “To remain within the palace would have had only a symbolic significance, whereas where we are going we will be even more comfortable… The Independent notes that… But symbolism is exactly what close watchers of Pope Benedict XVI see in the move: confirmation of the view that he is far less receptive to what scientists – including scientists in dog collars – want to tell him than his recent predecessors. He has, for example, spoken in favour of intelligent design, in flat contradiction of the views of the observatory’s former director.

Whereas: The theological conservatism of the Polish pope (John Paul II) cohabited oddly with an enthusiastic acceptance of the findings of science. In a speech in 1996, for instance, he came close to accepting the theory of evolution.

Father Coyne’s (the previous director) tenure did not long outlast the reign of John Paul. When Coyne retired in August 2006, it was rumoured that hostility to intelligent design had been his undoing. Benedict’s rejection of the Enlightenment, and the reign of scientific truth which it ushered in, is well established.

Symbols are powerful. There I would agree with John Waters. But to talk of truth and to act in this way, even for the best of intentions, suggests that there is a fundamental problem.

The continuing efforts, and they’re not restricted to our correspondent, to elide issues of emotion, belief and a sort of starry eyed transcendence with the power of the empirical, rational and scientific and ascribe the authority that those latter methodologies contain in order to support contentions that seem some distance from ‘truth’ are depressing. There is a word for that sort of construct. It’s called a ‘belief’. But while beliefs are not necessarily of any particular harm it really is long past time that this strange effort to gift them that authority was discontinued. Isn’t it?

Meanwhile Pete Baker on Slugger takes a more benign view of this in an interesting piece

Pr(yi=1|xi) = 1/(1 + exp(-xi ß)) The formula for a ‘successful’ war October 6, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Iraq, Other Stuff, Pseudo-Science, Science, The War On Terror, United States, US Media, US Politics.
1 comment so far

Some people cherish the fond belief that many of the more confusing problems of this life can be reduced to mathematical forumlae and equations. One of these seems to be Patricia Sullivan, a professor at the University of Georgia in the US, who has devised a mathematical equation to predict the outcome of conflicts based on a detailed analysis of 122 military interventions involving the US, Britain, China, Russia and France since 1945.

She claims that the correct outcome is predicted in 78% of the conflicts run through it. The chances of success for the US in Vietnam for example, come out at 22%. The Soviets had a 7% chance of success in Afghanistan and the invasion and overthrow of Saddam started off with a 68% chance of working.  The forumlae gives the objective of routing the insurgency and the creation of a democratic Iraq a success rate of 26% with an estimated duration of ten years.

While accepting that there is some truth in the accepted wisdom that the relatively poor success rate of the major powers in foreign military interventions is down to a combination of lack of resolve and poor decisionmaking, Sullivan argues that the key determinant in many conflicts has been the attitude of the civilian population. Without ‘target compliance’ the chances of success through the application of overwhelming use of blunt force are pitiful. Decades after Vietnam and the notion that hearts and minds must be won over still seems not to have caught on.
“We can try to use brute force to kill insurgents and terrorists, but what we really need is for the population to be supportive of the government and to stop supporting the insurgents,” she said. Otherwise, every time we kill an insurgent or a terrorist, they’re going to be replaced by others.”

Strangely, despite a level of understanding of mathematics that has floored me in calculating the tip in a restaurant, I’d figured all that out by myself. Also interesting that the notion that foreign powers have a right to intervene isn’t questioned, merely the efficiency with which it is done and whether the target population is compliant enough. Key words there being ‘target’ and ‘compliant’.

More of an oddity I suppose than a newsy story for the blog but easing myself in again after an unavoidable absence. Also, would be curious to know what the chances of a successful armed revolutionary uprising in Ireland would be. If ‘y’ is the number of copies of Socialist Worker sold in the country and ‘xi’ is the number of capitalist running dogs, how many ‘Pr’ (left-wing blog posts) are necessary to push us over the top?

God, Jesus and the Flood…. The interesting problems of faith, science and creationism in Ireland and the US May 7, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Pseudo-Science, Religion, Science.
7 comments

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One of the problems with reading magazines is that it’s difficult to get around to everything. Case in point. I’d purchased New Scientist back in December because of a feature on “Lone Voices”, those scientists who strike contrarian positions regarding mainstream science across a range of areas. These range from considering paranormal events to be real, to a belief in cold fusion and ‘memory of water’ (crucial if you think homeopathy works – and as a past and brief user of certain remedies in that vein let me use my own experience to say it sure doesn’t help fear of flying) and on to a geologist who has done credible research on plate tectonics who is also a creationist…

Hold on a second…

A geologist who happens to be a creationist?

John Baumgardner, for it is he, is indeed a creationist and geophysical modeller.

Let’s consider the opening question:

You’ve said that your primary goal as a scientist is “defence of God’s word”. Is this consistent with the scientific method?
Most scientists try to make incremental contributions. There are a few who are strongly driven by their world view; Richard Dawkins is a pretty dramatic example. I would put myself in that same category, although I hope that I’m not as abrasive. If people can do it on the other side, why should I shrink back?

Indeed. But this raises huge problems, which we and New Scientist will come to in a moment. Baumgardner started out as an electrical engineer. Then he had a Christian conversion. An elision of his Christianity and an interest in the Biblical origins of the Earth with a scientific background made him ‘realise that the Genesis flood had to involve rapid large-scale tectonic chnage. So I started doing a PhD in geophysisc at the UCLA’.

The work he did on his PhD included the development of a computer model of the interior of the Earth, which as New Scientist notes has been ‘widely used’. Baumgardner ‘models convection in the Earth’s mantle, treating it as a viscous fluid and partitioning it into a large number of cells…’

The Los Alamos National Laboratory found it convincing enough to offer him a job in the theoretical division in 1983.

His linkage of his work to the Genesis flood is through modelling ‘catastrophic plate tectonics’. That is where processes that might usually take millions of years, such as rapid falls in the height of continental surfaces, and conversely rapid rises in sea floors in possibly weeks, or as he says ‘Apparently [in Genesis], the continents were largely submerged. In roughtly a years time, we have almost a complte resurfacing of the planet. At the end, we have a wrecked, desolate planet that is struggling to recover ‘. It’s not without problems though as he admits. The newly resurfaced crust would have to cool extremely rapidly in order to allow for the effects he proposes. Some say that would necessitate supersonic jets of steam which would transfer heat into space but he now believes that that would be insufficient to cool the crust. “Still, I believe this accounts for the 40 days and 40 nights of rain: ocean water was carried up with these jets. Most of what I’ve described involves the present laws of physics, but there are a couple of issues where I believe there must have been some form of divine intervention. One has to do with accelerating nuclear decay rates, whic can explain why radioisotope methods seem to give dates for some rocks of hundreds of millions of years. The second is the mechanism for cooling”.

New Scientist pointed out that ‘for most scientists, this is hugely problematical. They cannot invoke divine intervention in this way.

His response? ‘I don’t deny that most people would come down on the side of the conventional view, right now. Until the case is strong enough, it’s foolhardy of me to ask and insist that my peers buy into it.’

Indeed there is a degree of flexibility in his approach, although whether that is tactical or heartfelt is something of an open question. This is evidenced when New Scientist asks:

Your papers in Nature and Science assume conventional geological timescaless. How did you reconcile your authoship of these papers with your own views about the Earth’s history?

I admit that I struggled with that. Basically, my rationalisation is that there is nothing wrong with the underlying physics that I described…so I allowed it to go through. I believe God has called me to participate in the scientific community, not to be a Lone Ranger.

New Scientist also asks the reasonable question: “Tell me about your interaction with your colleagues”. Here he responds that ‘At Los Alamos, I found that my colleagues gave me a lot of respect. Not that they agreed with me, but they respected me for explaining and defending my position.
It’s a most interesting tale, and I think there is a core aspect to it which – perhaps – allows Baumgardner to remain however tenuously within the scientific community. This is that although he is attempting to explain geophysics within a philosophical framework shaped by theism, it is rooted within a methodological framework shaped by empiricism. Indeed striking is it not to see him talk about how he has to ‘rationalise’ the rational, as it were in regard to time scales and accept that his theoretical philosophy is simply incapable of explaining the facts as they currently stand. Therefore the 40 days and 40 nights of rain become a result of actually occuring physical events. But the emphasis is on the events rather than the result.

Where the wheels come off this particular wagon is the resort to supernatural intervention to explain long time scales. Einstein once famously remarked that ‘God doesn’t play dice with the Universe’. In that instance he was talking, not about divine intervention, but rather his aversion to the indeterminism of quantum physics as expressed by Heisenberg, but I think it is applicable in this context. Because it seems that Baumgardner is in some respects similar to a la carte Catholics (which as an aside are the vast majority of Catholics), in being an a la carte physicist. He doesn’t really believe that the universe is the age that scientific investigation suggests that it is, therefore he asks God to act in a way to falsify the evidence.

Now to me (who would have some sympathy with, if not quite sharing, a theist position, but would equally find it futile to discard a rational and empirical approach to this universe) it seems that to be John Baumgardner and to be able to reconcile these essentially contradictory viewpoints must be quite a feat. Perhaps it comes from believing in a literalist view of the Bible. But at the same time, to use the tools of science and scientific methodology on a daily basis, and then to put the evidence they offer up to one side and then to suggest that a deity would act in such an essentially dishonest fashion is remarkable and extremely interesting on many different levels.

But lest we think that this sort of approach, of eliding Biblical tales with real science, is limited to Baumgardner and other creationists it’s worth noting that it occurs far closer to home. Consider our own Professor William Reville, biochemist and contributor to the Irish Times. In October 2003 he offered us the provocative headline “Noah’s Ark myth has evidence of great flood”.

First we get the backstory…

Christians are familiar with the Bible story of Noah when God cleaned wickedness from the world by destroying all of creation in a great flood. The righteous Noah and his family and two of every kind of animal survived by floating in a great ark.

Cheeringly he continues:

The Bible is not a reliable record of the physical history of the earth. Nevertheless, creationists use the literal Noah story to explain every sedimentary rock on earth and the fossil record in the rocks.

However, geology has won the argument on these matters and we know the flood could not have covered the whole earth and that Noah could not have rescued all living species.

But, this being the Bible there has to be something in it, doesn’t there (and this is after all the same William Reville who last Autumn provided a doughty if flawed defence of the Bible as evidence that there was a God)?

… recent scientific work has shown that the biblical story of the Flood may recall a real event even if many of the details are fictitious.

Marine biologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman have written a book – Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000) – describing a flood that occurred several thousand years before the ancient Hebrews wrote the Biblical story.

Ryan and Pitman, using sediment cores from the Black Sea posit that at one point the Black Sea was a fertile low land area which was innundated around 7 – 8,000 years ago. It is the story of this innundation which is recounted in the Noah story. Okay, there are a couple of problems…

Many geologists are wary of the revised theory and feel conflict about trying to prove an event from an ancient text.

Big problems…

It is also noted that the Bible records Noah as living in a Mesopotamian desert, whereas the Black Sea coastline was then lush and forested.

But why let that stop us? For Reville goes on to finish as follows: Let me finish with a truncated quotation of the Noah story from the Book of Genesis. Noah was 600 years old when the flood came on the earth on the 17th day of the second month. He and his wife and his sons and their wives went into the boat to escape the flood. A male and a female of every kind of animal and bird went into the boat as God had commanded…

But why provide the quote? The only possible reason would be to somehow try to suggest an implicit truth by association in the Book of Genesis – despite being unable to provide any evidence for same. And note the way in which creationism is trashed in favour of ‘science’ which confers the most tangential patina of support for the Genesis story.

Baumgardner believes, this belief shapes his worldview, but he remains wedded to methodologies based in rationalism. Reville believes, but appears keen to find even a scrap of support for his beliefs in rational enquiry. And both, when it comes down to it, use the Bible as a touchstone which guides their approach to history and geology.

Because examine Reville’s column last year where he wrote that Critics of our Christian heritage write off its achievements. In this he argued that evidence for God rests in “dilute scientific evidence for an impersonal God”. This is centred on the Anthropic Principle, the contention that because we live in a universe which allows for life therefore the universe must have been ‘fine-tuned’ in order to produce life, and this fine tuning indicates for the possiblity of a God. I’m all for that, but it strikes me that one would need much much harder evidence that it wasn’t say…just coincidence or the blind workings of chance which allowed for life. Secondly he suggests, well, actually it’s a bit more strong than a suggestion, that ‘there is evidence of a different kind for a personal God’.

This is as follows…

Jesus Christ claimed to be in close contact with God, whom he referred to in familiar terms as his father. If we judge that Jesus was sane, if his teachings stake a claim on our hearts and minds, and if we find that abiding by the principles that Jesus taught brings peace and joy into our lives, then it is reasonable for us to accept the word of Jesus about God just as it is for us to accept the word of any tried and tested friend on some matter about which we have no direct experience.

Again, these can only be judged in the context of the Bible, since it there that we have the clearest indication of the life of Jesus. But it is difficult, as a rationalist, to be entirely trusting that the view one gets there is close to the truth.

And even that is to miss the point. Neither of these ‘proofs’ are credible as any sort of evidence. Both are utterly subjective and even contradictory. Neither belong within a column on science. I have no problem with them as justifications of religious faith. That seems to me to be fine. But they seem to me to be category errors. There is simply no need in religion to have recourse to science whatsoever, and Baumgardners quixotic efforts and Reville’s rather more confusing efforts are really just attempts to mash two entirely different areas together in what can only be termed a failed synthesis. It doesn’t work, because it can’t work. The geological record does not allow for a global flood as described in Genesis and the only way Baumgardner can deal with this dichotomy is to effectively ignore it and hope new evidence turns up while also positing a God who would make a lie of this universe. Reville is enough of a scientist to acknowledge this but perhaps too much of a Christian to be able to extricate himself fully from an attachment on perhaps an emotional level with the power of the story.

Finally, for those interested in a deeper analysis of the geological aspects of this area, why not consider the entertaining science, anti-science and geology blog?

The link between UFOs and 9/11: Conspiracy Theories, pseudo-science and the need to believe. January 20, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in 9/11, Culture, Pseudo-Science, Television Shows, Terrorism, United States, US Media, US Politics.
18 comments

Following recent threads on Politics.ie it’s struck me that in a way the conspiracy theory has managed to slide effortlessly into the spot held by UFO’s throughout the 1990s. Actually it goes a bit deeper than that. The two are so closely entwined that while not entirely the same they remain very very similar indeed.Now, first off I have to declare yet again my love of and absolute lack of belief in all things pseudoscientific. I’ve already referenced some of the more interesting pseudoscientific beliefs but they’re dying in the face of different belief systems.

I spent the 1990s hugely entertained by the X-Files (although most of the monster and horror episodes were fairly silly), Dark Skies (a lost classic – sort of) and various other cheap knock offs. The idea that there was a global conspiracy to suppress information about contact with aliens is on the one hand extremely intriguing. On the other. let’s be honest here, it’s a pile of rubbish. Those sort of secrets simply couldn’t be kept across decades let alone over half a century.

But the concept of the government as this arbiter between the uncanny and the mundane, that in some ways it was corrupted has of course fueled probably hundreds of thousands of earnest student theses since the time of Watergate (leaving out the uncanny bit needless to say). And what could be more corrupted than human alien hybrid experimentation? Overseen by the government. A government that would stop at nothing to implement it’s own New World Order. That for the selfish motivation of it’s members (politicians and civil servants) would seek to create deals with forces that sought to carry out unspeakable acts upon the human race.

Actually, back in the day, and initially, the X-Files really annoyed me. No, it wasn’t the Canadian locations pretending to be the US (series 2 onwards if I recall correctly), or the pathos of the Sully Mulder on-off relationship (even the names sound dated at this remove). But instead it was the conspiracies themselves. In a way I thought at the time, and even argued with people about it, that it fed into an anti-statist, militia type mentality. I think the truth is that it reflected that mentality rather than engendering it. On the other hand it also placed the mythos of the Greys front and centre in our culture.

These days I’m somewhat more relaxed about such things. And indeed it’s telling that the more recent incarnations of X-Files wannabe’s, such as the truly execrable Threshold, have portrayed a remarkably different relationship between the US government and those organisations attempting to combat alien incursions (indeed there’s an argument that TV such as 24 – and probably West Wing – has in some respects rehabilitated the idea of US President as noble character, consider the life of David Palmer or Jed Bartlett).

But the idea took root, or extended, a sort of rightist alienation from the state in the early 1990s merging with leftist disaffection from the military industrial complex towards the latter part of that decade and broadening again under Bush in a perfect storm of disbelief at everything we’re told. Trust no one. Fight the future. What’s not to like?

And it’s remarkably telling that sighting of UFOs have declined precipitously since the 1990s. An interesting article in the Guardian from 2005 talks of a massive drop in sightings and the closure of UFO related magazines and groups . Why wouldn’t they? The reality of an Al-Queda willing to bomb randomly and with no regard for civilian casualties is at least as chilling as the idea that the Greys are going to alight on your roof and using their advanced technological prowess (otherwise known as magic) somehow dope you and carry you bodily through walls and ceilings to their spaceship where they will bypass all electronic and non-invasive medical examination methods in favour of curiously shaped probes.

But as one belief system crashes another rises from it’s ashes phoenix-like to reclaim that particular territory of the human psyche.

And what have we got instead? A broad confluence of beliefs that centre on the idea that 9/11 was in some sense a great lie, a sort of souped up border incident for the early 21st century where either the US military industrial complex, or the neo-cons, or the Zionist lobby, or whoever – delete as applicable – decided that a surprise attack on the US would be the perfect cover or excuse to sell more arms, invade Iraq, support Israel or whatever.

Of course logically one could ask as per any of those end goals, surely lesser means would have resulted in similar ends? But, hold on, it’s not so simple. It’s not that the planes were necessarily not hijacked, according to the disbelievers, although they think they probably weren’t. It’s that charges were placed in the WTC in order to collapse it (Incidentally, I once worked in a sneakers store in the basement shopping plaza under the WTC, way back when in 1989. The idea that charges could be placed in the towers themselves, knowing the security that was in place at that time – even prior to the early 1990s bombing – is simply laughable. The idea that it could have been done unnoticed utterly so).

Call me small minded and unimaginative. But for my money the images of the aircraft hitting the towers were quite sufficient. I didn’t think at that point in time that they’d fall, but then I didn’t think much of anything at all on September 11. If they hadn’t fallen, if the flames had simply consumed the floors above the impact sites I think that alone would have been a remarkable and chilling image. Perhaps more so, with the smouldering wreckage still barely standing, than the great physical and conceptual abyss that was Ground Zero.

And here’s the thing. In a way the suspension of critical faculties involved in 9/11 conspiracy theories is even greater than that with UFOs. After all, it’s one thing to say “I saw a shining light above Old Man Potters Barn”, but it’s a completely different class of self-delusion to say “I, and thousands of others on the spot, saw two aircraft impact the Twin Towers in rapid succession but I don’t believe that’s what brought the buildings down, actually it was shaped charges placed throughout the two buildings by the US military industrial complex/the neo-cons/the Zionist lobby”.

The beauty of this is that the arguments can rage beyond the purview of anything so dull as expert opinion. The logical thought that if the collapse of the Twin Towers is so damn odd why aren’t engineers across the world up in arms about it is met by the proposition that only some are in on the truth, or the cover-up is global (and for those who are really interested in such things the debates about whether the towers fell at freefall or not is a good place to start – I commend you to the ever excellent James Randi’s site).

But let’s not get too exercised about this (although somehow there is something a lot more distasteful about the sort of almost prurient self-regard of those who propound these ‘theories’ as against those who were proponents of UFOlogy, at least to my mind). Some people want to believe that? Let them. It’s the times we live in. In some ways, bizarrely, perhaps for some people it’s more comforting to think that the US would do this than networks of Islamists. Perhaps it’s always more comforting to engage in a sort of mental displacement activity where one continually slides away from engagement with the grim reality behind an event in favour of a more esoteric explanation.

Lights in the skies? UFO’s rather than airliners. Missing time? Greys about their unfathomable business rather than tiredness or boredom. WTC collapses? A malign US government that most of the time at least does what one expects rather than a tiny tiny group of individuals willing to wreak mass destruction for politico-religious ends which most of us have little understanding of or interest in.

Now, tell me again which of these is really scary.

Moonbase, Missile Defence, and just why there’s a good reason for them both… or Victor Papanek and the necessity for ethical design… December 11, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Design, Education, Environment, Environmentalism, Ethics, Greens, NASA, Pseudo-Science, Science, Technology.
9 comments

Okay, I’m slightly exaggerating about Missile Defence, but hear me out about Moon Base.
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In 1970 Victor Papanek, an Austrian designer and educator wrote a book called ‘Design for the Real World’. Originally published in Sweden, so popular was it that it was translated into English only a year later. The idea behind it was what Papanek felt was a mismatch between the power of design in contemporary societies and the lack of moral responsibility felt by the broad product design profession. As he noted himself ‘no a single volume on the responsibility of the designer, no book on design that considers the public in this way, has ever been published anywhere’. And from this Papanek developed a critique of this form of design and how it dovetailed with capitalism and sought to present a sort of roadmap for those involved in design. He argued that consumerist design was akin to medicine and ‘comparable to what would happen if all medical doctors were to forsake general practice and surgery and concentrate exclusively on dermatology, plastic surgery, and cosmetics’.

Essentially he proposed that there are six areas where designers must positively engage.

Firstly in the area of design for the Third World. Papanek considered that in a world where billions lacked the appropriate and sustainable technologies to improve their lives. He pointed to the lack of development in lighting or in upgrading or making more sustainable simple technologies such as paraffin or oil lamps.

Secondly in the area training and educational devices for those who are disabled. His particular focus was on simple products which improve life, such as hearing aids. The costs of such items were extremely expensive, but through a more rational allocation of resources such costs could be cut. Yet this would demand a political and social will.

Third he looked to design for medicine and health. Topical this, indirectly in an Irish context. He noted that at the time medical instruments were either over designed or extremely crude. He sought a more measured approach.

Fourth he considered design for research was a necessity. Here we see an interesting, almost techno-utopian strand in his thinking. The idea is that much experimental equipment was over designed or badly designed thus inflating the costs of research. Again, he sought social and political change, but also accountability on the part of those who commissioned such products.

Fifth, he saw the design of survival systems in hostile environments as a crucial priority. This included underwater, deserts, polar areas and space environments. With increasing pollution and a global environment under significant pressure he considered that it was necessary to ‘sustain human life under marginal conditions’.

Sixth, he looked to design for ‘breakthrough concepts’. This is in some respects the most radical of his ideas. What he sought was rather than continual marginal improvement in products, instead a complete rethink about the purpose and function of items in order to make them more sustainable. So if you design a kettle you create one which allows for more precise control of the amount of water boiled in order to save electricity, and so on and so forth extended outwards to encompass all products.

Needless to say this is a significant rupture with traditional consumerist design techniques, and one which hasn’t been un-influential. ‘Green’ and socially responsible design has begun to permeate product design in particular.

And as for Moon Base, well look to the fifth area. That sort of cutting edge technological advance isn’t without benefits, particularly if this is positioned within an international context. More to the point, while direct applicability may not be absolutely forthcoming, aspects of it certainly are. I don’t want to overstate this. Project Orion, as the crew component of the new Lunar missions is named, is in many respects simply an extension of the old Apollo capsules, with capacity for up to 6 astronauts rather than the previous three. It’s not comfortable, it’s not a 2001 Earth Orbit to Lunar Surface style vehicle. But it is technology that has been proven to work previously and can be further refined. And this is also important in terms of our ability as a species to protect both ourselves and our planetary biosphere. One of the more disturbing aspects of our growing knowledge of how fragile that biosphere is has been the realisation that it is vulnerable both to anthropogenic threats such as climate change and external threats beyond the atmosphere. It’s something of a cliche to suggest that once humans travelled beyond Earth orbit and were able to show us the image of the planet from afar our relationship with the planet changed, but consider the manner in which for example An Inconvenient Truth was advertised. This sort of signification is of value.

Naturally there’s much to disagree with Papanek, if not in his overall argument, then in the detail. For example, it’s difficult to see how consumerist design can be modified very rapidly. In later books his proscriptions, particularly in the area of societal structures become a little arcane (for example he goes someway along the path Rudolf Bahro and other deep Greens went with regard to dismantling current society into much smaller self contained units – ideas I’d not necessarily disagree with but find difficult to believe will be implemented any time soon). But on the other if he provides me with a justification for Moon Base…

Mind you, now I think about it, wouldn’t that be the ultimate small self contained unit…

By the by, for those interested in this area a book by Nigel Whiteley, Design for Society, although dated, provides a good overview of the area.

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Forgot to add this…of course even when the US or US/UN gets there they’ll still only be second…or third…or fourth as this most interesting site 😉 indicates…

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