Posted tagged ‘science’

Isaac Newton, God and the eternal war between faith and science: Killing the Buddha/Newton and the Counterfeiter edition

August 3, 2009

Just a quick heads’ up:

I have a new essay up at Killing the Buddha on Isaac Newton, God, and the unintended damage done to faith by Newton’s personal commitment to a divinity immanent throughout nature.

The piece, adapted that opus readers of this blog may have heard of — Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowells,Barnes and NobleIndiebound) — argues that the proper way to understand the full (and astonishing) range of Newton’s interests and creative output is to recognize that all of it was directed to the same end:  to know (in Hawking’s anachronistic phrase) the mind of God.

It was a grand ambition, a passion, really, in all the resonance of that term.  It was also, I argue, one that was bound to end in tears.  Newton told the clergyman Richard Bentley in anticipation of the first Boyle Lectures that  “When I wrote my treatise upon our System, I had an eye on such Principles as might work with considering men fore the beleife of a Deity”

But, of course, it was easily grasped at that time and ever after, that the principles of natural philosophy do not, in themselves require the active presence of a god concerned with space and time….and from thence all our quarrels flow.

Go check it out.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Michaelangelo, Sistine Ceiling “The First Day of Creation,” 1509

Last Thoughts Before Canvassing (2): Unargued Assertion About Science and the Election

November 3, 2008

One last thought about the stakes for science (and society) in this election.  I am going to be spending essentially all my waking hours between now and 8 p.m. tomorrow electioneering, so I’m not going to come up with a long supporting argument for this statement, but beyond all the specifics of policy claims and budget promises, there is a fundamental difference between a McCain/Palin led GOP and the Obama/Biden approach that I and a fusion physicist buddy of mine were just talking about this morning.

For McCain or at least the GOP base, science is instrumental, and divisible.  It is conceivable within the science-world view of much, though not all of the GOP electorate to say that molecular medicine is fine, but evolution is not — so we’ll have the one and not the other, thank you very much.

I have been planning for a long time to write a much more considered essay about why this is false — drawing in part on wonderful parallels from Chinese history that I can draw out of filial respect for my Chinese historian father.

But for now, I’ll simply state the obvious:  evolutionary ideas are not merely the context of modern biology, they are essential to process of reasoning that runs through that field.  The same is true across discipline after discipline; the geology that locates oil is the geology that creates the climatological and evolutionary history of the planet through deep time, and vice versa…and so on.

All of which to say is that a political movement that owes any debt of power to those who want the technology, the goodies, without the intellectual machinery needed to advance the inquiry wants something for nothing.

Science is the cultural value that we all think it is, I believe; it is part of the reward of being human that we get to ask and answer great questions.  But it is also, and historically speaking, first, the means by which we advance human wealth and well being.  One side in this election lacks the commitment to fundamental science that the other retains.

That’s an assertion more than an evidence-defended argument in this post, I know.  I’m assuming a certain amount of shared knowledge of, for example, the Palin wing of the GOP and its blithe disdain for the way science actually works.  John McCain may not agree — but he has harnessed his hopes to the energy and ambition of that wing of the GOP.  So forgive me here if I just assert my conclusions here.  I’ll write a more reasoned argument in their defense the next time this kind of thing flares up.  Whoever wins, America being America, I’m sure there won’t be long to wait.

In the meantime, please forgive the pure, “this is what I thought on my summer vacation” nature of this post, and vote. Vote early, and in case you had any residual doubt about this blog’s stance:  Vote for Obama/Biden.

The Great Debate and the Death of Science (in the USA)

September 27, 2008

OK — so that’s hyperbole, by a wide margin.

But the one thing that last night’s debate between the irrecoverably mendacious McCain, and the amazingly calm Obama confirmed for me is that the large subset of basic scientific research conducted in the US funded by the government is in deep trouble.  It’s fate is likely worse, by a wide margin under a McCain presidency than under the administration of President Obama, but hard times are coming, folks; start your canning and get to splitting your cord wood.

How did I learn this?  There was actually one piece of policy news made last night, that makes something I’ve argued to be true for a while now blindingly obvious.

As the situationally astute Marc Ambinder pointed out, that bit of news was McCain’s call for a spending freeze in the non-defense, non-entitlement, non veterans affairs rump of government departments.  Ygelsias has already highlighted the economic and budgetary nonesense of the proposal.

To take that idea at face value, a spending freeze would leave intact the budget priorities established over eight years of Bush administration benign and malign neglect of science.  See this post for a brief review of the numbers behind that bleak assessment.

In the linked post, I also argued that McCain’s budget priorities, as laid out in his own words on the stump and on his website required that there would be no new money for science — nothing to reverse the flat or real-dollar drop in federal support for science under Bush (i.e. — the Bush administration has supported funding just keeping up with inflation for most of its tenure, and called for a real-dollar drop in the most recent budget).

In fact, the implications of McCain’s stated fiscal* intentions are worse than that:  to achieve his tax and cost-cutting goals, along with his pursuit of increased military spending, most or all non-defense discretionary spending would have to go, including federal support for science.  That was all before the mortgage-backed-securities (note — not sub-prime, please) mess came along.

As Jim Lehrer noted last night, cleaning up that mess is going to have an knock on impact on the budget.  McCain’s response was an earmark crusade, pursuit of all those government agencies wasting money, and his promise of level funding, barring those increases still promised for defense and veterans affairs — which is, again, a cut when inflation is factored in.

It’s not hard to see, given McCain’s disdain for sequencing bear DNA — a snark repeated last night–that science agencies have reason to fear being deemed wasteful. (It’s true that he does not seem to mind investigating the genetic code of the seal, for what possible reason, I wonder?)

So, should McCain win, the upcoming budget crater will be navigated by a person and a member of a party that together has a history of taking whacks at science.  Given that, I see no reason to doubt that federal science under McCain would suffer not just a freeze, but an dollar number as well as an inflationary hit.

Obama promises better.  In the economic portion of the debate he said

The third thing we have to do is we’ve got to make sure that we’re competing in education. We’ve got to invest in science and technology. China had a space launch and a space walk. We’ve got to make sure that our children are keeping pace in math and in science.

But at the same time he acknowledged the reality:

There’s no doubt it will affect our budgets. There is no doubt about it. Not only — Even if we get all $700 billion back, let’s assume the markets recover, we’ holding assets long enough that eventually taxpayers get it back and that happened during the Great Depression when Roosevelt purchased a whole bunch of homes, over time, home values went back up and in fact government made a profit. If we’re lucky and do it right, that could potentially happen but in the short term there’s an outlay and we may not see that money for a while.

And because of the economy’s slowing down, I think we can also expect less tax revenue so there’s no doubt that as president I’m go doing have to make some tough decisions.

He’ll try, that is; he understands the importance of not eating your seed corn.  But the last eight years of ordinary Bush/GOP (McCain supported) budget profligacy has just been turbocharged, and the blunt reality is that it will be a struggle for any part of the federal discretionary budget to hold its own.

Obama’s point about tax revenues holds for the states as well, of course, so there is not much real hope of any cushioning of the blow, even for public universities, at that level of government.

It gets worse:

Last Thursday or so, I ran into a senior member of the MIT adminstration this week, someone deeply involved in funding and running the research side of the Institute, and he pointed out the obvious:  when the financial system caves and the stock market trembles, private philanthropy suffers too.  So that’s another leg of the science – funding stool getting sawn through as we go.

The net take-home:  hard times are about to get harder for major science research institutions in this country.  That promises, as Sen. Obama acknowledges, to threaten future economic prospects and to undermine our national strength and the ability to project hard and soft power internationally.

And as for what this means for those who value science as a voting issue this November?

Vote Obama, for specific and systemic reasons.

The specific:  even though I think it unlikely science will get an enormous boost, at least in his first couple of budgets, he clearly understands the significance of the enterprise.

The general:  (a) Obama’s economic policies are better than McCain’s, and are more likely to produce more wealth, and hence tax revenue that can be used for federal support for science than those of the opposition.

(b) “a” is no accident:  Democrats have a much, much better record than Republicans as economic stewards by just about any measure of economic performance, from growth, to stock market return, to compressing income inequality.  (Thanks to Brad DeLong for acting as such a prolific one-stop shop for these kinds of data.)

So:  if you like science and want the US to continue looking in to it, just remember:  friends (of science) don’t let friends vote for McCain this November.

*For McCain’s confusion of the terms “fiscal” and “financial” as modifiers for the word “crisis” — and the implications of that error — see this.  It’s important:  while beyond the scope of this post, and probably of this blog’s competence (not that that will stop you — ed.) the mistake reaffirms the suspicion that McCain  has no idea what is happening with the debt/derivative/liquidity crisis and hence would leave the federal response to the problem to some subset of the eighty or so financial sector lobbyists now staffing his campaign.

Images:  Julian Falat, “Snow,” 1907.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Meteor Crater, Arizona. Image by USGS.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Why You Should Read Eric Roston: Sarah Palin Edition.

September 25, 2008

I know we are all supposed to be burying gold in the corners of our gardens, but I’m still dealing with the grotesque implications of Sarah Palin’s apotheosis. Last night’s Katie Couric train wreck (Q:  So, Governor:  what has Maverick McCain ever done to regulate the financial markets?  A:  Katie — let me get back to you on that…) gives a hint of what we might all be in for should November 5 turn out to be an official Very Bad Day

Her rise from Alaska GOP hackdom to all the lengthening tally of the fictions that comprise the GOP presentation of its Evita – has allowed some of what makes her the worst running mate choice in history to fade into the background a bit.

That would be the substance (shurely shome mishtake? — Ed.) of what Palin actually thinks about the world in which we live.  Most important, at least from this blog’s perspective, look at the degree to which Palin’s rise to prominence ratifies the anti-science turn in the GOP from which it – and if McCain does win this election, the country too – may not recover.

Palin’s anti-science bent has been best documented through three of her positions.  Her unsurprising support for  abstinence education as the proper form of sex education for American teenagers, despite for all the evidence, some close to home, of the inadequacy of that approach, is the tell that reminds us how much damage a disdain for data and the test of reality can do.

Palin’s personal commitment to creationism is similarly not a shock, for the same reason, given her extreme religous practice (though to be fair, she has not made the teaching of creationism in school a priority in either Wasilla or Alaska at large).  It is also, for many in the science blogosphere (and the rest of the science-positive community), a sufficient lapse to make it unnecessary to look for further evidence of the danger she might pose were she to achieve power.

But in fact, at least as I see it, it is her blithe dismissal of human-induced global warming that should scare us the most.

(She has, as documented here, recanted, a bit.  In assessing her sincerity I will pass over in silence that which cannot be spoken, at least in language appropriate for a family blog.)

That is: it is pretty obvious why Palin might deny human agency here.  She is the governor of an oil and gas rich state, and she is a member of the drill-now party; both of those affiliations require placing a low weight on global warming concerns, which she duly assigns.  That’s fine, as far as it goes: she’s entitled to argue her corner, and if the other side can’t come up with more compelling arguments, shame on us, not her.

But the point is not that she says global warming doesn’t matter, or that there is nothing that can be done about it — those are genuinely arguable issues.  She’s saying that humans are completely uninvolved, that as a matter of empirical fact, the notion of human agancy to combat global warming is based on the flawed premise that the combustion of fossil fuels has something to do with climate change.

Not even the most determined of the intellectually prepared opponents of climate-change infused public policy — my own MIT colleague and global warming activist bete noire Dick Lindzen, for example – holds that view.

It is untenable.  It makes no sense.

Channeling my favorite commentator on the absurdity of life:

It is an ex-argument.

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is to commend Eric Roston’s book The Carbon Age as an antidote to the weary headache that comes from listening to absurdities proffered by the dangerously inane.

I’m not going to offer a full review here – that’s been done with gusto, as for example, here.

What I am going to say is that it is the first work on carbon and climate I have read (and I’ve read plenty, and written, long ago, one of my own) that is so neatly constructed in such a way as to combine the natural history, the science, and the tool-making ape’s transformations of carbon come together in a way that makes it possible to get in the gut why knowing all this stuff matters.

That is: Roston should be understood to have written carbon’s biography, it’s history, it’s behavior, and the implications of both when they encounter the recent and unanticipated fact of humankind’s technological evolution.

It’s a good read, a very good one — and even better, once you’re done, you will have a deep grasp of why it is both fun and essential to get to know the underlying science behind top line talking points.

And in the current context, you can’t read this book and come out thinking of Sarah Palin and the Republican Party that has embraced her anything other than either congenital or self made fools:  the kind of people who screw their eyes shut and hold their hands over their ears whilst shouting “I’M NOT LISTENING! I’M NOT LISTENING!”

As a lagniappe — the M. Python sketch referenced above can be viewed after the jump:

(more…)

More Mental Health: Gilbert and Sullivan Take On Science And The Modern Presidency

September 17, 2008

From Jim Easter, a delightful gloss on the fate of science in the hands of the Christianist GOP.

Read it, laugh, and weep.

Image:  A.S. Seer Print, New York, Poster for The Pirates of Penzance, 1880.  Theatrical Poster Collection (Library of Congress), http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/var.1961.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On to the substance of the Palin pick

August 30, 2008

Update 9/1/08:  Ta-Nehisi Coates puts a spin on the same idea developed below shorter and stronger:  We aren’t saying that Palin is dumb, but that she’s either ignorant or playing on the ignorance of the rest of us.  Either way, not good.

I realize that there is probably something of Palin fatigue already weighing  in; my tours of the blogosphere and the MSM have been all Sarah, all the time for the last thirty hours or so.

So this is something of a placeholder for a longer, more considered post sometime next week.  But the topline I want to put out onto the intertubes is that the Republican ticket is now the most anti-science put out there by any national party since William Jennings Bryan headlined the Dems more than century ago.  (And, for all kinds of reasons, I fear I being unfair to the old bi-metallist, but that’s a post for a very different day.)

The troubles for science begin at the top.  I wrote about McCain as a hazard to the national science enterprise a few months ago in this post.  Short form:  after eight years of a range of assaults on science from the Bush led GOP — attacks in which McCain either acquiesced or participated — McCain’s budget priorities as laid out in his speeches and his issue statements would hit the American science in the gut, with its funding at great risk.

At the same time, this danger comes in the context of McCain himself appearing to be much more disinterested in than actively hostile to the actual content of science.  That is, he has a disdain for expertise — just see his repeatedly willed ignorance on such technically informed subjects as the gas tax holiday and energy policy.  But beyond that  “don’t bug me with the facts” reflex, McCain himself has not said anything that suggests he thinks the law of gravity was passed in the 81st Congress or anything like that

So the prognosis as I saw it in May was that a GOP win in November was for an ongoing cash decline of a thousand cuts, and neither rhetorical support or attack on the underlying ideas of science.

Then came Palin.  My first reaction was like that of a lot of people:  whaaat?  And then — this is an embarassment to the idea or brand of John McCain.  After a week in which Democrats rag on his judgment  he confirms his loose cannon label with this?

But the risk of such reactions is the Dan Quayle problem.  We’ve seen some very unlikey people get within a flat EKG of the Oval Office.  Palin is not just a reflection on McCain; she’s a suddenly potentially very powerful person whose own views, beliefs, and judgment matter.

There will be a lot of folks concentrating on filling in the Palin blank state, and early reports on the conventional political fronts are not promising — from her abuse of power scandal/investigation to stories of managerial incompetence as mayor of a small town; to the shock and dismay of those who politically know her best at the thought of her in the White House.

I’ll leave all that to the kind of folks linked to above.  Here, I just want to remind folks that her creationism and her global warming denialism are not just isolated oddball beliefs.  They are windows into the qualities of her mind, how she thinks and reasons.

And in the shortest form, what it tells me is that she is not someone who eagerly confronts harder truths.  It is certainly possible to have deep faith and understand the overwhelming explanatory (and useful) power of modern evolutionary biology and all its related fields.  But doing so requires hard thinking, and a willingness to sacrifice the simple comfort of Biblical literalism.  Simply saying saying that a creator did it is not the answer.

It is equally possible to have all kinds of doubts about the actual risks involved in global climate change, the scale of probable changes, and the appropriate policy response to the problem. But all but the flat-earth rump of the scientific community agree that anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases does/will produce some impact on the global climate system — even so well known a skeptic as my  MIT colleague Dick Lindzen says so, while dismissing the problem as both too uncertain and too minor to merit a policy response.  (I disagree — and have for a long time — but that’s not the point here.)

By contrast, Palin’s bald denial of the role of human actions in climate change just gives her an easy way out of confronting the complex and hard arguments about the scale, dangers, and responses to global warming.

And yet, the fact that a President Palin wouldn’t take global warming seriously  doesn’t bother me as much as the thought that the easy way out would be her preferred route on all the issues the occupant of the Oval Office has to confront.

This is tooth fairy thinking — if I want something to be true badly enough; if it is convenient or useful or comfortable for something to be true, then true it must be.

That is:  lots in the blogosphere and the mainstream media have questioned Palin as a candidate because her experience does not make her a plausible President on day one.  But on day two of the Palin era, what scares me much more is not the fact that she hasn’t done very much, nor even that she doesn’t know very much, but that the handful of data on the record that gives insight to her thinking about science tells us that her capacity for judgment is poor.

Which is, of course, exactly the same argument the Democratic National Convention made against her much more experienced, fully formally qualified running mate, John McCain.  McCain/Palin:  the Tooth Fairy ticket.

Oy.  More to come on this theme as the shock wears off.

Image:  August Malmström, “Dancing Fairies” 1861.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

More on Right Wing Science-Phobia: Up from comments edition

August 28, 2008

A post or two below I tried to tear a strip or two off a new, conservative Slate wannabe site called Culture 11.

In that post, I asserted that the new webzine’s launch with zero science content illustrated a broader problem of current American conservatism refusal to confront the significance of science’s methods and results in any account of the ideas that matter in modern thought, not to mention daily life.  I also suggested that this was so because facts inconveniently muddle what I see as the fantasy life that passes for intellection on at least the web-cages of the right.

To his credit, one of the site’s editors, Conor Friedersdorf, responded with a polite comment, suggesting that as feature editor he would willingly entertain and commission suggestions for “worthwhile” (his loaded word) science stories.

I answered with a long comment saying, in essence, he couldn’t ask for others to do his job for him, but commenter JRE later said it better, which is why I’m excavating his comment for your reading pleasure here:

If Conor Friedersdorf is serious about being serious — that is, if he really wants to examine the triple point where culture, politics and science come together, there are some superb examples out there he might consider as templates.
For example, in his book The Republican War on Science Chris Mooney has argued (persuasively, in my view) that the conservative movement has become actively hostile to, and destructive of, the scientific enterprise. Crooked Timber got an entire seminar out of it.

Now, I’d expect that Mr. Friedersdorf might have a different take from Chris Mooney, and maybe he could scare up some smart conservatives who believe that they are, too in favor of real science — and, in the process, let us how what they think about developmental biology, climatology, and a host of other topics. Because, to be frank, every time I hear another conservative claim that mainstream science is politicized from root to branch, and it’s the right wing that’s carrying the torch of dispassionate inquiry, I think that I don’t know of a time when one party has been so identified with vain, ignorant, dishonest windbaggery.

But this is Conor Friedersdorf’s chance to prove me wrong. How about it, Mr. Friedersdorf?

Image:  Carl Spitzweg, “The Alchemist” c. 1860.  The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.