Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Memories and Magic

April 10, 2017

I found this article a couple of weeks back and it struck me but I’ve wanted to ponder it for a bit before posting on it.

The gist of the story is that scientists think that superstitious, magical-thinking is behind people’s attachments to personal items belonging to people who have died (or, I would argue, haven’t necessarily died but are no longer part of our lives).  The implicit assumption seems to be that if there are two identical items, then our attachment to the one shouldn’t necessarily be any stronger or different than the attachment to the other.  To reinforce this, they nickname this preference magical contagion.   This is a very materialistic understanding of reality and humanity, and very dismissive of personal attachment to memories evoked from a particular item.  Scientists assume that if two things are identical, then any preference for one over the other based on who it belonged to must be magical.

The assumption is that this is somehow illogical and irrational behavior and therefore requires an explanation.  That explanation they call social connection.  The test they run for this is rather curious, I think.  They first make a group of people feel ostracized or unwelcome in a social setting and then test to see how heavily they prefer items personally related to someone they admire.  The assumption was that the need for social acceptance caused a higher level of attachment to objects personally associated with known people.  Hence, the need for social connection is at the root of magical contagion.  The article notes that social disconnection is not the cause of magical contagion, it just intensifies the belief or need for it.

Thus, the desire to have something that belonged to someone important in some way gets disregarded as essentially irrational.

I won’t venture to assume that everybody likes to keep things that belonged to important people in their lives.  But I’ve met very few people who, when visiting their homes or talking with them don’t have some sort of memento.  These aren’t necessarily lonely people, and they certainly don’t appear irrational.

It’s tempting to make the argument that what is lacking is a spiritual dimension – that somehow an object actually owned or worn or used by someone has some bit of their essence to it, and that this would be the unstated reason why people prefer that item over an identical item without the personal association.  But I’m uncomfortable with that as it leads us slightly down the path towards an almost animist view of creation, where spiritual essences and properties are attached to most everything and we begin to revere objects for this property.  I don’t think it’s my rationalist, materialist upbringing (as a part of Western culture in the 20th and 21st centuries) that wants to discard this.  I don’t think it’s Biblical either.  Nothing in Scripture leads me to conclude that there is a spiritual essence which we pass on to objects.

I think it’s just part of human nature, by and large.  Why do I want the item from that person that they actually owned, rather than an identical one?  Because they actually owned it.  Is that rational or logical?  I can’t see the argument why it is, but certainly not from a strict materialist perspective.  What makes it special is that they owned it or wore it or purchased it.  When we see that item, it reminds us of that person.  It isn’t magical, but it’s important.  Just because you can’t quantify the why of that importance in physical terms shouldn’t denigrate it with such a pejorative term!

Movie Review: Is Genesis History?

March 16, 2017

I’ve stopped doing movie reviews by and large, since I’m apparently hyper-critical.  However this movie bears mentioning, and actual encouragement to see it.

Is Genesis History? provides an examination of common assumptions about our world that are grounded in an evolutionary/natural selection model.  The movie asks the question, is the evolutionary/natural selection model, which predicates that the earth is millions and millions of years old and that all of the animal and plant species we see today evolved from much simpler organisms over time supported by the physical evidence in our world?

The movie is a series of interviews with a variety of scientists who are Christian and believe that the best interpretation of the data available in the world around us is the Genesis explanation, which states that creation came into being in six days and that the earth might be much, much younger than the evolutionary/natural selection model asserts.  They offer intelligent and compelling arguments showing how the answers most of us were given in school about the world and how it came to be are unsatisfactory at best, and completely contrary to what we actually see in the world.

Normally I wouldn’t go to see a movie like this, but last week at happy hour, a recent Westmont Grad who is preparing to go to medical school mentioned that she had seen it and it made a favorable impression on her.  She doesn’t hold to a six-day creation perspective despite being a strong Christian, and is much more comfortable with some sort of theistic evolution answer, where God gets the ball rolling but evolution is the tool He uses.  She thought the movie raised some really good questions that gave her good food for thought.  I’m pleased to report that her assessment was very fair.

Is Genesis History? is not an attempt at debate.  No counterpoints are raised, no experts are interviewed to explain how they refute the assertions made by the experts in the film.  That’s not the film’s purpose.  The film intends to show that there is some good reason to doubt the prevailing ideas about the universe and our little corner of it, and to suggest that Genesis might really be taken seriously not in contradiction to science, but in an alternate interpretation of physical data.  It isn’t the Bible or science, but the Bible as a guiding lens for how science interprets the data it has.

The biggest question that was raised in my mind against their interpretations of data has to do with the Flood.  I believe the flood narrative, and I believe that it means what it says – a worldwide flood.  My question is that the various experts in this movie proposed a theory that says that the dinosaurs lived before the Flood, and went extinct with the Flood.  Yet Genesis 6 & 7 give the impression that representatives of every type of living creature were present on  the ark with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:19-20; 7:8-9, 14-16).

Did God determine which animals would be saved and which would not?  Did some of the animals that were saved on the ark die on the ark?  Genesis doesn’t state specifically that every animal or species on the ark was saved.  I like the answer that the experts in the film give, but if we want to take Genesis seriously (and we should!), then how do we come to grips with this issue?  I’ll be doing some more research to see if they answer that question on their web site.


Particles vs. Bodies

March 14, 2017

I’m often asked whether I think that cremation is an appropriate alternative to burial.  My standard response is that how we dispose of our bodies should reflect what we as Christians are told we are in Scripture.  We are special creations of God, distinct from anything else in creation whether animal, vegetable, mineral, whatever.  The fact that we may share some of the same elements, the same base ingredients as these other aspects of creation is not surprising given the description of our creation in Genesis 2.  But we are far more than the sum of our parts, far more than the chemicals and elements that constitute us.  We bear the imago dei.  How we dispose of our bodies should reflect this at some level.

Which is why I reject other options (or at least some other options) for dealing with a deceased human body as unacceptable.  I’ve repeatedly stated that I disagree with burial options that foster a different view of humanity as simply one part of an eco-system, using a decomposed or cremated body as part of the planting material for a seed(s) that will grow into trees or other vegetation.  I think this confuses the distinctness of humanity that Genesis clearly articulates.

And it is why I’m not a fan of this option – liquefying the body.  The process liquefies the soft tissue of the human body, leaving only the skeletal remains which can then be pulverized into a fine powder and given to the family.  But the liquefied remains are intended to be flushed into the local water system to be chemically treated like any other water.  The idea is that once all you have are basic chemicals and elements, there is no difference.  Treat ’em all the same.

That’s the part I object to.

Our modern obsession with science is problematic in that it all too often insists that everything and everyone is the same.  Genetics seeks to demonstrate not our uniqueness so much as our similarity to other species.  Chemistry dictates that we’re just walking chemical reactions that eventually – for one reason or another – stop.  By viewing humanity exclusively under a microscope we are able to justify any manner of dealing with our bodies – both while we’re alive as well as after we’re dead, arguing that there are no theological or even moral implications since we’re just a collection of chemicals and elements.

The Bible insists that we lift our eyes away from the microscopes sometimes, to see things as He sees them.  Yes, He created the chemicals and the elements that constitute our being.  But He sees us not in these terms, but in terms of being his creation, his unique creation, even the pinnacle of his creation.  We are more than the sum of our parts, more than just a collection of chemicals and elements that happened to accidentally arrange themselves as a human being for a few years.  Our choices for what to do with our bodies after our death should reflect this as a final testimony to our hope in Jesus Christ.

Yes, the body decomposes.  Given proper conditions and time it will on its own liquefy and disintegrate into the ground.  But it does so in the ground, not in a cylinder to be flushed into the water supply like any common grey water or sewage.  Cremation disposes of a great deal of our physicality in smoke and steam, but these elements are released, rather than incorporated back into some sort of system to be repurposed.

You were created unique.  Not an accident or an oversight.  Planned before the dawn of creation by the God who called the cosmos into being.  Special and unique in all of time and space.  Far, far more than just the sum of your parts.  Intended for eternal life and glory.  Step away from the microscope long enough to appreciate that.  You don’t have to deny that our bodies contain basic chemicals and elements.  Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s what defines us.

Contingency Planning

January 21, 2017

Space travel in and of itself is pretty cool and neat.  But what about if something goes wrong?  It turns out contingency planning in space can be a pretty curious area for consideration even though most people are never going to hear about it.  This article changes that, providing a glimpse into an important but not very cheery topic – what do you do with the body of someone who dies in space?  It’s an important question, but not one that has been completely and thoroughly thought out.

It’s an important consideration soas not to endanger or even inconvenience other crew members with bacteria or smell.  Though jettisoning a body out of an airlock – an interstellar equivalent to a burial at sea – may seem beautiful, the practical considerations of such an action – especially when instances are multiplied over time – is hardly as poetic.

Equally curious to me was the offhand comment about burning up trash during the re-entry of resupply ships.  Is it common practice to arrange trash on or outside a ship re-entering Earth’s atmosphere with the intention of that material being burned up?  Are there risks to this in terms of bacteria or other nasties floating about in the atmosphere and perhaps gradually working their way to the ground?  If not, is this another possible solution to mounting concerns about what to do with all the trash we generate?  Fascinating!



Get Those Flu Shots?

January 19, 2017

Hurry!  Or maybe you shouldn’t hurry.  Who really knows?  Let’s just get those shots all the same, right?

The effectiveness of flu shots declines rapidly, providing less and less protection from multiple strains of the flu as weeks go by.  One scientist laments the marketing of flu shots as opposed to the most efficacious use and deployment of them.  This is a wonderful reminder to folks that science does not exist in a bubble, and scientists don’t always get to control how their discoveries are used.


Discussing vs. Teaching

January 17, 2017

By many accounts, we have a crisis of communication in American society today where people are unable to interact with people who hold diverging opinions and ideas from their own.  Being able to discuss things without taking it personally is an important skill to have, so I was curious when I saw the headline for this article.  Of course knowing the source, I assumed it would be hostile in some regard to a person of faith, but it was almost humorous how the author decides to start out.

By immediately dismissing as ridiculous a set of opinions and ideas on a number of hot-topic issues in American society today.  Not by discussing the actual facts or examining the other position, but simply by dismissing those ideas as obviously wrong and ridiculous and chalking them up to something other than possible alternate interpretations of data.

Admittedly, world-view shapes how we interpret data.  My world-view leads one person to assume that we all evolved from simpler organisms and there should be a fossil trail of some sort that shows that, so that ever fossil has to be fit into an evolutionary spectrum.  I don’t assume that this is how we got here, so I’m not forced to place fossils into such a spectrum.  My world view causes me to assume that scientists are just as prone to sinfulness – or to being exploited by other sinful people – as anyone else, so that companies based on science like pharmaceutical companies shouldn’t be presumed to be error or criminal free simply because they employ scientists.  I don’t doubt the reality of global warming because my understanding is that our planet has gone through plenty of cycles of warming and cooling over time.  But I may doubt that mankind is the cause of this particular warming cycle, and I may doubt the notion that we can actually reverse such a cycle.

What Mr. Shermer doesn’t seem to recognize is that world-view contributes to how everyone interprets data to create facts.   His world-view leads him to discard opposing view-points, and the data that might support them – as erroneous.  He exhibits firm faith in a certain understanding of things despite the fact that evidence is hardly conclusive and exhaustive.  And while I’m no fan of conspiracy theories as a rule, the idea that something sounds conspiratorial is not in and of itself grounds for dismissing the idea out of hand.  The melting point of steel is a scientific matter, is it not?  While I don’t hold to a conspiracy theory on the 9/11 attacks, it seems odd to dismiss such a piece of data or fact as minutiae  as I’m sure that such data contributed not just to the creation of those steel girders, but their selection for use in the building of the Twin Towers in the first place.

The good news is that his advice for dealing with those irrational people who disagree with him actually works in reverse as well.  And if  both sides are willing to abide by these as a means towards deeper conversation, there’s a chance that useful conversation might be had – useful conversation that might ultimately lead one or the other to change their ideas, if not their world-view.  In a surprising turn of events, I’m actually optimistic that such respectful dialogues are the hope of moving towards answering questions and away from demonizing people who disagree with us.

Chew On This

November 30, 2016

An article I ran across a while back in the Christian Science Monitor regarding the amount of food production achievable if Americans went vegetarian.

It’s interesting, and it makes me want to say Hey, this is really a good idea and we should all become vegetarians!

No.  No it doesn’t make me want to say that at all.

The numbers are interesting, but it begs the question – why is it necessary for us to increase our food production to feed 800 million people?  Are there hungry people in the world?  Must assuredly – and at least a few of them live right here in our own country, if we’re to believe the State’s continued insistence on providing not just an education at school but also meals for students and even their families.

But is the reason that we have hungry people that we aren’t producing enough food?  Or are there other explanations for hunger?  I think before you advocate an entire nation change their diet, you look long and hard at why food isn’t apparently getting to the people who need it, whether here at home or around the world.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it isn’t that there isn’t enough food, but rather that we – or others – just don’t care to make sure it gets to the people who need it.  Politics and human sinfulness is the issue, not whether I have a hamburger for lunch or not.

If we solve some of these bigger questions, then we can adjust our food production if that’s still necessary.  But if we don’t solve these bigger questions, it doesn’t matter how much we deprive ourselves and how much food we produce – it will continue to fail to reach the people who need it.

You Don’t Say?

September 15, 2016

Not many scientists own dogs, apparently.  I can only imagine how much money went into this study, the results of which my three kids could have demonstrated in about five minutes.


Policy & Science & Feelings

June 16, 2016

Part of the massive changes sweeping our culture right now are far from the battle-lines (past or present) of how we define marriage and who can marry, or how we define gender and sexuality.  In mainstreaming alternate sexual and marriage practices, other areas of public policy are affected if they are seen as out of step with the insistence of full cultural acceptance and endorsements of practices that were once peripheral or illegal.

Like who can donate blood.

When AIDS emerged in the early 80’s, along with the recognition that it could be transmitted via blood, a firewall was put in place – no homosexual men could donate blood.  Ever.  The disproportionate spread of HIV among homosexual men was seen as a clear rationale for denying gay men the option of donating blood.

A year ago this policy was modified, so that only men currently actively sexually involved with other men were prohibited from donating blood.  Only men who have not been sexually active with another man for over 12 months can donate blood.  The twelve-month time-frame was chosen because it is consistent with limitations on people with other health concerns or risks, such as those who recently received a blood transfusion themselves, or were accidentally exposed to another person’s blood.

But even this is seen by some as unfair.  In the wake of the Orlando shootings last week, many gay people have wanted to donate blood but are not allowed to do so, and they see this as unfair.  This despite the fact that there has been no reported shortage of blood available to the victims.  But there are some who see this scientific policy on blood donations as discriminatory, and believe that men who are “lower risk” in their active, current sexual relations with other men should be allowed to donate.

Of course, all of this is based on the honesty of the person wanting to donate blood.  Anyone can lie on the survey beforehand, denying active homosexual activity – or other risky behaviors – and thereby allowed to donate blood.  One argument for further reducing or eliminating the ban on male homosexual blood donations is that if the restrictions were less severe, there would be more people willing to donate, or more people who are honest about their sexual activity.

I wonder if there are demands for a stop to other blood donation policies.  Is it discriminatory that I shouldn’t be allowed to donate blood for a year if I was exposed to another person’s blood?  Is it discriminatory to prevent transfusion recipients from donating for a year?

As we legitimize (or invent) practices and preferences, these decisions have far-reaching implications.  Advocates for eliminating waiting periods for homosexual men to donate blood claim that there is no evidence that waiving such a waiting period puts the population at greater risk for HIV infection from blood transfusions.  But other reports simply indicate that there isn’t enough evidence – data collected – to know one way or the other.

Claiming discrimination rather than utilizing actual data to help determine public health policy is a dangerous means of creating policies.  But the argument has been so successful in other arenas of public debate, it’s hardly surprising to see it crop up here.



Movie Review: Vaxxed

May 24, 2016

Since posting about the controversy at the Tribeca Film Festival surrounding the screening of the movie Vaxxed, I hoped for the opportunity to see it.  Fortunately it came to our area for a one-week limited engagement, and my wife and saw it Monday night.

I start out by admitting that I want this movie to be good.  I’m a sympathetic viewer.  While I acknowledge the potentially great good that vaccines may have in the past done, may do currently, and hopefully will do in the future, I’m also skeptical anytime someone tries to ram a point of view down my throat.  The tremendous growth of autism in our culture is far more than just better diagnostics.  There must be a reason for what is truly an epidemic.  To rule any possible cause out of bounds immediately seems the height of foolishness if not arrogance, particularly when that cause is the injection of materials into a child’s body.  I am not anti-vaccination, but I am distrustful of a perfect storm of government mandates and for-profit pharmaceutical/bio-engineering interests.

As such, let me also point out that those who dismiss this movie as anti-vaccination are uninformed at best, malicious at worst.  This film is not anti-vaccination.  It states that repeatedly.  It deliberately limits the scope of discussion to a single  vaccination – the combined measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine.  It does not raise questions about these as separate vaccinations, but only when combined into a single shot.  It does point out the curious matter that the single vaccinations have been discontinued by the manufacturers, leaving parents the only options of doing without the vaccine or receiving only the combined form.  I find that worth investigating all on its own.

All that being said, I wasn’t as impressed as I’d hoped to be, and I wasn’t as convinced as I hoped to be, mostly because the film doesn’t clearly and simply lay out the data in a no-nonsense approach.  Rather, it spends the vast majority of time on what might be the logical fallacy of appeal to emotion.  Look at how these families and children are suffering, isn’t it awful?  Well of course it’s awful!  I paid to see the movie in the first place because I am very well aware of that suffering and how real and pervasive and long-term it is.  I’d go so far as to say anyone sitting in the theater to see this movie already knows that autism is a devastating condition.  How about focusing clearly and repeatedly on the actual point of the film?

And the alleged point of the film is to assert that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) manipulated and destroyed data for a 2004 study on a possible relationship between autism and the MMR vaccine.  As another curiosity, a search at the CDC website for “Vaxxed” returns nothing.  Apparently they don’t feel the need to address the issue raised by this film.  Interesting.

The film’s assertion centers on the release of data from a CDC insider, Dr. William Thompson.  The heart of the film ought to be the clear comparison of data between the official CDC report in 2004, and data purported to be untampered with that predates this report.  The movie alleges that – among other things – data was eliminated in order to eliminate any statistically significant relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.  While the movie does talk about the data, it could have done a much better job of it.

Ultimately, the film should ensure that every person that walks out of the theater could explain it to others.  Unfortunately, I don’t feel that I can.  The film alleges that the CDC reduced the sampling population – the number of participants included in the report – in order to minimize any relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.  I think there was more to it than that, but I’m not confident enough to explain it.  And for this reason alone, I think the film fails to do what it should have done.

Since Monday night, I’ve been searching out rebuttals to the film.  How are people arguing against what the film has to say?  It’s not hard to find articles and sites dedicated to this purpose.  Here’s a current Washington Post article on the matter.  It details seven things the film doesn’t say that it feels are important.  Two of them have to do with Andrew Wakefield and the discrediting of him personally that has occurred in the professional medical community.  One has to do with the film’s removal from the Tribeca Film Festival.   The article seems to think that this is a significant fact about the film that in some way discredits it.  Anybody who saw Robert de Niro’s interview on the Today Show will likely recognize that there were a lot of factors contributing to the film’s removal, none of them proof of or refutation the film’s premise.

But interestingly, this article – nor any of the other reading I’ve done – refutes the basic premise of the movie, which is that the CDC tampered with the data.  Most articles point to Wakefield’s discrediting, to questionable motives on his part, to editing choices in the film.  None of them (at least that I’ve found) refute the main allegation of CDC tampering.  And frankly, if you can’t refute that, then you haven’t refuted the film’s main purpose.  IF the CDC is guilty of tampering with data to favor a particular outcome, we have a very serious and very dangerous situation on our hands that needs to be thoroughly investigated and people held accountable.  IF the CDC can be shown to be not guilty of this, then the movie can be chucked out as mistaken at best,  malicious at worst.

The movie ends with several specific action items for viewers to follow through on.  The only one I remember is writing our congressional representatives to ask that Dr. William Thompson, the whistleblower, be formally deposed by Congress under oath, and that the same thing happen for five other key players at the CDC from the 2002-2004 timeframe.  This seems like a reasonable course of action.  A Senator has been provided with the documentation demonstrating the alteration of data, yet Congress has not moved to act on this.

I can’t understand why they wouldn’t.  If you’re going to have a movie out alarming people, the least you ought to be able to do is determine if the film’s main allegation is true – did the CDC alter/eliminate data to hide a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism rates?  Why would they not do this?  Can someone explain it to me?

So, that’s where I’m at currently.  Still investigating rebuttals, but so far there has been NO rebuttal of the film’s allegations of CDC misconduct.  That is the only issue at play, for me.  Only by determining if that is true, can we determine whether or not concerns about the MMR vaccine are valid or not.  Only by determining if the data has been manipulated can we know whether we can trust the CDC or not.  I’d like to think that we can, but a penchant for history and a lifetime fascination with human behavior both individually and collectively tells me that such a position is dangerous.