Category Archives: culture

The god gene – or is it a meme?

Is humanity doomed to a future of religious fundamentalism? Some recent internet articles appear to suggest it is.

The prediction is based on the established fact that the birth rate for members of fundamental religions is much higher than for the non-religious, or the members of the more main line churches. Similarly some Europeans worry about Islamic immigration because Muslims also have a relatively high birth rate. They fear a future involving a majority Islamic religion in their countries.

A recent scientific paper written by economist Robert Rowthorn promoted some of this speculation (Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. [See full text]). This presented a model based on the assumption of a “religious gene,” or at least a gene which “predisposed humans towards religion.” While they acknowledge that such predisposition is unlikely to  be determined by a single gene this simplification was required to make the analysis possible. And they argue that the general conclusions can be applied to the normally expected multi-gene situation.

Together with the fact that birth rates for many conservative, religious groups are much higher than for the non–religious population this model predicts that the human species will evolve to a situation where conservative, fundamentalist religions predominate.

What a horrible prospect. But is it at all realistic?

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What is the problem?

Liked this.

Why do people get so upset about gay marriage?

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Not about Einstein

Book Review: Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit by Krista Tippett

Price: US$10.88; NZ$12.97
Paperback:
304 pages
Publisher:
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
0143116770
ISBN-13:
978-0143116776

The media reports of Stephen Hawking’s new book with co-author Leonard Mlodinow (The Grand Design) attracted hostile reaction from some theological quarters (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42). This reminds me of similar treatment meted out to Albert Einstein in his time.

Einstein had many religious critics for an article of his on the philosophy of religion in 1940. An Episcopalian responded “to give up the doctrine of a personal God . . . .  shows the good Doctor, when it comes to the practicalities of life, is full of jellybeans”. He was accused of providing fuel for the fanatical antisemitism of religious bigots and told that he should “stick to his science” and stop delving into philosophy (sound familiar). And this from the founder of the Calvary tabernacle Association in Oklahoma City “Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, ‘Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from.”

Perhaps some of today’s scientists who hesitate to respond to their theological critics could learn from Einstein’s reaction. While criticising atheist reaction he described his theological critics as “numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it.”

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Trust the experts – if they say what we want

Scientific American has a short podcast on confirmation bias.  (Download the podcast) It especially relates to trusting experts in areas like climate change.

Christie Nicholson points out (see We Only Trust Experts If They Agree With Us):

We think we trust experts. But a new study finds that what really influences our opinions, more than listening to any expert, is our own beliefs.

Researchers told study subjects about a scientific expert who accepted climate change as real. Subjects who thought that commerce can be environmentally damaging were ready to accept the scientist as an expert. But those who came into the study believing that economic activity could not hurt the environment were 70 percent less likely to accept that the scientist really was an expert.

Then the researchers flipped the situation. They told different subjects that the same hypothetical scientist, with the same accreditation, was skeptical of climate change. Now those who thought that economic activity cannot harm the environment accepted the expert, and the other group was 50 percent less likely to believe in his expertise. The study was published in the Journal of Risk Research.

The investigators found similar results for various other issues, from nuclear waste disposal to gun control. Said one of the authors, “People tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an ‘expert’ only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial.”

So true. And I believe perfectly natural. Confirmation bias is a human trait that has to be overcome in science. Fortunately the requirement for validating ideas against reality and the social nature of scientific research helps this.

Why the beliefs?

The questions is – why do we have these beliefs? Perhaps we can understand their origins in areas like politics, religion and support for sport teams – often these beliefs are hereditary. But climate change is a different issue.

I think that a lot of the resistance to scientific knowledge on climate change come out of the nature of the problems and our psychological response to such situations. The problems seem so immense and long term it is tempting to adopt avoidance techniques.  Out psychological reactions to the problems caused by human influences on climate change seem to parallel our psychological handling of grief. We have reactions of anger, denial, selection of evidence, etc. Hopefully humanity as a who can reach the stages of acceptance and action before it is too late.

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A paper by Marc Hauser retracted – Harvard Magazine

Well, this could be embarrassing. But I hope not.

Marc Hauser, who was one of the participants in the New Science of Morality” seminar (see The new science of morality and Is and ought) is under a cloud. His Harvard laboratory has been investigated for the last three years because of charges of scientific misconduct. (See Psychologist and author Marc Hauser takes leave of absence as paper is retracted.)

Information is still rather vague and there is no indication yet of his own degree of culpability. However, as research leader he has had to take responsibility and one of the papers he is a joint author of is being retracted (Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins). Two other papers are also being questioned- one because of incomplete video records and field note taking by a co-author of Hauser.
Retraction Watch has some details, inclkuding an email response from Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal concerned, Cognition. (See Monkey business? 2002 Cognition paper retracted as prominent psychologist Marc Hauser takes leave from Harvard). The play on the word monkey abviously relates to Hausers work with monkeys and other primates.

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Life on the building site

I am in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment.

However, came across this recently so thought I would share it.

If only!

(Thanks to DrPetra)

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Australians concerned about tax exemption for cults

Most people are aware of the scandals surrounding the Church of Scientology. These have been covered several times on New Zealand television.

How many, though, are aware that the Scientology is registered as a charity in New Zealand? This means that are tax exempt and people making donations to them, or tithing to them, can claim tax refunds. It also means that, through our taxes, we subsidise the activity of the Church of Scientology.

What charitable work do they do? You may well ask. They are registered under the advancement of religion sector. In their  application for charitable status they list their main sector of charitable activity as “religious activities” and their main activity as providing “religious services and/or activities.”

Our tax legislation defines such activity as charitable for tax purposes. It also provides religious exemption from local body rates.

A lot of New Zealanders would probably be unhappy about this – if they knew! And this charitable status is also available to other religious cults which cause family disruptions and have been exposed as condoning child sexual abuse.

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Journalists create world’s first artificial news story!

An example of a breaking news intro graphic
Image via Wikipedia

I guess this little joke had to come. After the one about Venter’s new synthetic life form disapproving of God playing scientist (see God, stop ‘playing science’ ) we now have from the same source (NewsBisciut) breaking news of the world’s first synthetic news story about DNA (Journalists create world’s first artificial news story):

Journalists in the UK have succeeded in creating the world’s first synthetic news story about artificial DNA.

The hacks developed the outline of a normal piece of reporting about a tentative, abstruse scientific discovery, and transplanted into it some organic tripe about an unprecedented scientific breakthrough which will change the world and possibly wipe out all human life.

Up to now, journalists have only been able to report on scientific news with rigorous accuracy, unwavering attention to detail and a complete absence of hyperbole. But the new technology means that there is now no theoretical limit to the quantity of hysterics which can be generated by the slightest scientific advance, however minor.

‘This has never been seen before, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s the greatest single moment in the history of the media,’ said Professor Brian Jenkins, tabloidologist at the University of Suffolk, ‘even more momentous than the destruction of the universe by the Large Hadron Collider, the disappearance of Jupiter or the creation of Dolly the Sheep. You can read all about it in tomorrow’s papers.’

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Why Don’t We Go To Church?

Saw this recently and it immediately thought this would be a great book for my youngest granddaughter. She told me recently that she had been picked on by some of here school friends because she said she believed in evolution. This discussion quickly turned to belief in a god. It ended up with her having to pretend to believe in a god otherwise here friends would refuse to play with her!

Kids can be nasty.

The website for the book is Why Don’t We Go To Church? Here’s how they describe it:

About the Book:

Dan walks right into the evolution vs. creation debate with his science project. He is excited about “Primeval Soup” and how it tells the story of evolution but now he has to worry whether he will lose his new, best friend, Alex. Alex believes in God and creation and wants Dan to change his project. Dan never gave church or God much thought until their friendship is threatened.

This book is written for atheist parents or other non-religious families whose children may face difficulties when their non-belief in a deity is questioned.

About the Authors:

Gail Miller, Social Worker, and Rosalind Eagle, Registered Nurse, both live in South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. They wrote this book to help children and atheist parents deal with questions and conflicts about religion.

See also: New Book Helps Atheist Parents And Their Children Deal With Religious Conflicts

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Superstition – inevitable?

There are some great photographs at The Big Picture (Boston.com) of launches to, and activities on, the International Space Station (ISS). Have a look at Journeys to the International Space Station.

I quite like this one because of the strange contrast between a religious blessing and the technical manifestation in the Soyuz rocket.  This is really an example of how even rational humans will indulge in superstitious actions. Especially before a trip, a sporting or theatrical performance and similar activities.

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