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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Robert McCauley Speaks

Robert McCauley, a professor at Emory University where he holds appointments in the departments of philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and religion, will lecture about the role of cognition in science and religion a week from today at Princeton University.

Faith & Focus on Global Warming

Thousands of academic and religious organizations across the country have planned events for "Focus the Nation: Global Warming Solutions for America," a week dedicated to drawing national attention to climate change. In New York, for instance, Syracuse University, in collaboration with the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry, will hold a teach-in on global warming today, and Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school also in Syracuse, held a teach-trek yesterday (with students walking and bicycling through downtown Syracuse to raise awareness of the issue) and has a series of presentations and discussions planned for today. Other area religious groups, including the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society and St. James Episcopal Church, joined the effort by organizing their own events last Sunday. —Stephen Mapes

Huckabee, Science, & Religion

Tim Hutchinson, a former Republican senator from Arkansas and a senior adviser to Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign, was online with washingtonpost.com yesterday to answer questions, including one from a reader in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who asked, "Given that Mike Huckabee believes in creationism, will you please reassure those of us who have more faith in science than does Huckabee as to what type of person a President Huckabee would appoint to be the White House Science Adviser?"
Hutchinson's response: "Gov. Huckabee, if you look at his 10 1/2 years as governor, never tried to impose his beliefs on anyone. From the statements I've heard on his beliefs in creation in no way disparage his confidence and value in modern science. I don't think those beliefs—which he has been open about and believe the American public deserves to know about them—would infringe on the sorts of people he would have in his administration. I think that's the greatest confidence people can have, those 10 1/2 years of experience. As he said, he never tried to put a church steeple on the capitol dome, and would never try to use the authority of government in that way." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Will It "Ad" Up?

The United Church of Christ (which counts Barack Obama among its 1.2 million members) is launching a Web-based advertising campaign aimed at the scientific community. The ads, which are said to promote both a pro-science and pro-faith message, will appear on more than 30 popular science blogs during February and will link to a newly expanded "faith and science" section on the UCC's Web site. "Frankly, when it comes to persons engaged in scientific inquiry—geneticists, mathematicians, chemists, engineers, science teachers, and students—the church has a history of communicating disinterest, distrust, and even hostility," the Rev. John Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, said in a press release. To begin to counteract that message, Thomas and a group of scientists and theologians also wrote a pastoral letter on science and technology that has been endorsed by Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS, as well as Charles Townes and Ian Barbour, both past Templeton Prize winners. "Many today are hungering for an authentic spirituality that is intellectually honest and at home in a scientific era," the letter states. "They are searching for a new kind of wisdom to live by, one that is scientifically sophisticated, technologically advanced, morally just, ecologically sustainable, and spiritually alive." —Heather Wax

Roald Hoffmann Speaks

Nobel Prize winner and chemist (as well as author, poet, and playwright) Roald Hoffmann recently spoke at both Upper Dublin High School and Congregation Beth Or near Philadelphia about the relationship between science and the humanities. Hoffmann's speech at Beth Or focused on the connections between scientific discovery and Judaism, and was based partly on Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition, a book he co-wrote with Shira Leibowitz Schmidt.

Pilot Program Links S&R

"Exploring the World, Discovering God," a pilot program for kindergarteners through fourth-graders, is helping teachers in Catholic schools link what they teach in science and religion class. The project, sponsored by the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology, is being used in Missouri, Texas, Kansas, and some home schools in Michigan, and plans are already in the works to expand it for grades 5 through 8, as well as for use by Protestant schools. The program's materials, which will be provided free on a Web site possibly as early as this fall, are being shaped by a group of advisers comprised of scientists, theologians, and educators. —Sara Kern

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

S&R Weekends

Beginning this Friday, Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, California, will host a free conference on science and religion, where the guest speaker will be Robert Russell, founder and director of The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and a professor of theology and science at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The following Saturday (Evolution Weekend), a science-and-religion roundtable involving a climate physicist, a neurobiologist, and a geologist will be held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, Michigan.

State of the Union & Science

While President Bush's speech last night focused on the war and the economy, he also made some remarks with regard to stem cell research. "On matters of life and science, we must trust in the innovative spirit of medical researchers and empower them to discover new treatments while respecting moral boundaries. In November, we witnessed a landmark achievement when scientists discovered a way to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. This breakthrough has the potential to move us beyond the divisive debates of the past by extending the frontiers of medicine without the destruction of human life," he said to applause. "So we're expanding funding for this type of ethical medical research. And, as we explore promising avenues of research, we must also ensure that all life is treated with the dignity it deserves. And so I call on Congress to pass legislation that bans unethical practices such as the buying, selling, patenting or cloning of human life." The president's convictions are nothing new, but they still run up against the beliefs of virtually all stem cell scientists, who maintain that embryonic stem cell research is still crucial; adult cells cannot substitute for embryonic stem cells, which have the proven capacity to become every kind of cell in the human body. From a scientific perspective, Christopher Thomas Scott, executive director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics Program on Stem Cells and Society, told Science & Spirit, we need to pursue all avenues in "a robust research effort, one that is agnostic to cell type." —Heather Wax

Monday, January 28, 2008

Vatican Follow-Up

Pope Benedict XVI, who earlier this month canceled a speaking engagement at the Rome university La Sapienza after students and faculty protested his views on science, has again shared his thoughts on science and religion, this time at a meeting sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences. "In an age when scientific developments attract and seduce with the possibilities they offer, it's more important than ever to educate our contemporaries' consciences so that science does not become the criteria for goodness," he told the group of academics, also adding that, "Man is not the fruit of chance or a bundle of convergences, determinisms, or physical and chemical reactions," and that "no science can say who man is, where he comes from, or where he is going." —Heather Wax

Here Comes Henry Poole

"Henry Poole Is Here," a new movie exploring science and the power of prayer, recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, directed by Mark Pellington, stars Luke Wilson as Henry, a man who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and comes to learn, through a "miracle," the healing power of hope and faith. The movie's release date has yet to be announced. —Stephen Mapes

Religion & Environmentalism

Do different religions—with their differing views on the role and place of humans in nature—shape the role their followers take in protecting the environment?

As Evolution Weekend Approaches

Clergy members from different traditions continue to attach their names to The Clergy Letter Project, which hopes to demonstrate that science and religion are complementary and that Christians can believe in evolution. "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts," reads part of the two-paragraph clergy letter. "We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth." The clergy are also encouraging other religious leaders to celebrate Evolution Weekend, February 8 through 10, and to take the time to deeply explore the nature of science and religion. —Heather Wax

Friday, January 25, 2008

More Texas Follow-Up

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's looming decision on whether or not to grant accreditation to the Institute of Creation Research Graduate School's master's program in science education has provoked a tidal wave of email comments from those on both sides of the debate. The response hasn't been limited to emails: An editorial in the Austin American-Statesman, submitted by the past president, current president, and president-elect of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, expresses concern over the ICR's bid for accreditation and forcefully makes the case that intelligent design is not science. —Dan Messier

EPA Chief Faces Criticism

Stephen Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a deeply religious scientist (who was grilled by a Senate committee yesterday over his decision to deny California permission to enforce new greenhouse gas regulations), has come under fire for ignoring scientific data, for bringing organized religion into the chief office of the EPA, and for bowing to political pressure from the White House. —Heather Wax

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Closer to Artificial Life

Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland have built the first synthetic genome (of one of the tiniest bacteria, Mycoplasma genitalium). Though it's an important step and a remarkable scientific feat, it's not quite artificial life: The scientists have yet to insert the genes into a cell and then reboot it into a new, living, artificial organism. The work is published in the online version of the journal Science. —Heather Wax

Creation Journal Launched

Earlier this month, Answers in Genesis (the ministry that's behind the Creation Museum in Kentucky) launched the Answers Research Journal, a free, online, "peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework," according to AJR's Web site. At a time when hundreds more parking spaces are needed at the Creation Museum to accommodate the larger-than-expected crowds, there is concern within the scientific community that those without a science background might find it hard to distinguish the work, which professes to be a science journal, from a genuine peer-reviewed science journal. —Heather Wax

Judaism & Stem Cells Discussion

Rabbi Benjamin Samuels will speak on February 7, two weeks from today, about "The Rabbinic Conception of Conception: Embryos, Stem Cells, and the Wonders of Human Life" at the Harvard Hillel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at 7 p.m. The interactive study session will explore Jewish views on when life begins and then apply these views in a discussion of the ethics of stem cell research and its potential therapies.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Loneliness Is Next to Godliness

People are more likely to believe in the supernatural—God, angels, or miracles—when they feel lonely than when they don't, according to new research out of the University of Chicago. The team of researchers also found that people alleviate loneliness by anthropomorphizing —turning objects into people that can keep them company. "When people lack a sense of connection with other people, they are more likely to see their pets, gadgets, or gods as humanlike," says Nicholas Epley, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business and one of the study's authors. (Fear, on the other hand, doesn't increase reported belief in God or how people describe their pets.) Which is why the fictional movie Castaway "depicts a deep truth about the irrepressibly social nature of Homo sapiens, " says John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago who also worked on the study. “Tom Hanks was isolated on an island and found the social desolation to be one of the most daunting challenges with which he had to deal," he says. “He did so, in part, by anthropomorphizing a volleyball, Wilson, who became his friend and confidant while he was on the island.” The team's research will be published in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Faraday Research Seminars

The latest session of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion Research Seminars kicks off today with John Hedley Brooke's seminar, "Should the Word 'Nature' Be Eliminated? A Historical Survey." Up next is the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne with "The Future of the Science-Religion Debate" on February 5.

Annual Beck Lecture

"What If Extraterrestrials Really Do Exist? Toward a Cosmic Christian Faith" is the topic of this year's Beck Lecture, which will be delivered on February 5 by Richard Randolph, an assistant professor and chair of the department of bioethics at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. Each year, the Beck Lecture explores a topic in science and religion. Past speakers have included Alan Padgett and Warren Brown, and it's already been announced that next year's lecturer will be Alvin Plantinga, the John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

Science, Religion, & Einstein

Pangratios Papacosta, a physicist, historian of science, and member of the science and mathematics department at Columbia College Chicago, will speak tomorrow at Stetson University in Florida about Albert Einstein's views on science and religion, as well as racism. His lecture, "The Human Behind the Genius: The Other Einstein," is part of a series presented by the Stetson Center for Science, Nature, and the Sacred, designed to give "balanced attention to scientific and spiritual perspectives of nature."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Countdown to Darwin Day

Only three weeks remain until Darwin Day, honoring both Charles Darwin's birthday and his theory of evolution, and the National Center for Science Education is urging friends of his theory to engage in public outreach about evolution and its place in modern education. With Darwin Day also comes Evolution Weekend, a celebration of the merits of evolutionary theory from the pulpits of religious congregations around the world. Hundreds of groups have already announced their participation in the festivities, with events including lectures, sermons, barbecues, and birthday parties. —Stephen Mapes

Friday, January 18, 2008

May I Have a Word?

Is the addition of a single word to the latest edition of the Book of Mormon a concession to science?

Judea Pearl Speaks

Judea Pearl, an expert in artificial intelligence and father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, will speak at Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita, California, on February 2. Among other topics, Pearl will speak about finding common ground between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and about his book I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Texas Follow-Up

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has delayed its decision on whether to offer accreditation to a science education program offered by the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School. The board was scheduled to consider the proposal on January 24, but postponed at the request of the institute. Eddy Miller, the dean of the institute's graduate school, requested more time "to do justice to the concerns" that the Texas state commissioner of higher education, Raymund Paredes, raised earlier this month. Miller requested the board delay a decision until its meeting in April. —Dan Messier

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pope Cancels University Visit

Pope Benedict XVI canceled his visit to Rome's oldest and largest university, La Sapienza, where he was scheduled to speak tomorrow, after students and academics protested his views on science, specifically Galileo. (Pointing to a speech the pope gave at the university as a cardinal in 1990, the protesters, who signed a letter calling for the visit to be called off, say the pope condones the trial and conviction of Galileo for heresy.) In a statement released yesterday, the Vatican said that, in light of recent events, which included a sit-in by students in the university rector's office, it was "considered opportune to postpone" the visit. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

More Florida Follow-Up

Florida lawyer David Gibbs III of the Christian Law Association (and who represented Terri Schiavo's parents and siblings) has written a legal memo that says the state's proposed new science standards cross the line between science and faith—and the separation of church and state—because they single out evolution as the one foundation of modern biology, promoting it as a "belief system." An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida calls Gibbs' argument "cockamamy." But colleagues of Gibb's say that a more detailed memo is in the works and will be sent to the State Board of Education, which plans to vote on the proposed standards on February 19. —Heather Wax

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ethics on Film

It was announced today that the new Ethics Film Series at Western Michigan University will open on January 24 with the 1952 western "High Noon." After the viewing, Michael Pritchard, co-director of WMU's Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, will lead a discussion about the film's depiction of the relationship between love and ethics.

Steven Pinker Writes

Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, explores "the new science of the moral sense" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Those familiar with the field will recognize a number of the cutting-edge researchers cited, among them Jonathan Haidt, Marc Hauser, and Joshua Greene. —Heather Wax

On the Shelf

Jim Holt (who's working on a book about the "puzzle of existence") reviews Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. In the new book, author and Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos uses logic to try to refute arguments for the existence of God—yet ends up conceding that neither the arguments for or against God's existence can be logically proven or solved. —Heather Wax

Pursuit of Happiness

Friday night's episode of 20/20 dedicated an hour to the new science of happiness—how it can be measured, studied, and nurtured. A number of positive psychologists shared their thoughts on the fundamentals of the search for happiness, among them Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, the best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness; Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California-Riverside. The latest research is showing that happiness is within us—in what we do and how we think, every day of our lives—and that we can change our brains in positive ways. The people around us matter, too. Community counts in a big way, which why people are happy in Denmark (where they pay extremely high taxes) and Singapore (where rules are severely strict, there's one political party, and a censored press), and why one study found that people in the slums of Calcutta are happier than people living on the streets in California. —Heather Wax

Friday, January 11, 2008

Vote of Approval

The South Carolina Education Board has finally ruled that the newest edition of Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine's textbook Biology can be used in public school classrooms and is available for public funding. (In South Carolina, the state pays for textbooks once the board has approved them for classroom use.) The board withheld official approval last month after a retired Clemson University botanist, Horace Skipper, raised concerns over how the textbook teaches evolution. —Heather Wax

New Exhibit

Several letters, as well as part of the fossil collection, of James Woodrow (President Woodrow Wilson's uncle) are now on display as part of the "Natural Curiosity" exhibit at the McKissick Museum in South Carolina. Woodrow, a scientist and theologian, was dismissed from the faculty of the Columbia Theological Seminary in 1884 because of his support and teaching of evolution, and his efforts to make peace between religion and science. —Heather Wax

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Fighting Words

E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins disagree on the origins of altruism.

More Follow-Up

The Texas state commissioner of higher education, Raymund Paredes, is recommending that the Institute for Creation Research offer a degree in creation studies rather than a master's degree in science education, as proposed. He's also asked a panel of scientists and science educators to comment on the proposal, which includes a curriculum heavy on creationism—a curriculum that the panelists are likely to oppose. The commissioner will make his recommendation to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on January 23. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


About 80 Floridians reportedly attended last night's public forum in Miramar, Florida, where about 30 of them signed up to speak about the state's proposed new science standards—both for and against them. The new standards call for the teaching of "evolution" (using the word itself for the first time), and the debate over how origins should be taught was as divisive as ever, frustrating many in the scientific and academic community who see evolution as the foundation of modern biology and a term students need to learn. This was the last public meeting before the State Board of Education votes on the standards next month. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Empathy, Emotions, & Health

Research suggests that emotional support from doctors can help cancer patients better understand their treatment and cope with their disease, but a study led by Kathryn Pollak, a social psychologist at Duke University, shows that oncologists often have trouble expressing empathy and communicating with their patients about emotions. —Heather Wax

Monday, January 7, 2008

Science Debate in 2008?

ScienceDebate2008, a nonpartisan initiative, is pushing for a presidential debate on science and technology. The initiative is co-chaired by two scientists, Michigan Republican Representative Vern Ehlers and New Jersey Democratic Representative Rush Holt, and already has a signatory list that includes a number of Nobel laureates and university presidents, the head of AAAS, and the president of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists. —Heather Wax

Friday, January 4, 2008

Evolution of a Book

The National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine released the third version of the book Science, Evolution, and Creationism yesterday, and for the first time, the book takes great pains to assert that the theory of evolution is completely compatible with belief in God. "Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future," says the book, which also states that "attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist." Updated by a panel led by Francisco Ayala, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine, the book strongly endorses evolution as the foundation of modern biology and discredits creationism and "intelligent design," which it maintains are unscientific ideas that should not be taught in public school science classrooms. —Heather Wax

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Forgive, or Forget It?

While there's more scientific evidence than ever that forgiveness—forgiving others who have wronged us and forgiving ourselves—can lead to certain health benefits, some worry that the pressure to forgive might itself be unhealthy. —Heather Wax

Belief in the Brain

Dr. Solomon Snyder of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine offers his perspective on the new neuroscience of religion in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.


Florida's Department of Education is holding a public hearing today in Jacksonville on the state's proposed new science education standards, which would call on Florida public schools to teach "evolution" rather than what is now referred to as "biological changes over time." Another hearing is scheduled in Fort Lauderdale next week. It's believed the State Board of Education will vote on the proposal, which has been applauded by the scientific community, in February. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Public Opinion

A national survey shows that Americans are more interested in hearing about evolution from scientists, science teachers, and clergy than from judges, celebrities, or school board members. The survey, which also reveals that respondents favor teaching evolution over creationism or "intelligent design," is the basis for an article that calls for a greater promotion of evolution education, authored by a coalition of 17 scientific societies and appearing in the current issue of The FASEB Journal. —Heather Wax

Marriage & Health (Gender Differences, Pt. 2)

According to a new UCLA study, happily married women rebound better from everyday stress than do women who are less happy in their marriages. "Past research has found that men appear to get a health and longevity boost from marriage, while for women, being married is only beneficial insofar as the marriage is high-quality," Rena Repetti, a psychology professor and one of the study’s authors, says in the press release. The findings appear in the January issue of the journal Health Psychology. —Heather Wax

Religion & Health (Gender Differences, Pt. 1)

Joanna Maselko of Temple University's Department of Public Health and Stephen Buka of the Harvard School of Public Health have found that a person's pattern of religious service attendance can be related to psychological distress—but in opposite ways for men and women. Women who stopped being religiously active were three times more likely to suffer generalized anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse or dependence than those who remained active; men, on the other hand, were less likely to suffer depression if they became less religiously active. The study appears in the current issue of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. —Heather Wax