20120623

Dangers of religion; pt. II - On the teaching of 'creation science' in public schools

In today's post I will write a bit on what happens when 'creation science', 'intelligent design' etc. are allowed to be taught alongside the theory of evolution in public schools. To come to this, however, I'll have to explain some of these terms, though I'll keep it short since there is so much information on them all around the Internet that I don't feel the need to go into all the details. For those who are looking for deeper understanding of these topics, I'd recommend Google, Wikipedia or scientific journals and books.

Let's start with science itself. Here is a definition of science, as defined by the NSTA, which I consider one of the best and concise while in the same time simple and easily understood (to read the whole definition, click here):
Science is a method of explaining the natural world. It assumes that anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Science also assumes that the universe operates according to regularities that can be discovered and understood through scientific investigations. The testing of various explanations of natural phenomena for their consistency with empirical data is an essential part of the methodology of science. Explanations that are not consistent with empirical evidence or cannot be tested empirically are not a part of science. As a result, explanations of natural phenomena that are not based on evidence but on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, and superstitions are not scientific.
So, for any scientific theory to be accepted as credible and true, there are several criteria to be met: it must rely on experimentally verifiable evidence, be logically consistent with other principles, explain more than other proposed theories on the same matter, and have the potential to lead to new discoveries and knowledge. It also has to be disprovable, that is, if it claims something with absolute and complete certainty, chances are it will be proven wrong. Why is this important? Because this is the way science works - our understanding of different phenomena changes accordingly with the technological advance and additional data and knowledge acquired since the first proposition of a theory. If it is still standing after zealous scrutiny and testing, it is the best explanation of a given problem and it has earned the right to be called a scientific theory.

Moving on. Of theory of evolution I will write only this: it is the notion that all life is related, and all of today's life forms have a common ancestor. It works by the principle of natural selection, i.e. 'survival of the fittest'. As different genetic mutations affect an organism, from bacteria to humans, those mutations that are beneficial to it are propagated onward (along with the organism's offspring), while those that are debilitating tend to die out and disappear. I wish to emphasize how simplified what I have just written is. There is much more to evolution than this, but as I am not an evolutionary scientist, I don't want to misinform you. To learn more about evolution refer to Google, or simple read 'On the Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin, and subsequent works on this matter, which are innumerable. What is important is that there is no question as to whether the evolution had taken place - it did - as shown by the evidence from astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geochronology, geology, biology, anthropology, and other sciences. There is still much debate on how exactly it had happened (and happens still), but the fact is, it did. And, to end this topic with a quote by the NAS: “Few other ideas in science have had such a far-reaching impact on our thinking about ourselves and how we relate to the world.” 

And finally something about the 'creation science'. It is a branch of creationism (a religious belief that everything, including the Earth, plants, animals and humans, is created by some form of a supernatural being, usually the Abrahamic God) that attempts to provide scientific proof for the Biblical creation, while disproving the generally accepted scientific facts, theories and paradigms about the history of the Earth, cosmology and evolution. While a credible personal belief and religious view, it is not, has never been and will never be a science. Why? Because it does not use the scientific method. The most notable assertions of special creationism are (also from the NSTA site linked to before):
  • the Earth is very young;
  • life was created by God;
  • life appeared suddenly;
  • kinds of organisms have not changed since the creation; and
  • different life forms were designed to function in particular settings.
Also this.
None of these assumptions have ever been proven true by experiment or documented scientific observation, and some of them, like the age of the Earth and the appearance of life, have been proven wrong ages ago. All of them fly in the face of pretty much everything we know from all the sciences combined, while providing no credible proof whatsoever, except if you consider the Bible and anecdotes as credible proof. Most of the efforts made by creationists consist of pointing out what they believe to be mistakes, inconsistencies and gaps in conventional knowledge, while avoiding to provide the proof for their own claims, or explanations of their own mistakes and inconsistencies with surprising vigor and, apparently, success (approx. 40% of Americans, for example, still believe in special creation).

Now, the best way to propagate your ideas is, obviously, through public education, something that creationists know very well. That's why it has become a huge trend to try to force schools to reject evolution completely, or, since that doesn't work pretty much anywhere in the civilized world, to teach both the theory of evolution and 'creation science'. And, slowly (and surprisingly), it seems to be working, as cases like this and this clearly show. While I personally have nothing against teaching 'creation science' in mythology and religion classes, to allow it into science classes is preposterous, offensive to science and scientists, and, frankly, common sense and sound logic. 

And why is that? 

Because, as I have already said, 'creation science' is not a science, it's a religious belief. It does not, and in most cases can not use scientific method, i.e. systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. Most importantly, it doesn't even try to falsify its theories, which is the main way scientific theories are tested. As Sir Karl Popper put is: Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Creationists don't do that - they try to refute evolution without giving any proof for the alternative. It's just not how science works. To present 'creation science' as equal to biology, geology, or any other exact natural science allows the definition of science per se to be watered down, and its methods to be confused with the methods of religious inquiry, which mostly consist of 'believe what you are told'. Most of the 'scientific' background of 'creation science' comes from the Bible, a book written almost 2000 years ago with no credibility whatsoever in any scientific field except somewhat in ethnology. To rely on such a book, and on that one book alone, is clearly absurd. To equal natural sciences with 'creation science' means telling people it is okay to be satisfied with not knowing, to be proud of not accepting the evidence, however compelling it is, and to rely on dogmatic teaching of a group of elite string-holders known by the popular name of 'priests' instead of trying to understand the workings of nature and the universe for yourself. It sends a message that unreasonable faith and belief in unprovable is on par with the efforts of hundreds of thousands of hard-working scientists, who dedicate their entire lives to scientific research, who bring about such things as 'technological progress' and 'modern medicine', who save lives and make them easier, who explain natural phenomena and bring us closer to understanding how the universe came into being, how human life started and how things really work. It teaches that personal belief is as credible as objective scientific truth, and that ages-old anecdotes are as good evidence as repeated, documented and verifiable scientific experiments. Once you allow for such things as 'creation science' to be taught alongside evolution, it's just a matter of time before you have to equal astrology with astronomy, alchemy with chemistry, flat-earth theory with  planetary science, homeopathy with pharmacology, etc., until you no longer have a society of knowledge, but a society of pseudoscience and religion. And I think any reasonably sane person can see why that would not be the best outcome for the human race.

20120620

Insect post - Common Mud-Dauber Wasp

Yesterday morning I noticed a wasp trying to get out of the apartment, hitting the window, buzzing around... You know, the usual wasp stuff. So, naturally, I let her out, but then - surprise! She came back. So I got intrigued, and observed her for a while, and then I noticed she keeps returning with something in her mouth, and flies straight to the back of one of the images hanging on the wall. I took the picture down and there it was - a pot-like nest she was making for the larva:
The mud is still wet on this picture.
Why do I keep saying 'she' and 'her'? In this species of mud-daubers, sceliphron formosum, it is the female alone that builds the nest. She brings the mud, makes the pot, puts in some spiders for food, lays a larva and then closes the nest cell - and it all takes about two days. She will usually build five to seven cells, and then return in few weeks when the larvae had hatched. Unfortunately for this one, it's not going to happen - I can't really let a wasp colony squat my apartment. So I moved the picture, the wasp returned and couldn't find it, which was honestly terribly sad to watch, and then flew away for good. I was surprised that she couldn't find it, since I moved the picture less than a meter away, and at one point I even waved it around her. The smell didn't change since I didn't touch the nest, but I guess something did change and she was unable to recognize it. I hope she will find a better place to build her new nest. Anyway, here she is:
Sceliphron formosum

20120622 UPDATE
The wasp returned! And is now building more nest cells behind another image on the wall, after closing the first one. I guess I'll just let her stay, since she apparently likes my apartment very much. I don't blame her for that.
New nest cells

More info:

20120618

Comet photo - CK11F010

Last night I imaged my first comet, CK11F010 (C/2011 F1), using iTelescope's T7, a 0.43-m f/6.8 astrograph located in Nerpio, Spain. According to JPL Small-Body Database Browser, comet's magnitude is 7.1, so it is almost visible with the naked eye, if your vision is good and the sky is clear and there are absolutely no city lights whatsoever in your vicinity. Anyway, here is the five-minute long exposure of the comet:
Click to embiggen.
Once again I thank the wonders of modern technology, thanks to which I'm able to image comets without even moving from my chair. How cool is that?

20120617

Mini space shuttle ends its top secret mission

1999 artist's rendering of the X-37 spacecraft (via Wikipedia)
After 486 days, 13 hours and 2 minutes in space, Pentagon's unmanned pocket-sized spaceplane (seriously, it's just one-quarter the size of NASA's space shuttle) X-37B landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base yesterday at 1248 GMT. That's longer than any one individual space shuttle mission, the longest of which was Discovery, with 365 days in space. During its 15-month long mission, X-37B circled the Earth something like 7,000 times. It launched on March 5, 2011, and though it's supposed to be a top-secret, it was apparently covered live on Spaceflight Now. There were some wild speculation about it's purpose, like spying on China's space station and weaponization of space and whatnot, but I think we're safe for now. It has landed, so it poses no threat at this moment, right? However, it makes me wonder how many secret missions are there, and how many awesome things are being kept in secret somewhere while I sit in front of my computer with nothing to do. Give us some fun, Pentagon. Panem et circenses, panem et circenses!

Anyway, here's a video of the landing:


(A lot) more info:

20120616

The Belt of Venus

If you spend your nights on the computer instead of, you know, sleeping, you might have noticed one of the prettiest atmospheric phenomena early in the morning, near the sunrise. As the light from the rising Sun hits the atmosphere, it is scattered, and a pink-red arch of light called the Belt of Venus appears on the western sky. It usually spreads between 10° and 20° above the horizon, separating the light blue sky from the darker band just above the horizon. This dark part is actually the shadow that the Earth casts on its own atmosphere, called, you'd never guess - the Earth's shadow. It can sometimes be seen twice a day, near the sunrise and sunset, so do yourself a favor and notice it every now and then. It's worth it. :)
Click to embiggen.

More info:

20120606

Transit of Venus 2012

It wasn't easy getting up this morning at 0430 AM to go watch the sunrise and the last 80 minutes of the transit of Venus over the Sun, I swear. But it was worth it. I arrived at the Zagreb Astronomical Observatory at about 0520, and was pleasantly surprised to see almost 20 people already watching, amongst whom a nice number of my former astronomy professors. The first photo was thus taken at 0521, about 80 minutes before Venus completely crossed the solar disk.
Though pretty, sunrise is NOT a great time to observe the Sun.
The wavy border is caused by the atmosphere, kids.
Then we did a little talking and walking to-and-fro - from one side of the roof to the other, and then I took some more photos.
High-tech equipment and low-tech methods = awesome.
A lot of sunspots, too.
And, though I honestly completely forgot to take the photos of that, there actually were other things beside the projection from that big bad-ass telescope. There was a smaller telescope with a filter on, to watch directly through the eyepiece, two cool camera obscura thingies which were very interesting, a live stream from some other observatory, albeit which one is another thing I forgot to take notice of (cut me some slack, it was terribly early)... All in all, a very pleasant morning, both from the scientific and the social point of view.

Now I just have to wait some 105 years for the next transit...
This is where the fun was.
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