30 November 2012

How important exactly is science to the economy?

When US senator Marco Rubio failed to acknowledge that the Earth was billions of years old during an interview for GQ magazine, scientifically literate folks pounced. Astronomer and science writer Phil Plait took particular umbrage at Senator Rubio’s dismissive statement that the age of the Earth “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.” In a Slate article, Plait retorts (emphasis his):

Perhaps Senator Rubio is unaware that science—and its sisters engineering and technology—are actually the very foundation of our country’s economy? All of our industry, all of our technology, everything that keeps our country functioning at all can be traced back to scientific research and a scientific understanding of the Universe.
Cell phones, computers, cars, machinery, medicine, the Internet, manufacturing, communication, agriculture, transportation, on and on … all of these industries rely on science to work. Without basic research none of these would exist.
And all of science points to the age of the Earth being much, much older than Senator Rubio intimates. Astronomy, biology, relativity, chemistry, physics, anatomy, sociology, linguistics, cosmology, anthropology, evolutionary science, and especially radiometric dating of rocks all indicate the Universe, and our home planet Earth, are far older than any claims of a few thousand years. The overwhelming consensus is that the Earth is billions of years old. And all of these sciences are the basis of the technology that is our country’s life blood.

Writing for the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman also criticised Senator Rubio’s view that geological knowledge is unconnected to economic strength:

Coming back to the age of the earth: Does it matter? No, says Mr. Rubio, pronouncing it “a dispute amongst theologians”—what about the geologists?—that “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.” But he couldn’t be more wrong.
We are, after all, living in an era when science plays a crucial economic role. How are we going to search effectively for natural resources if schools trying to teach modern geology must give equal time to claims that the world is only 6000 years old? How are we going to stay competitive in biotechnology if biology classes avoid any material that might offend creationists?

So far, I’m with Plait and Krugman. After all, isn’t it obvious that scientific literacy is essential for a technology-based economy to flourish? Not necessarily so, according to Slate writer Daniel Engber. Responding to Phil Plait’s article, Engber challenges the view that a country’s economy depends on an absolute knowledge of science. He writes:

What about Rubio’s assertion that the age of the Earth “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States”? That’s the claim that gave Phil Plait “a chill,” since science is “the very foundation of our country's economy.” At Forbes, Alex Knapp declares that “this economy, at its root, is built on a web of scientific knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology. It’s impossible to just cherry pick out parts we don’t like.” If we get it wrong on Earth’s creation, these critics say, the United States will fall apart.
Will it really? It seems to me that Rubio is right. Lots of basic scientific questions have no bearing whatsoever on the nation's short-term economic growth. We can even go much further: Lots of scientific questions don’t matter all that much when it comes to other scientific questions. It’s possible—and quite common—for scientists to plug away at research projects without explicit knowledge of what’s happening in other fields. And when a bedrock principle of science does need to be adjusted—a not-so-unusual occurrence, it turns out—the edifice of scholarship doesn’t crumble into dust. DVD players still operate. Nuclear plants don't shut down.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci agrees with Engber. On his blog Rationally Speaking, Pigliucci explains why people like Phil Plait and Paul Krugman (and Pigliucci himself, initially) are wrong to believe that the kind of ignorance of (or disrespect for) science displayed by Senator Rubio is ipso facto damaging to science, or the economy, as a whole:

There is a deeper philosophical reason why Engber is right and people like Phil and myself ought to be more cautious with our outrage at the cutting of scientific budgets or at politicians’ opportunistic uttering of scientific nonsense to gather supporters and votes. Knowledge in general, and scientific knowledge in particular, is not like an edifice with foundations — a common but misleading metaphor. If it were, it would be more likely that, as Phil so strongly stated, everything is connected to everything else, so that ignoring, denying, or replacing one piece of the building will likely create fractures all over the place.
But that’s not how it works. Rather, to use philosopher W.V.O. Quine’s apt metaphor, knowledge is more like a web, with some threads being stronger or more interconnected than others. […] If you see science as a web of statements, observations, experiments, and theories, then it becomes perfectly clear why Engber is right at pointing out that quite a bit of independence exists between different parts of the web, and how even relatively major chunks of said web can be demolished and replaced without the whole thing crumbling. There really is next to no connection between someone’s opinions about the age of the earth and that person’s grasp of the state and causes of a country’s economy.

Pigliucci’s use of the ‘science is a web’ metaphor is persuasive. But before you think that he is letting anti-scientific folks like Senator Rubio, creationists and ‘alternative’ medicine advocates off the hook, Pigliucci clarifies his position on the value of science and evidence-based reasoning (emphasis his):

Still, there is an important point where Phil is absolutely correct and that I think Engber underestimates. What is “chilling” and disturbing about people like Rubio (but not people like Obama) is that they have embraced a general philosophy of rejecting evidence and reason whenever it is ideologically or politically convenient. That is what is highly dangerous.

I can see Pigliucci’s point about how science isn’t a monolithic edifice that will collapse when its foundations are cracked by ignorance and rejection of facts. I accept his argument that science is actually a web, where torn or missing threads in one part may not affect the structural integrity of the whole, or other parts of the web. Still, as Pigliucci concedes, this does not excuse anti-scientific attitudes. A country’s economic prosperity may not be entirely dependent on the scientific literacy of its leaders, but a culture that enables, even encourages, ignorance and rejection of knowledge surely isn’t a healthy one.


28 November 2012

Good call from an Aussie judge

Here’s a fine example of scientific literacy, or at least a proper respect for medical science, in our legal system. An Australian judge refused to accept a mother’s belief in homeopathy and ordered that her 8-year-old daughter be vaccinated with real vaccines.

From the news report:

A doctor in homeopathic medicine told the court that homeopathic vaccination was safe and effective, whereas traditional vaccination had short- and long-term risks, including a link to ADHD and autism. 
But Justice Bennett accepted the evidence of a doctor at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, who said there was insufficient evidence of the effectiveness of homeopathic immunisation to justify its replacement of traditional immunisation. 
The links to ADHD and autism had been disproved by studies in Scandinavia, France and the United States, the doctor said. 
Justice Bennett said the risks associated with traditional immunisation did not outweigh the risks of infection. 
“It appears to me that the efficacy of homeopathic vaccines in preventing infectious diseases has not been adequately scientifically demonstrated,” she said.

Science = 1. Woo = 0.

I do have one quibble though: the reference to “traditional” immunisation makes it seem like vaccination is merely a ‘tradition’ passed down uncritically, rather than the scientifically proven practice that it is.

Even though a poorly-designed government scheme makes taxpayers subsidise anti-vaxers, the judge’s decision gives me hope that Australians are generally unsympathetic to anti-vaccination ideology. The poll included in the article and the comments below it are also encouraging. Great to see so many people showing strong critical thinking skills and an understanding of epidemiology and immunology. Homeopathy also gets the drubbing it deserves.

It’s sad that the legal system has to intervene in order to protect children from their own parents. But when those parents swallow dangerous ideas hook, line and sinker, this intervention becomes necessary.


Carl Sagan’s last interview

I’m too young to be part of the generation that watched the TV series Cosmos when it first aired, but the legacy of its presenter Carl Sagan is so potent that you can’t avoid reading quotes attributed to him on various science blogs, websites, forums, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. The American astronomer, astrophysicist, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and science populariser died in 1996, but he would have turned 78 years old earlier this month, on the 9th, if he hadn’t succumbed to pneumonia caused by a rare blood disorder.

Jerry Coyne wrote a post commemorating the great scientist who played a huge role in educating and inspiring people through his many books (30 in all) and popular 1980 television show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Coyne’s post includes three videos of Carl Sagan’s last interview with Charlie Rose, conducted just seven months before Sagan’s death. In the interview Sagan addressed the pernicious effects of pseudoscience, superstition, mysticism and religious extremism while giving a passionate defense of science, arguing for the importance of scientific literacy among the general public. Below are a few quotes from the first part of the interview that capture the gist of Sagan’s views.

Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.

The thing about science is, first of all, it’s after the way the universe really is, and not what makes us feel good, and a lot of the competing doctrines are after what feels good, and not what’s true.

And here is Sagan’s response to the common charge from religionists that scientists are arrogant and overconfident about their knowledge and abilities.

Who is more humble, the scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this [holy] book must be considered the literal truth and nevermind the fallibility of all the human beings involved in the writing of this book?

The first video of the 3-part interview (part 2 here, and part 3 here):

Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan gave a very moving description of her relationship with her late husband, and how he faced his impending death with “unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions.”

Carl Sagan was a torchbearer for science, for its beauty, wonder and power of discovery. He made our “pale blue dot” world a more enlightened place.


21 November 2012

Questions for anti-abortionists

Over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee has listed 11 questions for those who oppose abortion. Lee had previously responded to Christian writer Trevin Wax’s 10 questions for pro-choicers, so it was only fair that anti-abortionists* like Wax were asked some tough questions too.

I think Lee gave thoughtful, well articulated answers to Wax’s questions. His answers correct a few misconceptions about the pro-choice position, while exposing some of the underlying presumptions of anti-abortionists (newsflash: pro-choicers don’t think sex-selective abortion is ok). Lee’s questions in turn should make any reasonable anti-abortionist think deeply about their views in attempting to defend them. Many of these questions are intended to draw attention to the inherent contradictions, ignorance, absurdity and hypocrisy in anti-abortion arguments. Let’s see what rhetorical contortions the anti-abortionists will perform to square the circles of their religiously influenced views.

* I refuse to call anti-abortionists ‘pro-lifers’ or to even use the term ‘pro-life’ in reference to anti-abortion views. It’s an insult to both common sense and the English language to call such views ‘pro-life’ when they hold lumps of unconscious cells in higher regard than the lives of conscious, feeling, female human beings with hopes, fears and aspirations.


15 November 2012

Shame on the Irish government, on the Catholic Church, and on their apologists

I would rather not write a third consecutive post on the pernicious Catholic Church, but I write this to show solidarity with those who mourn the death of Savita Halappanavar. I don’t have much more to say that hasn’t already been said with righteous anger by PZ Myers. I can’t add anything substantial to what has been expressed by Grania Spingies. And I certainly can’t improve on Dr. Jen Gunter’s professional assessment of this tragedy.

But I will say this: if you think that the Catholic Church is innocent of Savita’s death, that the manslaughter of a young woman is a crime to be pinned on the Irish government alone, or the hospital, you are a shameful apologist for the Church. If you even dare to glibly mention how the Church doesn’t forbid abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, as if this oh-so-generous accommodation reflects the Church’s magnanimity, you only show how warped your moral reasoning is.

Let me spell it out for you: Savita’s death, and the deaths and suffering of other women like her under similar circumstances (having an abortion denied on religious grounds), would not have happened if the idea that fetuses had souls and that aborting them was a mortal sin DID. NOT. EXIST. We can thank the Holy See for such baseless, superstitious ideas, ideas that reach out far from Rome to blight the lives of people living in distant places. Like Savita, they don’t even have to be Catholic to be victims of the Church.

I will concede that the phrase “religion poisons everything” is an exaggeration. But only marginally so.


14 November 2012

When a medieval law protects child abusers

In the wake of PM Julia Gillard’s announcement of a royal commission to investigate allegations of institutional child sex abuse, Cardinal George Pell bleated about how the Church was the victim of a smear campaign by the media. He also went on to defend the Seal of Confession, a Catholic sacrament whereby priests are forbidden to divulge the confessions of penitents, calling it “inviolable”. Here is Pell’s suggestion for how priests can avoid being caught between a rock and a hard place:

If the priest knows beforehand about such a situation [of sexual abuse], the priest should refuse to hear the confession. […] That would be my advice, and I would never hear the confession of a priest who is suspected of such a thing.

What an odious, and utterly impotent, piece of advice. Pell is basically telling his underlings that they’re better off turning a deaf ear to possible cases of sexual abuse rather than ‘violating’ a Catholic injunction against snitching. How does refusing to hear the confession of a child abuser help to bring him to justice? To protect innocent children?

Cardinal George Pell

Independent senator Nick Xenophon has called the Seal of Confession “a medieval law that needs to change in the 21st century”, and stated that “Church law, canon law, should not be above the law of the land.” Others agree, as the ABC reports:

New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell, who is a Catholic, says he cannot fathom why priests should not be required to pass on evidence of child abuse to police.
“I think the law of the land when it comes to particularly mandatory reporting around issues to do with children should apply to everyone equally,” Mr O’Farrell told AM.
“How can you possibly, by the continuation of this practice, potentially continue to give... a free pass to people who've engaged in the most heinous of acts?”
Federal Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne, who is also a Catholic, believes criminal law should take priority over church rules when it comes to child abuse.
“If a priest hears in a confessional a crime, especially a crime against a minor, the priest has the responsibility in my view to report that to the appropriate authorities,” Mr Pyne told ABC News.
“In this case the police, because the church nor the priests should be above the law.”

If Australia is to remain true to its secular principles, the laws of any religious body must not take precedence over civil laws. The Catholic Church in particular is notorious for its primary allegiance to the dictates of the Holy See in Rome, and will often give those dictates priority over the laws of the country in which the Church operates. Whether it concerns abortion, contraception or gay marriage, the Church holds its laws to be above those enacted by civil, secular society. Such insolence must not go unchallenged.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that the very idea of the Seal of Confession depends on the belief in ‘sin’, a ludicrous concept that underpins almost every Christian doctrine. Without it, there would be no need for a formal rite of ‘confession’, no need for priests to wrestle with both the demands of morality and the demands of the Church, no need for Pellian loopholes where terrible crimes are ignored to avoid ‘sinning’ by breaking the Seal of Confession. It is the idea of ‘sin’ itself, among other religious dogma, that is the cause of much harm inflicted by the Church.


13 November 2012

The Catholic Church deserves to be targeted

PM Julia Gillard has announced that there will be a royal commission set up to investigate allegations of institutional child sex abuse in Australia. This has been a long time coming, and it’s certainly welcome news. Even though pedophile Catholic priests immediately come to mind, the Australian reports that “[t]he inquiry will not be confined to the Catholic Church, but extend to all religious organisations and to children in state care, and into other institutions including schools.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. The commission should indeed investigate allegations of child sex abuse wherever they may have occurred. But when Opposition leader Tony Abbott and Cardinal George Pell whine about how the Catholic Church is being “targeted” and that the commission should be “wide-ranging” and not “focus solely on the Catholic Church”, they are being obscenely disingenuous. Abbott, who is Catholic, and Cardinal Pell are high-status members of a global organisation that has aided and abetted child molesters and sexual predators within its ranks for decades, an organisation that often shows outright contempt for civil laws because it considers itself subject only to the laws of its own theocracy.

As Labor backbencher Senator Doug Cameron observed, if the “extremely powerful and politically influential church was confident abuse was no longer occurring, it had nothing to fear from a royal commission,” and also that the church should rightly be the focus of any commission because “that’s where the major problem seems to be.”

Julia Gillard’s assurance that the commission will not discriminate is simply political correctness. Many of us are not fooled by the false equivalence being made. The Catholic Church’s role in child sex abuse and its subsequent cover-up is proportionately large enough to warrant a commission of its own. That the government has decided on a more extensive investigation should be considered an undeserved courtesy by petulant Catholics like Tony Abbott and Cardinal Pell.