Monthly Archives: August 2008

Religious belief and age

The recent survey commissioned by the Bible Society (Bible Engagement in New Zealand) provides some interesting information on the distribution of belief by age. The survey asked the question “would you describe yourself as a Christian?” It didn’t attempt to ascertain the numbers of people with other religions. However, as the numbers of New Zealanders with other religions is relatively small (only a few percent) the survey does give an indication of the situation for religion in general in New Zealand.

Almost 60% of respondents under the age of 44 answered No to the question and about 35% Yes. The proportion of Christians increased at older ages.

However, here is the interesting question:

Continue reading

Design – it’s everywhere


Of course I’m using “design” as a noun – a pattern or shape, sometimes repeated. Not as the verb – to make a detailed plan of the form or structure of something. We see patterns or shapes in almost everything but that does not imply that the patterns were created by intelligent agents. In fact, if we assume that to be the case we will never understand the underlying causes of patterns or design.

Forget about Mt Rushmore, or the watch Rev. Paley found on the ground. As a chemist I’m attracted to the design/pattern apparent in crystals. Consider mineralogy. There are some fascinating and beautiful examples of crystalline minerals. Have a look at the Mineral Image Index for for some great photos of minerals.

Continue reading

Reminder – Secular NZ and Australia

Coming up next Saturday – the Humanist Society of New Zealand, the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, and the Australian National Secular Association are sponsoring a  conference on:

New Zealand and Australia’s

Secular Heritage and its future.

0845 am – 5 pm Saturday 30 August 2008

Lecture Theatre 2, Rutherford House,
Pipitea Campus, Victoria university of Wellington

(Rutherford House is adjacent to the Wellington Railway Station. The entrance is from Bunny Street.)

Continue reading

Darwin lectures in New Zealand

It’s good to see that there will be events in New Zealand to mark the upcoming anniversaries of Charles Darwin’s  birth (200th) and publication of his book On the Origin of Species (150th).

Radio NZ National is broadcasting a series of six Darwin Lectures. The first will be this Sunday (24th August) at 4:07 pm in 4 ‘til 8 with Katrina Batten.

Entitled Darwin and the Evolution of an Idea it will cover Darwin’s family, his education, the Beagle voyage and the influence of the contemporary society. The lecturer is ecologist Lloyd Spencer Davis, author of Looking for Darwin.

Other lectures in this series will deal with biological complexity, the basic principles of evolution, fossils, evolutionary psychology and why humans create art. Lecture 5 (in Hamilton) and Lecture six (in Nelson) have yet to be recorded. Details are available in the links below if anyone wishes to attend these.

The lectures will eventually be available for podcast and download on the RNZ Darwin Lectures web page.

See also:
Royal Society of New Zealand Darwin Lectures
Part One: The Evolution of Darwin
Part Two: The Evolution of Biological Complexity.
Part Three: The Principles of Evolution; History of Life
Part Four:The Fossil Record
Part Five: Evolutionary Psychology
Part Six: The Storytelling Ape: Evolution, Art, Story, Culture
Evolution Overdrive

Similar articles

Is New Zealand a Christian nation?

This question comes up from time to time. Those arguing that it is admit  the proportion of New Zealanders who are Christian is declining but claim it is still a majority.

A recent survey commissioned by the Bible Society (Bible Engagement in New Zealand) really doesn’t support this claim. Unlike the national census (which provides a wide choice of religions) this survey asked only “would you describe yourself as a Christian?” This survey of 3400 New Zealanders found 46% consider themselves Christian (45% answered no and 9% preferred not to say).

Of course, when you get figures like these close to 50% one can argue about how to deal with the “don’t knows” and “won’t says.” After all, one could make the situation look better by saying that 50.5% of those answering the question are Christian. This is often done with the census results. For example it’s often claimed that the 2006 census showed  55.6% of New Zealanders are Christian. But, more correctly, it was 55.6% of those answering the religious affiliation question, but actually only 51.2% of the total responses.

Double dipping

Double dipping also influences the figures. Apparently some Christians are so enthusiastic that belong to several different churches. I can believe that as I have a relative who used to attend two different churches each Sunday because it gave him two different experiences.

In 2006 140,000 New Zealanders claimed to be adherents of more than one Christian religion. This caused an overestimation of the proportion of Christians. When corrected for double dipping the 2006 census showed that:

53.1% of those answering the religious affiliation question were Christian, or

49.5% of the total population described themselves as Christian.

Take home message

So, although the 2006 census data are sometimes manipulated to claim almost 56% of the population are Christian, in reality only 49.5% were prepared to describe themselves that way. The 2008 Bible Society survey (46% Christian) appears to confim this.

Similar articles

An optimistic future for energy storage?

The problems we face from climate change are also tied up with problems from resource depletion, particularly those related to energy. Even today we all feel the economic consequences of increasing fuels costs. It is easy to be alarmist and concentrate on the problems. And its easy to be blind to the possible cures for these problems.

But there are technological possibilities which provide some optimism that humanity will deal with these problems. A new process recently developed for storing solar energy is one of these. The process works by using a cobaltic phosphate catalyst in the electrolysis of water, overcoming problems related to normal electrolysis methods. The hydrogen and oxygen produced can be stored and converted back into electricity, when desired, using fuel cells. It can be used with any method of electricity generation which is not normally matched to demand, such as solar and wind.

In the video below Daniel Nocera describes how such a system could be used in distributed power generation systems. He believes such systems could be possible in the near future.

Of course, its difficult to predict the future. And the technology developed by Nocera’s team is only one example of a number of technological developments related to energy production and storage. However,  development of this energy storage system is an example of why we should be more optimistic about our future.

Daniel Nocera describes new process for storing solar energy

Similar articles

Fueling a new cold war

They say that truth is the first casualty in war. But, I would think the further away you are, and the less involved your country is, the more objective the information available on a conflict. I have been sadly disillusioned on this with the coverage of the South Ossetian/Georgian/Russian war by our news services.  While there have been a few alternative reports on Radio New Zealand the coverage on New Zealand TV has been completely one sided. It seemed that Russia was the only aggressor and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his fellow Georgians were the only victims.

Sadly, here is where one has to resort to the internet. Even so there can be problems. Georgia claims that some of their web sites had been disabled for a period because of DDoS attacks. Three Russian news services I consulted (Russia Today, The St. Petersburg Times and RIA Novosti were frequently down in the last week. Russia Today reported numerous DDoS attacks often made it unavailable.

Continue reading

Why the “new atheism”?

In a recent attack on me by a local blogger I was labelled a “New Atheist.” I had never thought of myself that way. After all, like me my atheism is actually quite old. And I prefer to get by with the minimum of ideological labelling anyway – given the ease with which labels are misinterpreted.

However, the term “New Atheism” is being used a lot lately and it’s interesting to ask why. Is there a new atheist ideology? Not that I can see. No, I think the label is being used not to describe ideology but more the style of the current debates around religion. Atheists are now more likely to enter into these discussions. They are more willing to criticise religious beliefs and dogma. They are more likely to criticise the actions of fundamentalist religious believers.

They are more willing to call a spade a spade. And they are more willing to demand the right to have and express such opinions.

In particular they are rejecting the idea that religion has a special immunity from criticism – a “go home free” card. Perhaps that is the “new” feature of today’s atheism.

Continue reading

Evidence should trump “legal muscle”

Ian at Evidence Based Thought reports on a conflict that has arisen over the use of titles by some alternative medicine practitioners – in this case chiropractors.

While this is a case of a group attempting to claim scientific credibility inappropriately there is a bigger issue here. The New Zealand Chiropractic Association has responded to a critical article in the New Zealand Medical Journal with a threat of legal action if the article is not withdrawn.

The Editor of the Journal has rejected these demands and has called on chiropractors to debate the evidence presented in the original article. He said “lets hear your evidence, not your legal muscle.”

We should all applaud the editor’s stand.

The person in the street might be surprised by the frequency with which legal pressure is used to suppress information they should rightly have access to. Often the facts never come to light – legal threats being sufficient to maintain silence. I have personally twice experienced the institutional restriction on publication of research findings – purely because of legal threats from a commercial company.

Citizens should not have scientific information censored when it concerns products they are considering purchasing. Their access to information about environmental issues should also never be censored.

But, more important still, our access to information on health and medicine should not be subject to censoring by legal threats like this.

See also:
Chiropractors resort to legal intimidation?
Silence Dissent!

Being politically correct about Mars

Phoenix samples Martian soil

It’s easy to be critical of ‘politically correct’ language. On the other hand avoidance of derogatory terms can help overcome derogatory attitudes.

That’s why I wish there was a bit more political correctness in some of the reporting of the Phoenix Mars mission.

One reason for the interest in the discoveries being made by Phoenix is that for the first time we are investigating the soil on another planet. The resulting information has implications for the question of existence of non-terrestrial life in our solar system. And it will also tell us a lot about the evolution of the Martian landscape.

But why do scientific reporters sometimes use the derogatory term dirt for soil? Even the Pheonix Mars Mission Blogs and the Emily Lakdawalla’s Planetary Society’s Weblog. Many photo captions refer to dirt samples. And there are references to “descent thrusters clearing dirt from a smooth patch of either ice or rock.” Even now reportage of detailed Martian soil chemistry will sometimes use the word ‘dirt.”

Never treat soil like dirt

The New Zealand Soil Science Society used to have a slogan – “Never treat soil like dirt”. This had real meaning. A country whose economy depended on primary production needs to protect its soil. We need to nurture that soil, prevent it’s erosion, protect it from contamination and not treat it as a repository for society’s wastes. An environmentally conscious society, wishing to protect the planet and conserve life needs to respect that environment. We often forget this, but the soil is a vital part of our environment. It deserves respect.

I am sure that every time we send a vehicle to the moon or another planet we take care to prevent it carrying contamination. We do this partly because we don’t wish to compromise the research (how can we search for life if our space vehicles carry terrestrial life). But we also do not want to contaminate these new environments.

Calling the Martian soil dirt conveys the wrong message. And it implies a derogatory attitude towards the new environment  which should have no role in this sort of research.

Similar articles