Our Religious Drag on Scientific Discovery

I talk chatting it up with The Other Mike the other day when we got talking about great spirits encountering violent opposition from mediocre minds. The context of this was over-confident, under-qualified meteorologists who posses strong, influential, but underinformed opinions about climate change.

Mike challenged me to take a shot at discussing this topic here. An angle that interest me in this is: Who are the great spirits that are taking the most heat from mediocre minds these days?

The first person that came to mind was Craig Venter.

Venter is one of the most innovative genomic researchers in the world. He played a pivotal role in the first sequencing of the human genome. He and his company’s employees will probably set the world record for documenting the most species on Earth (if they haven’t already). He’s been doing this by sailing around the world while scooping water samples out of the ocean at regular intervals, then sending them back to his lab to have the life forms found in the water analyzed. It turns out that the diversity of the oceans dwarfs what we previously realized.

Venter’s company also recently created the first synthetic life form by programming a new bacteria using something called a genetic sequencer that essentially builds genes from scratch.

It comes as no surprise that scientific research as cutting edge as this runs up against some strong opposition. For example, The Guardian’s article on Venter’s first creation of a synthetic life form mentioned criticism of the work before they bothered explaining what was accomplished. The first paragraph wasvery high level. The second led by saying that it as controversial. This third explained Venter’s background, and the forth is this:

However critics, including some religious groups, condemned the work, with one organisation warning that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological weapons. Others said Venter was playing God.

To me, it’s fascinating to see religious groups come up with explanations such as those thrown out above. The playing God game is easily dismissed by those who worship different gods or no gods at all. The ones that I get a kick out of are the attempts by non-scientists to explain the risks of this type of research. In this case, the organisms could escape or be used to create biological weapons. If you have 12 minutes, watch Venter’s interview on The Guardian. Near the end of it, he explains how impossible it would be for the synthetic life form he created to escape Essentially, the only place it would be able to survive is in the gut of a goat. Yep. The guy of a goat.

The bio-weapons argument is even more absurd to me. The same arguments were made in the stone age, bronze age, and iron age. You know what can be used as a weapon? Things of value. How can “religious groups” worth citing in The Guardian be so ignorant of the history of innovation? Yes, new innovations bring the potential for new ways to kill people, but they tend to have more than enough upside to out-weigh the downsides.

This is the type of opposition Venter likely has to deal with on a daily basis while concurrently trying to invent a new field of science that’s capable of generating new forms of cleaner energy, new pharmaceuticals, and many uses that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. While driving science forward with one hand, he has to fend off people to want to shut down his field of research with the other. That has to be exhausting.

This, of course, isn’t a new issue. Scientists have faced religious persecution for as long as they’ve been describing the world in terms outside of the world view of people in religious power. One text on the topic, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew Dickson White of Cornell University took a look at the historical beat down scientists have faced in pursuit of innovation. The introduction to the book includes a look at the push-back Cornell University received when they attempted to found their secular school:

We had especially determined that the institution should be under the control of no political party and of no single religious sect, and with Mr. Cornell’s approval I embodied stringent provisions to this effect in the charter.

It had certainly never entered into the mind of either of us that in all this we were doing anything irreligious or unchristian. Mr. Cornell was reared a member of the Society of Friends; he had from his fortune liberally aided every form of Christian effort which he found going on about him, and among the permanent trustees of the public library which he had already founded, he had named all the clergymen of the town – Catholic and Protestant. As for myself, I had been bred a churchman, had recently been elected a trustee of one church college, and a professor in another; those nearest and dearest to me were devoutly religious; and, if I may be allowed to speak of a matter so personal to my self, my most cherished friendships were among deeply religious men and women, and my greatest sources of enjoyment were ecclesiastical architecture, religious music, and the more devout forms of poetry. So, far from wishing to injure Christianity, we both hoped to promote it; but we did not confound religion with sectarianism, and we saw in the sectarian character of American colleges and universities as a whole, a reason for the poverty of the advanced instruction then given in so many of them.

It required no great acuteness to see that a system of control which, in selecting a Professor of Mathematics or Language or Rhetoric or Physics or Chemistry, asked first and above all to what sect or even to what wing or branch of a sect he belonged, could hardly do much to advance the moral, religious, or intellectual development of mankind.

The reasons for the new foundation seemed to us, then, so cogent that we expected the co-operation of all good citizens, and anticipated no opposition from any source.

As I look back across the intervening years, I know not whether to be more astonished or amused at our simplicity.

112 years later, I think we’ve made some progress, but continue to fight the same battles. Churches don’t have the power they used to have to directly hinder scientific innovation. But we still have plenty of people holding powerful political positions who are perfectly willing to hinder innovation. Yet, at the same time, they’re more than willing to reap the benefits of the innovations they opposed.

Men’s Days are Numbered

Guys, some would say that we’re only good for one thing, but if scientists in the UK get their way, we may not even be needed for that . . . one . . . thing:

The prospect of all-female conception

Women might soon be able to produce sperm in a development that could allow lesbian couples to have their own biological daughters, according to a pioneering study published today.

Scientists are seeking ethical permission to produce synthetic sperm cells from a woman’s bone marrow tissue after showing that it possible to produce rudimentary sperm cells from male bone-marrow tissue.

No word on how close science is to allowing men to make babies on their own so we can live in peace on another planet.

Would America be Better off Today with John Kerry as President?

One common statement I’ve grown to expect to hear from right-wingers who have grown frustrated with the blood being spilled day after day after day due to their voting to re-elect Bush is, “But at least we don’t have Kerry.”

It’s an interesting argument to suggest the country is somehow better off today than with John Kerry as president. But here’s one thing I know for sure that I think most of my conservative friends would agree with: Kerry would not appoint religious nutcases to scienced-based positions:

How to get a job in Washington, that balmy, bipartisan town: Direct an organization that opposes contraception on the grounds that it is “demeaning to women.” Compare premarital sex to heroin addiction. Advertise a link between breast cancer and abortion — a link that was refuted in 1997. Rant against sex ed. And hatch a loony theory about hormones.

You’re a shoo-in, and if your name is Eric Keroack you’re in your second month as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Keroack, a 46-year-old Massachusetts ob-gyn, today oversees the $280 million Title X program, the only federal program “designed to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them, with priority given to low-income persons.”

Science matters, and crap like this hurts people. I believe Kerry would have been mature enough to appoint experts in their field rather than religious politicians to hold positions like this.

Another area of agreement between me and my right-wing friends is over balance of power. We agree that the government works best when no single party controls all branches of government. Whenever that happens, accountability goes out the window and the country moves in dangerous directions. With that in mind, Kerry would have been an obvious choice with the GOP controlling congress in 2004. It’s not a far stretch to imagine Republicans holding onto congress in 2006 had Kerry been president.

“Belief” in Evolution? Not so much in the USA

I find the term “Belief in Evolution” rather strange considering evolution is science rather than faith based, but I suppose there are people who don’t believe in science – at least not when it conflict with their belief system. I suppose that makes it cafeteria-scientific belief or some odd thing.

RJ Eskow took at look at this over on the Huffington Post, and included the following chart showing the percentage of scientific believers by country:

Belief in Evolution by Country

You’re find a larger version of the graph with the post here.

Eskow poses the following comment and question:

“Our awareness of this scientific reality has actually gone down over the past 20 years, no doubt as a result of the so-called “intelligent design” movement and other Christian fundamentalist campaigns. In fact, frequent churchgoers in the US are most likely to doubt evolution. How will their children – and ours – become the great scientists, doctors, and engineers of tomorrow?

The answer is simple: they won’t. People who don’t believe in science will never be great scientists. It’s simply not possible. Just like people who believe they’re invincible tend to live short lives.

Non-Newtonian Fluid Video

I don’t know what you talk about over breakfast burritos, but the last time I had one I talked with my friend Josh about non-Newtonian fluids and mentioned this video.

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/f2XQ97XHjVw” width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]

I could offer a lame attempt at an explanation of non-Newtonian fluids, but I think the video helps explain it better than I could in words.

Eat Soy, No SUV: Gay – Not Gay?

I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking for health or nutrition advice, I say “to hell with doctors and nutritionists. What do they know?” Instead, I turn to James Rutz, of Megashift Ministries. Why rely on science when you can get truthiness straight from an “expert” like Rutz, who tells us:

If you’re a grownup, you’re already developed, and you’re able to fight off some of the damaging effects of soy. Babies aren’t so fortunate. Research is now showing that when you feed your baby soy formula, you’re giving him or her the equivalent of five birth control pills a day. A baby’s endocrine system just can’t cope with that kind of massive assault, so some damage is inevitable. At the extreme, the damage can be fatal.

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That’s why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today’s rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products.

I figured Rutz must be right, since he works for a ministry and writes for WorldNetDaily. I mean, Chuck Norris writes for WND, so it must be super authoritative like Nature, right?

After reading that, I panicked, and screamed: “My Gosh! I just washed down a pound of edemames with a tall glass of soy milk and have a plate of tofu brownies in the oven! Did I just sound like Snagglepuss? Exit, stage left!”

So, I hopped online looking for a additional information on this earth shattering topic, and found Jesus’ General’s open letter to Jame Rutz very enlightening, since it pointed to the larger economic issues a less soy’d America would face:

If we stop feeding soy products to our manchildren, who’s going to buy tomorrow’s Hummers, Dodge Rams, and Ford Excursions? After all, there’ll be no incentive to spend that kind of money on a big, expensive, powerful vehicle if every guy is packing one of those huge, Italian 3+” man-cannons in his briefs. Men compensating for tiny thingies are what drive the American automobile market. The auto companies would need to retool without it.

I don’t own and SUV, and have never wanted one, which means I must have been breast fed, right? Mr. Rutz lays out the case for this in his column, explaining that bottle-fed gay men can’t remember a time that they weren’t gay because it happened back when they should have been suckling from their heterosexually married mother’s breast rather than a bottle full of birth control pills.

Dagnabbit! I’m having sexual identity issues due to the created by being a soy eating grocery getter. I think I need a 3rd opinion.

Fruit Sours Hardness Experiment

Fruit Sours Experiment, originally uploaded by edkohler.

After stopping by a Lunds grocery store on the way home from dinner at Psycho Suzi’s in Northeast Minneapolis, we arrived back at the Cannon household with a fresh container of Assorted Fruit Sours. Nothing particularly ground breaking so far, eh? That’s before Kyle mentioned that during a recent sour ball binge he discovered that the hardness of sour balls varies with color.

This led to a series of experiments based loosely on Mohs scale of mineral hardness to determine which balls were the hardest. Head to head indentation battles were conducted between the various colors. Easily indented sour balls were moved to the left, while consistent winners moved right. Balls were consumed once they’d lost their structural integrity.

We didn’t have any talc, gypsum, or calcite on hard to find out where sour balls rank on Mohs Scale. That will have to wait for another day.

In the end, here is how they ranked from hardest to softest:

1. Purple
2. Green
3. Orange
4. Yellow
5. Red

It’s interesting to see the primary colors so handily defeated. Can we assume that blue balls would come up short?