Intelligent Design is not science

Posted in Society at 15:54 by RjZ

While we’re at it, let’s have a brief discussion why Intelligent Design is not science.

According to wikipedia “science is knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method.” The scientific method goes like this: scientists (or anyone employing this effective method of inquiry) makes observations about the natural world and perhaps even deductions from these. For example, “wow, everytime I drop a pencil, it seems always to go towards the ground and never up!” An explanation is proposed about these observations and a hypothesis (an educated guess) is developed. “I bet that the next time a drop a pencil it will go down. In fact, given what I’ve noticed about pencils falling from all these measurements I’ve made, I bet it will fall with a speed that increases at a constant value I’ll call G.” Predictions are made from this hypothesis. “If G is what I say it is, then when I drop any pencils, I should be able to predict how fast it will be going when it hits the ground.” These predictions are tested by experiment. If several experiments seem to be predictive, we’ve got useful theory. “Well, I’ve been dropping pencils and my number for G seems pretty good. I think it’s time to let people know how I performed my experiment so that they can try it themselves. If we all keep getting good results, G must really be the acceleration of pencils when they fall to the earth!” We may have to add to the theory as we gather more information, but for now, it’s pretty useful in telling us how fast pencils fall.

Notice, that science doesn’t make predictions about things that aren’t tested without further experimentation. “Before I assume G applies to tomatoes or kittens, maybe I ought to test a few and verify that it isn’t just for pencils.” More importantly, though, science is only interested in predictions about the natural world. Some things are fascinating, but that doesn’t make them scientific, and it doesn’t make them wrong either Our scientist may also claim “I think certain #2 pencils may very well be able to read my mind. There is no way for me to ask the pencil, so I can’t do any experiment to check this, but it really might be true!” While it very well be true that #2 pencils can read the scientist’s mind, it isn’t testable (as far as we know) so it isn’t science. Science is only interesting when the results are testable through experimentation. We make guesses which we don’t yet have a way to test, but we hope we will be able to at some point. If, by definition they cannot be tested, that is definitely not science. (We might be able to see what that pencil was thinking and whether it could read the scientist’s mind at some point.) Oh, and science doesn’t have to explain why. We don’t know why gravity exists, but we know that it does. The “why” is for philosophers.

Intelligent Design (ID) makes some observations about the natural world: “The world is so incredibly complex it couldn’t have just happened. If I were to find a watch lying on a beach I would know immediately that it didn’t just happen, that it was made by someone intelligent; a watchmaker. How then can I imagine that humans and columbine flowers and the ebola virus could possibly have just happened when they are orders of magnitudes more complex than the watch on the beach?” This is a valid scientific observation. Next Intelligent Design proposes a hypothesis: “There must be some intelligence that has designed these things since they couldn’t just come into being on their own.” We’re fine here too. Unfortunately supporters of ID are done. There is no further testing, no explanation of this designer, nothing. Not even a suggestion that it’s a martian, or Q from the series Star Trek. We can suppose that supporters of ID won’t say that this unnamed designer is God or *gasp* God described in the Holy Bible but we’d have to test that.

Intelligent Design claims to be about “design detection — how to recognize patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose.” That’s a reasonable goal, although a bit suspect since we’re no longer looking to describe the natural world but rather to fit it into our hypothesis. ID proponents make great pains to point out that there are flaws in our current understanding of science. Finding limitations to our current models is good science. Drawing untestable conclusions from the limits of what we know isn’t. Our pencil scientist might notice that the acceleration of his pencil under certain conditions doesn’t seem to fit his theory. He’s got some work to do, but a flaw in his theory doesn’t automatically support the theory that pencils will sometimes burst spontaneously into flames. Someone else will have to work that out for us. ID proponents should continue to look for an explanation for the patterns they find in nature. This is exactly what scientists have been doing quite successfully for hundreds, even thousands, of years. If ID supporters would take some time to stand on the shoulders of those scientists they’d find out that, while there are still gaps here and there, many of their questions have already been answered.

Ultimately, as long as Intelligent Design is not subject to the simple, effective, scientific method it is not a science. It may be fascinating, and it may very well be true, but science must be predictive and testable, everything else is conversation.

Information on Intelligent Design

Natural History Magazine debates Intelligent Design vs. Evolution with experts on both sides.

(1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
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Atheism is not a religion

Posted in , Society at 21:22 by RjZ

Atheism: n 1: the doctrine or belief that there is no God [syn: godlessness] [ant: theism] 2: a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

This artifact of the English language has a political consequences. When the religious right defends the role of religion in public life (read paid for by our taxes) they can resort to the statement that atheism is a religion too. It is defined as a belief that there is no God. Therefore, they continue, to remove any preference for one religion or another from public life as is demanded by the first amendment is to leave us with atheism, a religion.


A lack of belief is hardly a belief. I do not believe in unicorns. Does that make me a-unicornist? It’s not a common religion, I know, but according to this logic I must be a beleiver. If I do not believe that Jesus is my savior, does that make me muslim? A Jew? (an atheist?)

It is common, in the west especially, to see things from the dualist point of view, even if we frequently notice that life is more complex than that. Not A doesn’t equal B. Not Republican doesn’t equal Democrat. Without God or gods means only that people are most comfortable defining things in terms of what they already know and not that I need a god in order to deny it.

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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Old mirrors

Posted in Society, Travel at 11:52 by RjZ

People often see themselves in old mirrors. Mirrors that reflect not who they are, but who they were some time ago. I know who I’ve been most of my life so even when I am successful at actually changing something I don’t like about myself, it’s hard to remember others see the new me, but I still see the old me in the mirror.

When I was growing up, my house was loud. The television was always on ‘for company’ and everyone spoke over it. We spoke over each other too. I still think that the only reason I speak so quickly is because I am the youngest and I had to squeeze my comments in just to get a word in edgewise. The dinner table was our customary meeting place and no member of the family would wait until whoever was finished speaking to jump in with something to say. I remember girlfriends taking me aside between dinner and dessert and say “your family scares me. Why are they always yelling at each other?” Didn’t everyone speak this way? Maybe it was a Jewish thing? Other Jews on TV were always shown as fast talking, slightly rude people.

I’ve lived with my best friend Françoise on and off over the years. Françoise is a quiet person. The 60 cycle hum from a plugged-in television is often enough to annoy her so she unplugs them when not in use. It took me years to notice that Françoise is also smart and insightful; she’d never consider forcing her opinions on others (I won’t be linking to her blog anytime soon.) I could tell she was smart because now and then she’d say something very interesting but during discussions and arguments she would just clam up. Eventually I shut up long enough to learn what the problem was. As soon as I interrupted her, she politely stopped speaking. Unlike my family, though, she wouldn’t start up again. Ever. I started to notice the problem and I’d catch myself, but still she refused: “I forgot what I was going to say” she’d tell me after I asked about what I’d missed. Forgotten or just not willing to try again, the only way I was going to have a real conversation with her was to learn not to interrupt.

Then I started to notice that Françoise isn’t just some strange anomaly. Many people are like this. It was (and still is) difficult to wait for people to finish their thoughts. It seems to take forever and it’s challenging to even know when they’re done. Like pouring coffee into a cup, even after you stop pouring a few drips hang there and eventually fall into the cup. Interrupt the pouring too quickly and you mess up your tablecloth.

On a visit to Israel I was in a business meeting which was strikingly like being around the dinner table as a child. Each participant spoke as soon as he was ready, charging in louder than the whoever was holding the floor so he could have his say. Before his point was made the next person would trounce all over the words his words. Suddenly, frustrated by all this I heard myself say “let him finish!” Everyone was silent for at least the time it took to flash me a puzzled look that said something like “funny, he looked Jewish…wonder what the problem is?” and then they were off again. I’d finally seen the world from Françoise’ side!

I don’t know if it’s Jewish culture, my family being from Chicago, or just what I was like but actually it’s a handy skill being able to get your point across as forcefully as necessary. It’s even better being able to learn from what others are saying and being able to have some control over my conversational style. There’s still plenty to work on though. After all, as nice as it is to sometimes hear that I was a good listener or that even though I made my point strongly I let the other person make hers as well, when I wake up in the morning I still see the same person in that out-of-date mirror and I still want to cut him off just to get a word in edgewise.

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The hottest thing I’ve ever tasted

Posted in Society, Travel at 9:38 by RjZ

One of my best friends proofreads for a living but even she isn’t a grammar Nazi. She recognizes that a language serves the primary function of communication and that grammar and word choice must support that. When we change spellings and punctuation to suit convenience or trends or use words with meanings we’ve stretched to meet our desires, we need to be sure that we’re achieving our primary goal–being understood!

The Indonesian language is a synthesized language, developed by the Dutch to enable communication in a country comprised of 17,000 islands (6,000 or so being inhabited) with over 300 major languages and hundreds of dialects. Bahasa Indonesian (literally language Indonesia) only came into being in 1945 and it was developed from Malay with many Dutch words and much simplified grammar. It was created to be easy to learn and while less than 7% of Indonesians speak it as a mother tongue it is widely used. One of the features of Indonesian for example is that there are no irregular plurals. No child->children for example. In Indonesian plurals are made by simply repeating the word: child-child = children.

During my trip to Indonesia I would often have dinner from street vendors. Fellow travelers often shunned the street vendors claiming that the food wasn’t as clean. In one restaurant I peaked into the kitchen and wasn’t impressed by the sanitary procedures and figured that if the street vendor drops some of my food on the ground at least one of the roaming dogs would probably pick it up before he got a chance to. Plus you got to watch him stir-fry your noodles and add spices.

Being a white tourist it was challenging to get food that was prepared authentically. This was just fine for my traveling partner. If they wanted to make the food less spicy just for her, that was great. I’ve never been too afraid of a few chilies so I would have to explicitly ask each time we ordered: “make mine spicy please.”

One evening I went on my mission to gather dinner. I approached a soup vendor (why not soup? It was only 95°F with about 1000% humidity….) who was rather busy and waited my turn. He was chatting happily with one of his customers while preparing soup. He would take one of his bowls from the rack where his partner had placed them after rinsing them in a bucket of water that had been used for countless bowls already and ladle soup into it. Next he would dip a big spoon into a jar of pickled, finely cut, vegetables and chilies, lift it out, shake it off a bit to level it out and dump this in the bowl and stir it around. he topped this off with some fried noodles and handed it over, chatting the whole while, to a waiting customer.

I placed my order in carefully annunciated English “two soups, please. One plain and one spicy.” But he was still chatting and I couldn’t tell if he was listening at all. It had been a difficult to get this across to other vendors and I was tired of getting bland dishes so I repeated with a bit more assertiveness “two soups. One for tourists and one spicy.” Following that last “spicy” was a tiny pause where he looked up and finally appeared to be paying attention so to be sure I repeated “spicy” once more and he nodded. Finally, I thought, I’ve gotten through and we’ll be having our soup soon.

I watched and waited while he made more soups for his Indonesian customers. Always the same procedure. Ladle the soup, dip the spoon, shake off the excess, dip in the bowl and stir and then top off with fried noodles. He then prepared a bowl without dipping into the chili mix at all. For his next bowl he ladled as usual and dipped the spoon into the chili mix as usual but this time, there was no shaking off the excess. Into the bowl it went with a quick stir. The spoon quickly returned for a second visit to the chili mix and another unshaken heaping spoonful was dumped into the bowl. Fried noodles topped it off and, smiling, he handed over two bowls of soup pointing at one of the steaming concoctions and saying “spicy” through a toothy grin made even brighter by his dark brown skin.

I returned to the dusty step where my partner was waiting and handed her the plain soup. I knew I was in trouble before I tasted mine. After just a few spoonfuls the sweat started to drip from my forehead. As a struggled through this burning bowl of fire it threatened to become never-ending because my sweat was now pouring off my face and sometimes dripping right back into the bowl. I’d ordered the soup, so I was going to eat it! I didn’t want to have to return to the vendor sheepishly admitting that I was just like all the other tourists and couldn’t handle it! I looked ridiculous. Bathed in sweat and unable to taste anything but lava on a spoon I continued sipping until I drained the bowl while my traveling partner laughed the whole time and reminded me how tasty her soup was. Hers was a little spicy she told me, but not too much. Her toothy grin didn’t have as much contrast with her fair skin as the soup vendor but it seemed just as evil now. I wondered if I’d ever be able to taste anything again. Can capsaicin do real damage to the linings of your digestive tract if you have too much?

I’ll never know whether he was trying to teach some westerner a lesson or whether that second “spicy” was simply interpreted as “spicy-spicy” a plural and we was just accommodating my wishes but the story still reminds me to speak carefully. Otherwise I might really get burned.

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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I just don’t eat meat

Posted in Society at 14:40 by RjZ

I rarely say I am a vegetarian. It doesn’t even seem to be clear to people what that is in the first place. “Do you eat fish?” people ask. I’ve never seen fish growing out of a terra cotta pot. I am pretty sure it’s not a plant. There seem to be all manner of “vegetarians.” Vegans who eat no animal products whatsoever. I question whether or not they can have beer (yeast) and I know that many don’t eat honey. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt. Then there are folks who call themselves lacto-ovo-pesco vegetarians. They eat vegetables, eggs, dairy and, well fish.

I just don’t eat meat. I don’t want to get caught up in all confusion and implication. I live near Boulder, Colorado and vegans and various forms of vegetarianism are all popular here. As with any population, however, the more numerous it is, the greater the likelihood of extremes. The problem with calling myself a vegetarian comes from another rule from statistics: the 80-20 rule which goes something like 80% of your trouble will be from 20% of the causes. In other words, those few bad apple vegetarians spoil the bunch for the rest of us.

Yes, I wear leather shoes sometimes. Perhaps thanks to those few outspoken vegetarians, many people feel so threatened by the mere mention of my dietary preference that they feel they have to point out some unnoticed hypocrisy in my world view. Except that just because you’ve learned I don’t eat meat doesn’t mean you understand what my reasoning was. (Reading this blog is a good way to find out if you want to find those hypocrisies though!)

In fact there are three popular reasons why most vegetarians make the choices they do. The reasons can be summed up as health, animal rights and environment. Vegetarian diets are low in fat and high in fiber which has been demonstrated to reduce the risk of heart failure and certain cancers. Avoiding meats eliminates exposure to mad cow or increased mercury levels in fish. The majority of meat available in the U.S.A. is from animals in factory farms are tortured in ways that few of us ever wish to hear about. Finally, the environmental impact of raising cattle, for example, compared to the same amount of food from grain is staggering.

Still, I think humans evolved eating occasional feasts of meat and it’s entirely natural for us to continue doing so. Factory farming is beyond defense but monoculture vegetable and grain farming are hardly a boon to either our health or the environment. For me, any single reason to abstain from meat isn’t sufficient, but all of them together was enough to convince me. Indeed, most of my reservations about eating meat would be solved if everyone simply ate less. The environmental impact would be lessened and there wouldn’t really be a need for factory farms. Still, I stopped eating meat because changing everyone else’s habits didn’t seem likely. Nothing short of refusing the stuff outright seemed convince people to stop serving me huge portions of the stuff. (By the way, of the three big reasons, it was the environmental one that was the biggest for me. While you may doubt the health benefits and may not even care about animals, it’s difficult to argue that raising cows and chickens in huge numbers is good for the environment. The impact to our water supply alone is huge.)

In the end each of us decides whether these reasons are important enough for us to make a change. It’s my decision not to eat meat and I feel great about it. The only health effects I ever noticed was that it was easier to keep thin. I don’t miss meat and I feel much better when a truckload of animals making their way to the slaughter house drives past me. It is egotistical to imagine that others would change their eating habits because of me. The worst thing I do to force my decision onto others is that dinner guests at my home won’t get a meat entré but it is my sincere hope that they’ll leave satisfied just the same. I’m embarrassed whenever restaurant menus are perused and my fellow diners look at the at me wondering if I am going to find anything. It turns out though, many friends and acquaintances have thought a lot more about giving up meat than if I had preached to them about it and for some my choice was the first step in their change of habit.

Decide for yourself. You can learn more about why people don’t eat meat, or call themselves vegetarians, or vegans by following the links below.

A thorough description and more links at Wikipedia.

Go Veg.com is a professional site with concise resource with info about health, animals, and environment.

Kid’s Health.org has some information for parents.

Vegetarian Resource offers many links for further information.

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So much for forgiveness

Posted in , Society at 8:54 by RjZ

According to Arch Bishop Edward O’Brian who is overseeing inspections of some 220 US Catholic seminaries, “anyone who is engaged in homosexual activity or has strong inclinations should not be accepted into the seminary, even if the last sexual activity happened over a decade ago.” Le Show, episode 18 September 2005

Catholic doctrine states that homosexuality is a sin. Apparantly, Bishop O’Brian doesn’t think it’s a sin that can be forgiven.

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I’m a Libertarian. Maybe you are too.

Posted in Liberty at 16:46 by RjZ

Print out a membership form for the Libertarian party (as opposed to simply registering Libertarian which you are free to do) and you are asked to affirm the following statement with your signature:

“I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.”

It’s a powerful statement and it guides every decision libertarians make about policy. What do you think of this statement? Would you be willing to sign it? The Libertarian party is a party of principle. The Democratic and Republican parties ask for no similar statement when you join.

The American Heritage Dictionary says a libertarian is “one who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state.” I first realized that I agreed with these principles when I noticed that the government just isn’t very efficient with most of the things it does. If you need to borrow $100 and you call me up and ask, then when I give it to you, it costs me $100 and you get $100. If we involve the government then we’ll have to fill out some paperwork and pay the people who thought of the forms, designed them, printed them, handed them to you and me and filed them. It might end up costing me $150 or more just to hand you $100.

Later, it occurred to me that the further government is from my door the less influence I can have. If I don’t like what’s going on in Louisville, Colorado where I live I can go to the city council and raise my voice. There’s no guarantee that my opinion will be heeded but it will surely carry more sway than in Washington. That’s not surprising either. Our central government in Washington attempts to meet the needs of as many Americans as possible. Louisville only needs to satisfy the needs of 18,000 people (18,715 as of July 2002)

I kept finding examples in my experiences and the more I thought about it the more I noticed that my views aligned with libertarians. I’ll likely discuss them now and again in this blog but more importantly, what about you? Do you think our government spends your money wisely? Did the Democrats spend your money better than the Republicans are doing? Are you satisfied that the $200 billion spent in Iraq is spent well? How about the $200 billion for Katrina victims? Would private charities be able to accomplish what we need there? Was the money you and I were taxed for FEMA and the department of Homeland Security well spent (1 billion in R&D alone in 2004)? In 1929 when Herbert Hoover was in charge of rebuilding after the flood of the Mississippi river he did so overwhelmingly by appealing to private individuals to donate their time, money and muscle to rebuilding. This leadership helped him to be elected president. Compare that solution to president Bush taking the credit for the $200 billion in our tax dollars the administration will spend to rebuild the Gulf coast. Today, I don’t need to donate to rebuilding in New Orleans because President Bush will take that money out of my pocket and spend it for me. I won’t get to choose whether to fund the rebuilding of levy or funding of a faith-based school and neither will you.

Many of us are dissatisfied with the Democratic party and (at least in my circle of friends) we’re disgusted with the religious controlled, socially conservative state of the Republican party. We’re tired of politicians motivated to feed themselves with larger programs and bigger government and we’re equally tired of a government that puts it’s nose into our bedrooms and wonders which library books we’re checking out.
The Libertarian party is the socially liberal, fiscally conservative party that you’ve been looking for! Sure, the party is filled with quite a few extremists. One wonders what it is about a political party that attracts both gun nuts and pot heads at the same time (it’s about individual freedom in both cases). But we don’t have to let those things be the defining issues for the Libertarian party that they are today.

Many of us call ourselves “independents” perhaps because we’re unhappy with either of our choices. Alas, there is little power in being an independent. The whole point of political parties is to leverage the power of many like-minded people to forward our views. I don’t agree with everything the Libertarian party says or with every candidate. But I am tired of throwing away my opinion and my votes on the lesser of two evils. Maybe you are too.

Some links:

Reason.com: An excellent magazine. Equally disparaging of Democrats and Republicans and in general a voice of reason(!) in today’s partisan media.

Worlds smallest political quiz
The quiz is lame, the questions are leading, but it’s interesting just the same.

Libertarian party of Colorado: Great stuff right along side ravings. Like any political party. Admit your Libertarian when people ask, register Libertarian or even join and maybe we can take it back from the extremists.

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Hello world!

Posted in Society, Travel at 9:48 by RjZ

Ack! Blogging! So much to say and little idea how to say it or whether anyone cares!

In 1989 I was traveling by train from Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary. I boarded the train early, afraid I wouldn’t be able to find a seat for my long journey. I found a compartment occupied by one older woman carrying a bag of magazines and knitting. I greeted her in embarrassed English and broken German and sat down opposite her next to the window. Eventually the other six seats filled up with tall Germanic looking people.

The train pulled away from the station and proceeded on its journey stopping in several larger cities along the way. We all sat in silence. At various stops we exchanged passengers in our compartment with new ones, but the older woman and I remained. Austrians would enter, smile, greet us in German and then sit down. As we neared the border with Hungary we would lose passengers and not gain new ones.

I don’t remember who spoke first but I think I might have noticed that the woman had as much trouble with German as I did so I might have asked her where she was from. She was from Budapest (naturally) and we began talking. She was so relieved! She told me in struggling English how amazing it was that she could have sat in a train for two hours never saying anything save for a greeting. “In my country,” she said “we talk about everything. Mostly family, but everything is allowed so long as we’re sharing with each other.” “How can these people have nothing to say to each other?”

So she asked about my family and I about hers. She asked me about my travels and my country and if I had a girlfriend because she might know some people in Budapest. We discussed taboo subjects like religion and politics effortlessly. She told me her point of view and I shared mine and we enjoyed communicating and learning from each other. We chatted straight through the rest of our trip and it went quite a bit faster than the first half.

So that’s my plan. To chat about traveling and politics and religion and other things we’re not supposed to discuss in polite company here in the U.S. of A. I hope to hear your thoughts on the same nasty subjects and crazy ideas. I hope to rant on about things and find those few people who find them interesting like my brief traveling companion to Budapest and hopefully, we’ll learn from each other and make our journey more pleasant along the way.

I look forward to my new traveling partners.

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