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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Is Religion the Product of Our Imagination?

Maurice Bloch, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, is challenging the popular belief that religion evolved because of its effects on social bonding. Instead, argues Bloch in his recent article "Why religion is nothing special but is central," published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, the emergence of religion was dependent on the evolution of the human capacity to imagine things that don't physically exist and an afterlife. "What the transcendental social requires," he says, "is the ability to live very largely in the imagination."
Our unique ability to imagine is the reason that other animals, no matter how closely related to us they are, don't have religious experiences, he says; while humans can imagine both forward and backward in time, other animals cannot think past their immediate social interactions and status. While religion remains critical to social development, Bloch says, once "we realize this omnipresence of the imaginary in the everyday, nothing special is left to explain concerning religion." —Evan Peck

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Francisco Ayala Talks S&R

Francisco Ayala, an evolutionary biologist and geneticist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest, is profiled in The New York Times today, and he speaks out about the relationship between science and religion. Ayala, who's also the author of Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion, sees evolution as compatible with belief in God and says that evolution "is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for," he says, and would be considered an "abortionist," a "sadist," and a "lousy engineer." He also dismisses the idea that its only fair to teach religious theories like creationism and ID alongside evolution. “We don’t teach alchemy along with chemistry,” he says. “We don’t teach witchcraft along with medicine. We don’t teach astrology with astronomy." —Heather Wax

Florida Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

The House of Representatives voted 71-43 yesterday to pass an "academic freedom" bill that would require Florida public school teachers to offer a "thorough presentation and scientific critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution" in science class. (The bill has been changed significantly from the original version introduced by Republican Representative Alan Hays.) "What this bill does is tell the teacher, go ahead and teach the theory of evolution and make sure your students have a complete view of that theory and they know that it is only a theory, it is not gospel law," said Hays. Yet opponents (almost entirely Democrats) see the bill as trying to sneak religious alternatives, like creationism and "intelligent design," into the science classroom. While Hays claims the bill has nothing to do with religion, he did say that "too many people are afraid to even mention the theory of intelligent design."
But chances are now slim for the legislation. The House version of the bill has no chance, given that it calls for a mandatory "critical analysis," language the Senate has already firmly rejected. Proponents can hope that the House Republicans will be convinced to approve the Senate version of the bill (passed by a vote of 21-17 last week)—which allows teachers to "present scientific information relevant to the full range of views on biological and chemical evolution" without fear of punishment—but the legislative session ends on Friday. Governor Charlie Grist will not yet say whether he would sign the measure, if it gets that far. —Heather Wax

Monday, April 28, 2008

Ken Miller Speaks

Brown University biologist Ken Miller (co-author with Joseph Levine of the widely used textbook Biology) answers questions and speaks out against "intelligent design" in this week's Publishers Weekly, which recently reviewed his new book on evolution, Only a Theory.

Louisiana Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

Another "academic freedom" bill has been introduced in Louisiana. The "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act" is sponsored by Republican Representative Frank Hoffman, former superintendent of the Ouachita Parish School System, and is the House version of the "Louisiana Science Education Act" (renamed from the "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act"), which has already passed the Louisiana Senate Education Committee (in revised form). —Heather Wax

Friday, April 25, 2008

Science, Religion, & the Law Professor

The Ledger is running a series of stories looking at how people reconcile science and faith in their lives. Today, the Florida paper (with help from the St. Petersburg Times) tells the story of Steven Gey, a law professor at Florida State University who has Lou Gehrig's disease. While many of his students are conservative Christians, Gey, an American Civil Liberties attorney, promotes the scientific method, rational inquiry, and humanism. Yet his bond with his students—as well as his illness—has given them the opportunity to share their ideologies and beliefs. —Heather Wax

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Florida Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

By a vote of 21-17, the Florida Senate passed an "academic freedom" bill yesterday that would allow teachers to "present scientific information relevant to the full range of views on biological and chemical evolution" without fear of punishment. Republican Senator Ronda Storms, who introduced the bill, says its necessary to protect teachers and students who question or criticize evolution (though the Department of Education has no reported case in which a Florida public school teacher or student was discriminated against based on their science teaching or course work). Opponents of the bill, however, say it's trying to sneak religious alternatives to evolution into the science classroom and to weaken the state's new science standards, which use the word "evolution" for the first time. "I know that the bill doesn't even mention creationism," said Senator Arthenia Joyner, "but that's what it's about." Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, who has long spoken out against the bill, called the debate "embarrassing."
The Senate did shoot down an amendment that would have lined the bill up with its House version, which does more than protect teachers and students who criticize evolution from being disciplined; the House bill, sponsored by Republican Representative Alan Hays (and which could go before the House for consideration by the end of the week), puts the onus on public school teachers, requiring them to provide "a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." The bill was changed significantly from the original version introduced by Hays, and the changes are quite different from those made on the Senate version of the bill (the two bills started off as identical). Proponents of the bills are running out of time for a compromise. The legislative session ends on May 2. —Heather Wax

Creationism Defeat in Texas

Encouraging news out of Texas this morning: A committee of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has unanimously rejected the Institute for Creation Research's request for state certification that would allow it to offer an online master's degree in science education—a degree that would be based on "creation science" rather than evolution. The ICR had offered graduate courses in California since 1981, but its recent move from San Diego to Texas, presumably to find more congenial politics, requires new accreditation. The full board will take final action on the decision today.
Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes recommended rejecting the ICR's proposal because the institute's program wouldn't prepare graduates to meet the science standards now set for Texas public schools, which include the study of evolution. "Evolution is such a fundamental principle of contemporary science it is hard to imagine how you could cover the various fields of science without giving it [evolution] the proper attention it deserves as a foundation of science," Paredes said. "Religious belief is not science. Science and religious belief are surely reconcilable, but they are not the same thing." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Will Texas Vote to Certify Creationist Group?

A committee of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will hear public testimony this morning regarding the Institute for Creation Research, which is seeking state accreditation. (The ICR had offered graduate courses in California since 1981, but its recent move to Texas requires new accreditation.) The ICR specializes in "the study and promotion of scientific creationism, biblical creationism, and related fields" and offers an online master's degree program for science education that trains science teachers using a "biblical framework."
According to a press release from the Texas Freedom Network, an online survey of science faculty at both public and private Texas colleges and universities "reveals overwhelming opposition" to state approval for the ICR's master's degree in science education. Of the nearly 200 faculty members who responded to the survey, conducted in association with the National Center for Science Education, 95 percent said they opposed certifying the program. "Our

universities should be training science teachers who can provide a 21st-century education in Texas classrooms," said Kathy Miller, president of the TFN Education Fund. "Approving degree programs that instead promote a false conflict between science and faith would be a disservice to students and a threat to our state's reputation as a center for science and research."
Back in December, however, a Texas advisory council of university educators recommended that the state grant accreditation to the ICR. The committee of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will make its recommendation today, and it's expected the full board will vote on certification tomorrow. —Heather Wax

E.T. May Not Be Able to Phone Home

There may very well be primitive alien life on other planets, believes University of Cambridge astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, but it might not be intelligent enough to send signals to communicate with us. "Primitive life is very common and intelligent life is fairly rare," he said Monday, during a speech at George Washington University celebrating the 50th anniversary of NASA. Hawking also called for further space exploration, saying that if "the human race is to continue for another million years, we will probably have to go where nobody has gone before." That would include a base on the moon, which he'd like to see by 2020, as well as a manned mission to Mars by 2025. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Reviews Are In

Expelled finished ninth in the box office over the weekend, making $3.1 million—and doing better than Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, the new documentary by Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame), which made $143,000. Still, that's no great take: The Forbidden Kingdom with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, grossed $21.4 million this weekend, for example, and The Passion of the Christ made $83.8 million on its first weekend in 2004.
The reviews, for the most part, also have not been very positive. "Simplistic, heavy-handed," says The Hollywood Reporter. "There may be a good argument to make on behalf of teaching Intelligent Design in science class," says Beliefnet, "but this documentary from Ben Stein does not make it." The New York Times calls it "one of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time," and a "conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry," and Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks it's "worse than stupid"; it's "immoral." Even the review from Christianity Today is hardly glowing. —Heather Wax

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Expelled" Hits the Theaters Today

Expelled, the "intelligent design" movie featuring Ben Stein, opens in theaters nationwide today. Watch the trailer, and then visit Expelled Exposed, a Web site created by the National Center for Science Education to show "why this movie is not a documentary at all, but anti-science propaganda aimed at creating the appearance of controversy where there is none." —Heather Wax

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Science & Religion in Venice

Three experts on science and religion—physicist Paul Davies, astronomer Owen Gingerich, and physicist-turned-Anglican priest Sir John Polkinghorne—will deliver keynote addresses at the Venice Summer School for Science and Religion from May 27 to June 1 at the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in Italy. Scholars and theologians will gather there for a week spent exploring and defining the relationship between God and nature using math, philosophy, and physics.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bioethics Forum Explores Evolution and Faith

Scientists, historians, and policy and education experts will meet tomorrow and Friday at the 7th Annual International Bioethics Forum: Evolution in the 21st Century at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute in Madison, Wisconsin. Speakers will include Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education; Ron Numbers, a historian of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and John Haught, an expert on science and religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Their talks will explore the evidence for evolution, as well as the relationship between evolution and religion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Archaeologists Work Toward Peace in Middle East

A coalition of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists, led by Lynn Dodd of the University of Southern California and Ran Boytner of UCLA, has drafted a plan to negotiate rights to the numerous historical and religious artifacts that have been found in the Middle East. "Israelis and Palestinians never previously had sat down to achieve a structured, balanced agreement to govern the region's archaeological heritage," Dodd, a lecturer of religion and curator of USC's Archaeological Research Collection, said in a press release. "Our group got together with the vision of a future when people wouldn't be at each other's throats and archaeology would need to be protected, irrespective of which side of the border it falls on."
The Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group Agreement, which was recently presented to more than 200 Israeli archaeologists earlier this month, calls for the repatriation of thousands of artifacts to the regions in which they were originally found and a continued effort to protect current digging sites from destruction. The agreement could require major concessions on the part of Israel, as tens of thousands of artifacts and several key archaeological sites, including Qumran, Samaria, and Mount Ibal, located in what are now Israeli territories, would likely fall under Palestinian jurisdiction. Yet, despite these and other possible complications, the coalition remains optimistic that the agreement will ultimately stabilize efforts to preserve each culture's heritage, and possibly the peace process itself. "According to international law, if there is a future Palestinian state, the Israelis will have to return all archaeological artifacts to the Palestinian state," said the Israeli-born Boytner, director of international research at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. "Therefore, archaeology could be a deal-breaker in future peace negotiations. But if we can deal with archaeology, we can help create a stable peace process that will be respected by both sides for years to come." —Stephen Mapes

Monday, April 14, 2008

Obama's a Theistic Evolutionist

Senator Barack Obama believes science and religion—including evolution and creation—are not incompatible, according to statements he made at The Compassion Forum yesterday. Both Senator Hillary Clinton and Obama appeared and spoke separately at the forum on faith and values (John McCain declined to participate), which was held at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and lasted a little more than an hour and a half. The discussion was moderated by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and CNN anchor Campbell Brown, but the question about how Obama reconciles science and religion came from a clergy member in the audience.
"There are those who suggest that if you have a scientific bent of mind, then somehow you should reject religion, and I fundamentally disagree with that," said Obama, who describes himself as a "devout" Christian. "In fact, the more I learn about the world, the more I know about science, the more I'm amazed about the mystery of this planet and this universe. And it strengthens my faith as opposed to weakens it." When it comes to reconciling the Genesis creation story with our scientific understanding of the age of the universe, Obama said he believes God created the Earth in six days, but the Bible might not mean 24-hour days, the way we now think of them.
Clinton also spoke about personal faith and beliefs, saying that she doesn't think she "could have made my life’s journey without being anchored in God’s grace and without having that, you know, sense of forgiveness and unconditional love.” She also said that as president, her decision-making process would involve both faith and study. "I think that for a lot of us, decisions are ones that you don’t just make and put on a shelf,” she said. “To be fair, to be constantly struggling and challenging yourself, you have to keep opening up that decision and asking.” —Heather Wax

Florida Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

On Friday, just days after the state Senate judiciary committee voted 6-3 (along partisan lines) in favor of a new bill that would allow teachers to "present scientific information relevant to the full range of views on biological and chemical evolution," the House version of the bill cleared the House Schools & Learning Council on a 7-4 vote (also along party lines). This bill would allow teachers to give students a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." (The bill was changed significantly from the original version introduced by Republican Representative Alan Hays, and the changes were different from those made on the Senate version of the bill by the Committee on Education Pre-K–12.) Like Senator Ronda Storms, who introduced the Senate bill, Hays says the House bill is needed to protect the views of those who question or criticize evolution. But opponents of the bill, which include many Florida teachers and scientists, say there is no evidence that such persecution exists and see the bill as a stealth attempt to bring religious theories like "intelligent design" into the science classroom. The bill will now go to the House Budget & Policy Council. —Heather Wax

Friday, April 11, 2008

Call for Papers on Darwin's Legacy and Influence

Darwin's Reach, a conference to be held next March 12-14 at Hofstra University in New York, is inviting academics from a broad range of disciplines to submit proposals for papers. Paper topics can be drawn from the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and law, and suggested topics include Darwin's legacy; misapplications of Darwinism; evolution in the courts; and the relationship between evolution and religion, morality, language, or global climate change. The conference, timed to honor the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, will focus on the ways Darwin's ideas have influenced our understanding of the natural world and transformed a variety of fields. Keynote speakers will include Emory University psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal and Judge John E. Jones III, famous for ruling that the Dover Area School Board couldn't introduce the teaching of "intelligent design" into biology classes. (ID is a religious rather than scientific idea, he said.)
Paper proposals should be submitted as 200-word abstracts, and presentations at the conference will be limited to 20 minutes. The submission deadline is June 16. —Kaitlin Shimer

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Clinton and Obama Ready to Discuss Religion

Both Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama have agreed to talk about faith and values at The Compassion Forum this Sunday at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania (nine days before the state's presidential primary). The bipartisan discussion will focus on the moral issues facing the nation and the world, and Clinton and Obama will be asked to highlight how their personal faith and moral convictions influence their positions on pressing global crises, including international poverty, the genocide in Darfur, and the AIDS epidemic. At this point, Republican presidential candidate John McCain doesn't plan to participate in the forum, but the invitation is still open.
Organizers hope the event will promote unity despite ideological and political differences, and they've emphasized that the forum is not intended to be a debate, but rather a conversation between each candidate and the voters. The candidates will also field questions from Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, CNN anchor Campbell Brown, and prominent members of the religious community. The event will be aired live from 8 to 9:30 p.m. EST on CNN's television channel and Web site. —Stephen Mapes

Experimenters Make Evolution Chip

Scientists have created a "Darwin chip" that can show students the process of evolution by natural selection in real-time. Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, made the chip-based evolution system by dropping an RNA molecule called a "ligase" into a pool of other RNA molecules, where it would sew another RNA strand to itself and then duplicate. (Because of errors in copying, duplication isn't always perfect, which means sometimes the new ligases are better sewers, sometimes worse.) "A population of billions of RNA enzymes with RNA ligase activity was made to evolve continuously, with real-time monitoring of the population size and fitness. Whenever the population size reached a predetermined threshold, chip-based operations were executed to isolate a fraction of the population and mix it with a fresh supply of reagents," study authors Dr. Gerald Joyce, a molecular biologist and chemist, and Brian Paegal, a researcher in Joyce's lab, write in PloS Biology. "These steps repeated automatically as the population adapted to the imposed selection constraints within a period of several hours." After only 70 hours of duplications, the chip produced ligase molecules that were 90 times more efficient at finding and stitching other RNA molecules to itself. Joyce—who calls this "survival of the fittest on the smallest scale possible"—believes the quick, tangible results might help convince those who still doubt Darwin's theory of evolution. "This is evolution of molecules as a fact, not a theory," he said in a press release.
"No one has been able to observe what the process looks like until now," Paegel added. "It's like before you could only see little bits of a fine painting. Now, we can step back and watch a complete picture of evolution happening at its most fundamental level, on a molecular scale." And it's not an expensive or terribly hard picture to re-create; making the chip costs only about eight dollars. —Evan Peck.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Florida Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

The state Senate judiciary committee yesterday voted 6-3 (along partisan lines) in favor of a new bill, introduced by Republican Senator Ronda Storms, that would allow teachers to "present scientific information relevant to the full range of views on biological and chemical evolution." Storms says the bill is needed to protect the views of those who are "muzzled" when it comes to questioning or criticizing evolution, but those who oppose the bill, including Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, see it as an attempt to bring religious theories like "intelligent design" into the science classroom. According to the Department of Education, there has never been a reported case in which a Florida public school teacher or student was discriminated against based on their science teaching or course work, and Mary Bahr, a middle school science teacher with 15 year experience told the committee that she has "never heard anyone express concerns for their academic freedom, or that they felt constrained from teaching all the scientific evidence surrounding any concept." Bahr helped write the state's new science standards, which use the word "evolution" for the first time and which were adopted by the Florida State Board of Education just days before Storms introduced her bill. The bill, which passed Florida Senate's Committee on Education Pre-K–12 last month, will now go before the full Senate. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Darwin & Linguistics

Stephen Alter, an associate professor of history at Gordon College, spoke about "Charles Darwin, Family Trees of Language, and the Plausibility of Evolutionary Decent" last night at Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts. Alter, the author of Darwinism and the Linguistic Image, showed how Darwin used an analogy between a linguistic family tree and a biological family tree to get his nineteenth-century audience in the habit of thinking in terms of common decent. Darwin used linguistic family trees that showed increasing variations of the common ancestral language to help his readers imagine the plausibility of a common ancestor in a biological family tree—and to make the idea easier to understand. “Darwin knew he was going to be speaking to a broad audience, and he wrote that way," said Alter. Interestingly, Alter said that the analogy that Darwin used to reach readers' "scientific imagination" had a "biblical basis"; the idea of a common ancestor supports the idea of "monogenesis," or one creation, while also supporting the multiplication of species through evolution, which leads to increasing diversity over time. —Kaitlin Shimer

Albert Bandura Speaks

Albert Bandura, a psychologist at Stanford University and the winner of the 2008 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for psychology, will speak about how self-confidence can make us better people at the University of Louisville on April 16. The talk is free and open to the public.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Missouri's "Academic Freedom Act"

A state House bill that would add "a new section relating to teacher academic freedom to teach scientific evidence regarding evolution" was introduced last week and sponsored by Republican Representative Robert Wayne Cooper. According to the National Center for Science Education, Cooper has previously introduced two bills that called for equal time for "intelligent design" in public school classrooms, as well as one that required a "critical analysis" of evolution "be taught in a substantive amount." (All of those bills failed.) The new bill would allow teachers to help students understand "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of theories of biological and chemical evolution." School administrators, the bill states, should "create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including such subjects as the teaching of biological and chemical evolution," and "assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies." (Keep in mind that evolution is not a point of controversy or debate in the scientific community.) —Heather Wax

Friday, April 4, 2008

Open Theology on Demand

Not able to attend the upcoming "Open and Relational Theology Engaging Science" seminar at Azusa Pacific University next weekend? Thanks to Open Theology's YouTube channel, you can still watch some of the biggest names in science and religion discuss and debate this new field of research. The channel contains free, full-length lectures from scholars like the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne (at last summer's open theology conference in the clip above) and theologian Clark Pinnock. More videos will be posted on the channel in the coming weeks, so check back regularly. —Stephen Mapes

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Evolution & the Evangelical Church in Germany

According to Reuters FaithWorld blog, the Evangelical Church in Germany (which is actually a federation of Protestant churches) has published a 22-page booklet called "The Origin of the World, the Theory of Evolution and the Belief in Creation in School," which essentially calls on teachers to not advocate creationism or "intelligent design" in the classroom. Tom Heneghan, who wrote the post and translates some of the booklet, says that there are a number of pages that discuss the relationship between science and religion—in the hope of "setting limits to both sides"—and that biblical literal creationism is called "unserious." The booklet also criticizes the new atheists, he says; while the church believes science explains the physical and natural world, it sees room for the creation story in exploring the ultimate purpose of life. "God the creator is part of this belief, but not creationism," Heneghan translates from the booklet. "So Protestant religion class," which are offered in public schools, "can discuss creationism," the booklet says, "but not advocate it." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Open Theology & Science Seminar

A group of scientists and theologians are getting ready to meet for the "Open and Relational Theology Engaging Science" seminar at Azusa Pacific University in California, where they hope to create a new field of science-and-religion research centering around "open theology." Open theology is based on the belief that the future is open and that God does not fully know the details of what will happen. To that end, God and everything else in the universe continue to influence each other. Seminar participants will present new papers on open theology and science, and keynote speaker Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, will give a talk based on his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. —Heather Wax

Ted Turner & Churches Fight Malaria Together

Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation has joined forces with The People of the United Methodist Church and Lutheran World Relief to launch a 200 million dollar health program to fight malaria in Africa. Turner, the founder the CNN, has made some disparaging remarks about religion in the past, but says his thinking on religion has developed, and he now regrets his negative comments. "Religion is one of the bright spots as far as I'm concerned, even though there are some areas, like everything else, where they've gone over the top a little," Turner said at a news conference announcing the initiative. "But I'm sure God, wherever he is, wants to see us get along with one another and love one another." The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave the joint project a 10 million dollar grant to help publicize the program in churches. "You've got to have faith to build a better world," says Turner. —Heather Wax

Science, Religion, & Steven Weinberg

Newsweek's Ana Elena Azpurua recently spoke with Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist at The University of Texas at Austin, about the Large Hadron Collider and how it might change our understanding of the universe. The LHC—the largest particle physics experiment yet to be undertaken—will try to re-create the conditions of the cosmos less than a millisecond after the big bang, and researchers hope it will find evidence of the Higgs boson, nicknamed the "God particle" for its potential unifying role in developing a grand theory of the universe. In the interview, Weinberg places particular emphasis on the effects the discovery could have on both organized religion and ideas of origins. "The more we learn about the universe," says Weinberg, "the less sign we see of an intelligent designer." —Stephen Mapes

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools

There may be a positive side to some types of pranks and practical jokes, according to anthropologists who have studied the way pranks are used in initiation rites and rituals around the world. Good pranks, they say—the funny kind that focus on human failings—can be used to help bring a person into a group, teach a coming-of-age lesson, or foster a certain kind of self-reflection. A piece in today's New York Times explains that the "Daribi of New Guinea, for example, have children make a small box and bury it in the ground, telling them that after a while a treasure will appear inside but they must not peek, according to Edie Turner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia. Invariably the youngsters succumb to curiosity—only to find a sample of human feces. The Ndembu of Zambia have an adult in a monstrous mask sneak and scare the wits out of boys camping outside the village as part of a coming-of-age ritual in which they are showing their bravery. 'These kind of tricks are very common,' Dr. Turner said, 'and they are really a way to put a person down before raising them up. You’re being reminded of your failings even as you’re being honored.'"
Once duped, say psychologists, we tend to think through the alternate ways we might have acted or the other ways a situation might have turned out, and this kind of thinking "serves to highlight your own shortcomings,” Neal Roese, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, tells the newspaper. “A good deal of research has shown that these counterfactual insights can kick-start new behaviors, new self-exploration and, ultimately, self-improvement.” —Heather Wax