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Monday, June 30, 2008

Congratulations, Father Coyne

Father George Coyne, an astronomer and former director of the Vatican Observatory, has won the 2008 Mendel Medal. The medal, bestowed by Villanova University, is named in honor of Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar and botanist who balanced his religious studies with his revolutionary research into genes and heredity. The award is given "to outstanding scientists who have done much by their painstaking work to advance the cause of science, and, by their lives and their standing before the world as scientists, have demonstrated that between true science and true religion there is no intrinsic conflict." Coyne will receive the medal during a ceremony at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (which currently houses an exhibit on Mendel's life, work, and influence) on September 6.

Who Should Make End-of-Life Decisions?

Back in December, we told you about the case of Samuel Golubchuk of Winnipeg, Manitoba, whose family members were fighting a hospital decision to take the 84-year-old off life support because they said it violated the family's Orthodox Jewish religious beliefs. In February, a judge ruled in their favor, sending the case to trial.
Golubchuk died last week, "but the larger issue remains relevant," says Rabbi Dow Marmur, who writes about the case in his biweekly column in the Toronto Star. The case, which caused one doctor to resign and two others to withdraw from Golubchuk's care, not only set medical science and religion against each other in the courtroom, but also kick-started a larger discussion about the rights of the old and disabled, and the ethics (and cost) of caring for those who doctors say will never recover.
First, Marmur explains, from "the point of view of Jewish tradition, viewed in the abstract, they had a case. Judaism forbids humans to play God, however urgent the cause. Life, it's argued, is qualitative not quantitative—you're either alive or you're dead. Therefore, it's improper to assert, as the doctors at the Grace Hospital in Winnipeg seem to have done, that as Golubchuk only had minimal brain functions with no prospect of recovery, treatment should be discontinued, even though in some sense he was still alive." But he also addresses the issue of taking patients off of life support in general. "Though the general principle should be open to public debate, each individual case must be judged on its own merits," he writes. The decision, he says, should be based solely on what's best for the patient and what the patient would have wanted, and the process of making that decision "is usually more authentic than citing religious beliefs," he writes. "In most cases, medical opinion and religious convictions need not contradict each other. Recently, Orthodox rabbis in Israel have determined that medically determined brain death be regarded as the end of life. Turning cases like that of Samuel Golubchuk's into battles between science and religion to be adjudicated by law is a poor way of dealing with a human problem of immense consequences not only for the distressed family but also for society at large." —Heather Wax

Friday, June 27, 2008

Louisiana's "Academic Freedom Act" Is Signed

Welcome to Dover 2.0: Governor Bobby Jindal has signed Louisiana's "academic freedom" bill, known officially as the Louisiana Science Education Act, which lets teachers supplement state-approved science textbooks with other materials about evolution, human cloning, and global warming. It's unclear when, exactly, he signed it, but the Louisiana State Legislature's Web site updated the status of the bill on Wednesday.
There's not much left to say about this bill. As we've highlighted on this blog many times, a great number of people see it as an attempt to undercut the teaching of evolution and sneak religious ideas like creationism and "intelligent design" into public school science classrooms, even though supporters claim the bill hopes only to promote an environment of "critical thinking" (and the bill itself claims not to promote any religious doctrine).
Many residents and scientists—including Arthur Landy, Jindal's own genetics professor at Brown University (where he was a biology major) and a group called the Louisiana Coalition for Science—had strongly urged the governor to veto the bill. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana threatened legal action should the bill be signed. Stay tuned for more on this developing story. —Heather Wax

God's Absentee Ballot

A group of professors at Baylor University have published the results of a study that shows that a person's view of God's role in the world can influence how likely the person is to support a political campaign, read about politics, or vote. Evangelical Protestants and others who view God as directly active in world affairs were the least likely to vote in the 2004 election, most likely because they felt confident that God would choose the "best" candidate. "It can be reasoned that if one believes God determines worldly affairs, then there is little reason for individuals to participate in civic events," the researchers write in the current issue of Social Science Quarterly. On the other hand, those who are part of religious groups that tend to view God as taking a less active role in the world, such as Jews and mainline Protestants, were much more likely to engage in political activities.
The study also showed that people who pray about "general world concerns" and feel that actively seeking social and economic justice is an important aspect of faith are at least five percent more likely to be politically involved than those who don't. —Stephen Mapes

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Republicans, Democrats, & Creationism

Gallup recently released a survey showing that Republicans are much more likely to believe in creationism—the idea that God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago–than Democrats or independents are. Notably, Republicans are also significantly more likely to attend weekly church services, a factor that past research has shown is tied to belief in creationism. Yet, as the graph above shows, the majority of people in all groups believe God played some part in our origins, whether it was by creating humans or by guiding the process of evolution. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Denis Lamoureux Is an Evolutionary Creationist

We got a note last night from Denis Lamoureux, an assistant professor of science and religion at St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta and the biggest name in this field up in Canada. Lamoureux is the author of the upcoming book Evolutionary Creation, and he responds to Ken Miller's opinion on the term "theistic evolution" and shares a bit about his own view of origins:

"I certainly appreciate Ken Miller's approach to the term 'theistic evolution.' For example, I practiced dentistry, and in the early years I was an atheist and later I became a theist (evangelical Christian). I never practised 'atheist dentistry' or 'theistic dentistry.' I practiced dentistry, period. I found that there was one good way to extract a wisdom tooth, and atheism or theism had nothing to do with my protocol. So in may ways I'm with Dr. Miller.
However, Ken Miller is a leading figure in the modern origins controversy, and the term 'theistic evolution' does assist us in understanding his position. Clearly, he does not embrace the views of Richard Dawkins, an 'atheistic evolutionist' or 'dysteleological evolutionist.' I think that in the context of this controversy these qualifications are necessary.
I must also add that I find the term 'theistic evolution' problematic because which 'theism' are we referring to? Pantheism? Panentheism? Traditional theism? Or even a deistic spin on theism? As well, and this is my personal twist, I don't like the inversion of priority in the term theistic evolution--a scientific theory as the substantive (noun), and God as a qualifying term (adjective). Consequently, I prefer 'evolutionary creation.' This term also seems to be emerging with those who accept evolution and have distinctly conservative Christian views."

Thanks, Denis, for introducing another term into the discussion. What do you think: Is "evolutionary creation" better or worse than "theistic evolution"?

Religious Snapshot, Pt. 2

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the second installment of its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey yesterday, and, like the first time, the findings have been picked up—and apart—by nearly every major news outlet in the country. The survey, which sampled 35,000 Americans, hoped to get beyond religious labels to discover how people's religious views and affiliation shape their social and political values.
America remains a nation of believers, which comes as no surprise, with 92 percent of respondents—including one-fifth of self-described atheists—saying they believe in God. But here are two shockers: The majority of Americans who are affiliated with a religious denomination don't think their religion is the only path to eternal life; this includes evangelicals (57 percent), mainline Protestants (83 percent), Roman Catholics (79 percent), Jews (82 percent) and Muslims (56 percent). And 68 percent of Americans say "there's more than one true way" to interpret the teachings of their religion. The question now seems to be whether these findings reflect a trend toward growing tolerance among religious people or whether they show that religious people dismiss or don't understand the doctrines of their faith.
When it comes to the findings that might shed light on the relationship between religion and science, more than half of mainline Christians (56 percent), Catholics (67 percent), Jews (65 percent), and Muslims (51 percent) say their religion should either "adjust to new circumstances" or "adopt modern beliefs and practices." And while 78 percent of Americans say there are "absolute standards of right and wrong," only 29 percent turn to their religion to define those standards. The majority—52 percent—rely primarily on practical experience and common sense, while 9 percent look to philosophy and reason, and 5 percent use scientific information. —Heather Wax

Monday, June 23, 2008

What We Can Learn From Deviants

I just met with Jerry and Monique Sternin, who run a neat project called the Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts University. The basic idea behind "positive deviance" is that solutions to community problems can't be trucked in from the outside, but rather already exist within the community and can be uncovered by finding those who do things differently—and better—than the norm. By finding these positive deviants, the initiative is helping to solve problems worldwide (malnutrition, poverty, HIV and AIDS, and girl trafficking among them), and here in the United States, it's working to tackle MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a lethal hospital infection that kills thousands each year. Reducing MRSA infections requires more than a technical solution, says Monique; everyone in the hospital community needs to work together, including doctors, interns, maintenance staff, and those involved in pastoral care. Using their inquiry-based approach (rather than handing down mandates), the Sternins found one nurse who reduced infections by washing her patients' hands using a small hand gel flask she wore on her belt. Another hospital realized shared Bibles might be spreading the infection, and thought switching over to disposable Bible covers might help. "Nothing in life exists outside of culture" says Jerry, adding that answers to a problem in one setting might not work in another. If solutions aren't based on the value system, traditions, taboos, and strengths of a community, he says, they'll always fall short.
I'll be doing some writing on positive deviance in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more on the initiative and the science of finding solutions to some of the world's most intractable problems. —Heather Wax

Friday, June 20, 2008

Congratulations, Charles Taylor

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, a 76-year-old emeritus professor at McGill University in Montreal and the 2007 winner of the Templeton Prize, has won the prestigious Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy. The prize recognizes people whose lifetime achievements have "contributed greatly to the progress of science, the advancement of civilization, and the enrichment and elevation of the human spirit."

The Amazing Disappearing Ice—on Mars

Pictures taken by the Phoenix Mars Lander and released yesterday by NASA, like the one seen here, seem to be evidence of buried ice on the planet. A few days ago, white stuff was spotted in a trench dug in the Martian soil by the lander's robotic arm, and scientists thought it was either bits of ice or salt. When they couldn't tell for certain with the first chemical analysis, they decided to test the material against the thin atmosphere. If the white stuff disappeared when exposed to the air, it was ice. In a process called "sublimation," frozen water can turn directly into vapor.
When scientists compared the photos of the trench taken on Sunday with ones from yesterday, some white spots had clearly vanished. "It must be ice," Peter Smith, a research scientist at the University of Arizona and the mission's principal investigator, said in a NASA release. "These little clumps completely disappearing over the course of a few days, that is perfect evidence that it's ice. There had been some question whether the bright material was salt. Salt can't do that."
While scientists already knew there is ice on Mars, the discovery is a sign that the lander is digging in the right region. The Phoenix landed on the planet's northern plains late last month to search for evidence that liquid ice existed there and to look for traces of organic compounds in the soil, trying to determine whether it could have supported primitive life. You can follow the lander's progress with its updates on Twitter. —Heather Wax

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ken Miller Is Not a "Theistic Evolutionist"

Ken Miller, on a train to New York City for a radio interview about his new book Only a Theory, just sent us this quick note from his iPhone:

"I always reject the term 'theistic evolutionist.' I am a theist and an evolutionist, to be sure, but the combined term makes no sense to me. Never heard anyone described as a 'theistic chemist,' have you?"

Thanks, Ken, for setting the record straight. What do you think: Is there value in the term "theistic evolutionist"?

A National Look at Hospital Chaplains

Whether or not a hospital has a chaplain tends to depend on things like hospital size, location, and religious affiliation, according to a new study out of Brandeis University. The study, published in this month's Southern Medical Journal, looked at national data collected between 1993 and 2003. It found that between 54 and 64 percent of hospitals had chaplains, and those numbers didn't change over the decade. Smaller and rural hospitals were less likely to have chaplaincy services than were larger and urban hospitals. Church-operated hospitals were much more likely to have chaplains, which should come as no surprise—but these hospitals were more likely to drop chaplaincy services than to add them. Nonprofit hospitals were more likely to add these services than were investor-owned hospitals.
During the years the study was conducted, The Joint Commission, which accredits healthcare organizations, changed its guidelines to make it clear that hospitalized patients have a right to religious and spiritual services. "But these these guidelines do not seem to influence whether or not hospitals have chaplains," Wendy Cadge, a sociologist and the study's lead author, said in a press release.
What's possible, however, say the researchers, is that the guideline weren't meant to prompt changes in hospital chaplaincy services as much as they were "largely symbolic, reflecting changes already being made in hospitals." But if the number of chaplains aren't increasing, what accounts for the increased attention to religion and spirituality in the hospitals? "Physicians and nurses currently occupy some of the most prominent places in related medical and societal discourse about religion/spirituality," the researchers write, "and are contributing to broader trends in medicine around spiritual and ethical concerns." —Heather Wax

A Message from Barbara Forrest

Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and the leading member of a new group advocating for sound science education, has sent out this email about what's going in Louisiana, with a call to action:

We in the LA Coalition for Science have reached the point at which the only possible measure we have left is to raise an outcry from around the country that Gov. Jindal has to hear. What is happening in Louisiana has national implications, much to the delight of the Discovery Institute, which is blogging the daylights out of the Louisiana situation.
SB 733, the LA Science Education Act, has passed both houses of the legislature, and the governor has indicated that he intends to sign it. But we don't have to be quiet about this. There is something that you and everyone else you know who wants to help can do:

The LA Coalition for Science has posted a press release and an open letter to Jindal asking him to veto the bill. The contact information is at the LCFS website.
It is time for a groundswell of contacts to Jindal, and this must be done immediately since we don't know when he will sign the bill. The vote in the legislature is veto-proof, so any request for Jindal to veto the bill must stress that the governor can make this veto stick if he wants it to stick. Please contact everyone you know and ask them to contact the governor's office and ask him to veto the bill. Please blog this. If you have friendly contacts in your address book, please ask them to also contact the governor's office.
We want people all over the country to do this, as many as possible, since Louisiana will be only the beginning. Their states could be next. Here are the talking points:

Point 1: The Louisiana law, SB 733, the LA Science Education Act, has national implications. So far, this legislation has failed in every other state where it was proposed, except in Michigan, where it remains in committee. By passing SB 733, Louisiana has set a dangerous precedent that will benefit the Discovery Institute by helping them to advance their strategy to get intelligent design creationism into public schools. Louisiana is only the beginning. Other states will now be encouraged to pass such legislation, and the Discovery Institute has already said that they will continue their push to get such legislation passed.
Point 2: Since Gov. Jindal's support for teaching ID clearly helped to get this bill passed in the first place, his decision to veto it will stick if he lets the legislature know that he wants it to stick.
Point 3: Simply allowing the bill to become law without his signature, which is one of the governor's options, does not absolve him of the responsibility for protecting the public school science classes of Louisiana. He must veto the bill to show that he is serious about improving Louisiana by improving education. Anything less than a veto means that the governor is giving a green light to creationists to undermine the education of Louisiana children.

You can pull additional talking points from the LCFS press release and our online letter if you want them.
Now we have to get the message out to people. People can contact the governor and also contact their friends, asking them to do the same. We need to create a huge network of e-mails asking people to do this. Where they live does not matter at this point. What is happening in Louisiana has implications for everyone in the nation. The Discovery Institute does not intend to stop with the Pelican State.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Neurobiology of Sexual Orientation

According to a new study, sexual orientation may be linked to the symmetry of your brain. Ivanka Savic and Per Lindström, researchers at the department of clinical neuroscience at the Stockholm Brain Institute in Sweden, have brain scans that show that the brains of heterosexual men and homosexual women—in other words, people who are sexually attracted to women—have right hemispheres larger than the left. Heterosexual women and homosexual men, on the other hand, both have symmetrical brains. The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online, is bolstering the idea that biological factors influence sexual orientation and expanding the idea of which brain regions might make a difference.
MRI and PET scans of 90 people, seen in the above image from PNAS, also showed similarities between straight men and gay women and similarities between straight women and gay men in the wiring of the amygdala, a region of the brain that's key for processing emotions and the fight-or-flight response. "The observations cannot be easily attributed to perception or behavior," the researchers write. "Whether they may relate to processes laid down during the fetal or postnatal development is an open question." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Movie Has to Fake Religious Authenticity

Turned away by the Vatican, the cast and crew of the upcoming movie Angels & Demons (based on Dan Brown's book of the same name) will turn to technology to re-create what the religious body has denied them. The movie, a science-and-religion thriller and prequel to The Da Vinci Code, has been barred by the diocese of Rome from filming in any of its churches. Sony Pictures had applied for a license to film in Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria, but was denied because the Vatican did not want to help "create a work that might well be beautiful but that does not conform to our views," spokesman Monsignor Marco Fibbi told The Associated Press. The scenes will now be filmed on a Hollywood sound stage.
In 2006, Catholics were urged by the Vatican and some other Christian leaders to boycott The Da Vinci Code, which suggests that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that the Catholic Church attempted to cover this up. Lippi acknowledges that storyline was a factor in keeping out Angels & Demons (which is less hostile to the church): "Normally we read the script but this time it was not necessary," he said. "The name Dan Brown was enough." Dan Messier

Louisiana Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

Louisiana's "academic freedom" bill will be reaching Governor Bobby Jindal's desk—and odds are he's going to sign it, say those in the know. The Senate voted 36 to 0 yesterday to pass the same version of the bill that the House passed last week by a vote of 94 to 3. The Louisiana Science Education Act, as it's called, would allow science teachers to supplement science textbooks with material "that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning." Critics, however, see the bill as an attempt to sneak religious theories like creationism and "intelligent design" into the science classroom.
Check out the open letter to Jindal written by the Louisiana Coalition for Science, and the analysis of the bill written by the group's best-known member, Barbara Forrest, author of Creationism's Trojan Horse. —Heather Wax

Ken Miller on The Colbert Report

Check out Ken Miller talking about his new book Only a Theory on The Colbert Report last night. Miller compares "intelligent design" advocates to "welfare queens waiting for the government to give them a handout" and says that if you bring the Bible into the classroom as a scientific document or a theory, "you're making a scientific and a religious mistake."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lawyer, Liar, or Lunatic?

FROM KARL GIBERSON: Last week when I was on Milton Rosenberg's radio show, he played me a six-minute clip of an address by Phillip Johnson, known as the father of "intelligent design." Johnson's comments, delivered with eloquence and evident glee, were quite disturbing and make it easy for me to see why so many people, after interacting with the personalities in the ID movement, are so angry.
Johnson was defending his credentials as a lawyer speaking about evolution and basically said: "Since all biologists are just specialists in some narrow field, they are like me when they speak about evolution—outside their field. Therefore, there is no more reason to listen to them than listen to me."
Johnson's broadside argued that people like Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Collins, with expertise in paleontology and genetics respectively, were no better than laypeople from outside science when they pronounced on evolution. That Johnson would make such a comment—and that this has been one of his defenses against the charge that a lawyer doesn't know enough biology to speak competently about evolution—reveals something important about both Johnson and the ID movement.
There are a host of reasons why, for example, a typical geneticist would be more competent to make generalizations about evolution than a lawyer:

1. Geneticists take a wide range of biology courses before they specialize. A typical geneticist would have taken courses in paleontology, comparative anatomy, ecology, and developmental biology before they specialized. And even in grad school, where they develop a narrow area of expertise, they continue to take courses outside that specialty.
2. A geneticist, especially one who writes about evolution, is most likely to be employed as an academic in a department with other knowledgeable experts who are readily available. Even though I am a mere physicist at a tiny college, my close friends include biologists, and it is very easy for me to find out what the best thinking is in any area.
3. A typical geneticist will know how to handle the scientific literature, and thus be able to separate speculation and popularization from established research.
4. But the main reason, of course, is that the field of genetics contains overwhelming evidence for common ancestry—one of the most important parts of the theory of evolution. The evidence is so strong that even Michael Behe accepts it. The field of law brings no evidence at all to the question of evolution.

Johnson should know these things. I can think of only three reasons, all of them negative, why he would speak as if he thinks they are not true. Let paraphrase C.S. Lewis' famous remark that Jesus was either "lord, liar, or lunatic" and suggest that Phillip Johnson is "lawyer, liar, or lunatic":

1. Johnson might be a lunatic. He might actualy think that geneticists take only genetics courses in college and grad school, and thus know nothing about anything else. I don't see how he could say this, however. He went to college and law school, and surely had some associates in other departments. He could also, for example, simply look up on any college Web site what is required to get a degree in biology.
2. Johnson might be a liar. He might know the actual case and, since that case undermines his, he simply says something else that he knows is false.
3. Johnson might be a lawyer. Lawyers are supposed to win cases. If I understand the basic paradigm of our legal system, the belief is that if both sides of a case are argued effectively, then the truth is likely to emerge—not from either side, but from the adversarial process itself. I suspect there is a kernel of truth in the philosophy espoused by angst-ridden lawyers on television who defend clients widely believed to be guilty: that the system is supposed to find the truth, not them.

Johnson, of course, actually is a lawyer and, I understand, a very good one. So perhaps we can understand why his strategy for undermining evolution seems like that of a lawyer rather than a scientist. In fast, if you start looking at his strategy as if it were a legal strategy, lots of things make perfect sense:

1. Including young-earth creationists in the ID movement. Any "scientific" coalition welcoming proponents of the idea that the earth is 10,000 years old cannot expect for one second to be take seriously by science. But, if you are building a coalition to fight evolution rather than find the best theory of origins, you want as many allies as you can get.
2. Vilifying theistic evolutionists. Since theistic evolutionists represent a genuine alternative for Christians—an opportunity to embrace science in the context of faith—they must be discredited somehow. So genuine Christians, with vital and public faith positions, like Francis Collins and Ken Miller, must be smeared and undermined in whatever way possible.
3. Keeping the focus exclusively on the problems of evolution rather than the entirety of the evidence. ID is notorious for pretending that evolution has only problematic evidence and nothing genuinely compelling or even suggestive to support it.

My new book, Saving Darwin, is not diplomatic on this issue. I am sick and tired of seeing genuine Christians smeared by creationists and ID people. When I spoke at Wheaton College last week, it was noted by Ken Ham on his blog, and he proceeded to blast the college for having abandoned true Christianity. Bill Dembski is blasting theistic evolutionists on his blog now. And on it goes. Is it any wonder that Christianity grows less attractive to our culture? We can't even get along with ourselves, much less welcome those outside our faith. Shame on all of us for how this conversation is conducted.

Catholic Bishops & Embryonic Stem Cells

On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a document that condemns embryonic stem cell research, which they claim is morally dangerous and reduces human beings to manufactured commodities. The document, ratified by a near unanimous vote of 191 to 1, says that even if embryonic stem cell research can provide significant medical advancements, "no commitment to a hoped-for 'greater good' can erase or diminish the wrong of directly taking innocent human lives here and now." The bishops made clear that they do not wish to force Catholics to choose between science and religion, but rather to consider human dignity before conducting medical research—and the document does allow for research that "involves no direct harm to human beings at any stage of development," including research involving adult stem cells and those obtained from umbilical cord blood. Yet, according to virtually all stem cell scientists, 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 last year that we need to pursue all avenues in "a robust research effort, one that is agnostic to cell type." —Stephen Mapes

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fun With Particle Physics

Check out the new online game Epsilon, created by the code-monkey super geniuses at Dissolute Productions. Epsilon challenges players to solve some the universe's biggest puzzles —Are there extra dimensions? What is dark matter?—using fictional technologies discovered when particle physicists gathered data from experiments run with the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. As a "test participant" at Epsilon Experimental Sciences Research Facility, the gamer uses mini black holes, time travel, gravitational shifts, and wormholes to try to guide an orb through a maze to a portal.
The real LHC hasn't been fired up yet; that's set to happen this summer. The powerful particle accelerator—with a circumference the length of 300 football fields and buried deep beneath the earth on the outskirts of Geneva—will smash protons into each other at speeds near that of light and in conditions colder than space. Data collected from the LHC will help scientists re-create what happened a fraction of a second after the big bang and potentially detect particles like the currently theoretical Higgs boson, or "God particle," which helps physicists explain how mass and matter came into existence. In other words, they're hoping the machine will unlock some of the secrets of the universe.
Though Epsilon is mostly about the puzzles and less about the physics, it's stated goal is to allow players to "discover the potential of this whole new world of science," and it certainly does that. —Julia C. Keller

S&R Is "Happening"

The Happening—the first R-rated film from M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense and Signs—opens today, Friday the 13th. The film, which Shyamalan describes as "the best B-movie you've ever seen," stars Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher searching for explanations for an environmental catastrophe. On NPR's "Science Friday" last week, Shyamalan told host Ira Flatow that the movie deals with what people do when science doesn't provide answers, and says he was inspired by Einstein's views on God and the relationship between science and faith.
There's more science and religion on today's "Science Friday." Biology professor and textbook author Ken Miller speaks with guest host Joe Palca about his new book, Only a Theory, and the fight to keep creationism out of public school science classrooms. —Dan Messier

Dispatch From the "Saving Darwin" Tour

FROM KARL GIBERSON: I spoke at Wheaton College yesterday. Wheaton is a remarkable place. It's an elite college, whose solid faculty has Ph.D.s from leading schools. But it's also a school that has not come fully to terms with evolution, and all faculty members are required to sign a form that says Adam and Eve did not evolve from prehuman ancestors.
I talked for an hour about Saving Darwin, and really pushed the idea that human beings have to be understood as evolved, like the rest of the animal kingdom. I could tell that a lot of the students were eating it up, which makes me wonder if the school's science students feel a little constrained. The faculty I met there were great and clearly invested in helping students wrestle effectively with this issue.
In the afternoon, I had an interview with a reporter from Salon.com that should appear on its Web site next week. But the big event of the day was my appearance on Milton Rosenberg's radio show that went a full two hours long. Rosenberg is a major intellectual, one of the media giants of Chicago, and a sociologist at the University of Chicago. Our conversation should soon be available online. Check back for updates.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Welcome to the Blogosphere

Mike McCullough, a professor of psychology and religious studies at the University of Miami and author of the new book Beyond Revenge, has started a blog where he'll be commenting from time and time on current events related to revenge and forgiveness. We'll also have those updates here. Stay tuned.

Louisiana Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

The House voted 94 to 3 yesterday in favor of an "academic freedom" bill that would allow science teachers to use supplemental material "that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning." Critics, however, see these "academic freedom" bills, which have popped up in half a dozen states, as just the latest strategy in the attempt to get religious theories like creationism and "intelligent design" into the science classroom (Barbara Forrest, author of Creationism's Trojan Horse and a member of the Louisiana Coalition of Science, has written an analysis of Louisiana's version). Even though an amendment, added earlier by a House committee, would allow the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to veto any supplemental material it felt was inappropriate, many worry about what will still find its way into the schools.
The bill will now move back to the Senate, which will have to approve the amendment before it can reach Governor Bobby Jindal's desk. The Senate previously passed the bill without the amendment by a vote of 35 to 0, and the consensus seems to be that the bill will easily pass again. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Oldest Church in the World?

In an underground cave in Jordan, archaeologists think they've found what might be the oldest Christian church. The space, underneath the St. Georgeous Church in Rihab, dates back to the first century and appears to have served as a refuge—and the site of rituals—for Christians fleeing persecution in Jerusalem. In an inscription on the floor, they call themselves the "70 beloved by God and the divine."
There are living quarters and a cistern, which would have provided water for the refugees, as well as what the archaeologists are calling a "chapel." It contains a circular area of seats known as an "apse," which has been found in another cave once used for Christian worship. If they're right about the date, which has yet to be confirmed, the chapel will be two hundred years older than what currently stand as the earliest examples of Christian churches. —Stephen Mapes

S&R on the Silver Screen

Hot from the set of Angels & Demons come the first photos of Tom Hanks reprising his role as Robert Langdon, hero of The Da Vinci Code (Angels & Demons is the prequel). The movie, based on the book of the same name, won't hit theaters until May of next year, but fans can expect a film that deals explicitly with science and religion themes—an antimatter bomb is set to destroy the Vatican, a Catholic scientist believes science can link humans with God, a Vatican official is worried about science's encroachment into religious territory. "In many ways," says author Dan Brown on his Web site, "I see science and religion as the same thing. Both are manifestations of man's quest to understand the divine." Dan Messier

Louisiana Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

There'll be debate in the House today over Louisiana's "academic freedom" bill, which was approved by the state House Education Committee last month. The bill would allow science teachers to use supplemental material "that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning." Critics say the bill is really an attempt to sneak religious theories like creationism and "intelligent design" into the science classroom—and that's "not science," the Rev. James Carter, a physics professor at Loyola University told a local news station. “Students are encouraged to think something that’s bad science is good science in order to get an idea that belongs in the philosophy or religion classroom, but not the science classroom.” Both proponents and opponents, however, seem to think the bill, supported by Governor Bobby Jindal (who some are now speculating could be John McCain's running mate), will pass. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Christian Physicist Out to "Save Darwin"

Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution hits the bookshelves today. The book is written by Karl Giberson, a physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College, the director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, and the former editor of Science & Theology News. He wrote the book, he says, "to build a bit of a bridge between two cultures at odds with each other: the scientific community and American evangelicalism. I have lived in both cultures and am dismayed at how far apart they are." Giberson heads out on book tour tomorrow, and will be blogging for us from the road as he tries to convince people they can believe in both evolution and God. Stay tuned.

Michigan Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

Out of Michigan comes news that another "academic freedom" bill was introduced in the Senate last week and referred to its Committee on Education. The bill is the same as a House bill introduced by Republican Representative John Moolenaar in April. That bill is still in the House Committee on Education.
Both bills label "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, human impact of climate change, and human cloning" as "scientific controversies" and claim that teachers could better address these issues if they were allowed "to help pupils understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." Keep in mind that evolution is not a point of controversy or debate in the scientific community, and that, according to the National Center for Science Education, Moolenaar has previously co-sponsored two bills that called for the teaching of "intelligent design." —Heather Wax

Monday, June 9, 2008

Michael Ruse Writes

Michael Ruse makes the case for Darwinism and reviews the evidence for evolution in a neat little essay published in Georgia's Rome News-Tribune. "Why should we ever think that it could ever be much more than a 'theory,' meaning an iffy hypothesis like speculations on the Kennedy assassination? Why should we ever agree that evolution is a 'fact'?" he writes. "Darwin realized full well that often we don't have direct evidence, but that doesn't stop us from talking about facts. Indirect evidence can be overwhelming. It can trump direct evidence even! Take a murder, or some other crime against the person. What would lead you to point a finger at a culprit? Sure, eyewitness testimony is going to be very powerful. But we all know that people under strain can be very unreliable about remembering faces. That is not weakness; it is a very understandable aspect of human nature."

Friday, June 6, 2008

How We Think About Stem Cell Research

Religious values hold more sway over public attitudes toward stem cell research than scientific knowledge does, according to a new survey conducted by a team of communications researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "More knowledge is good—everybody is on the same page about that. But will that knowledge necessarily help build support for the science?" one of the study's authors, Dietram Scheufele, said in UW-Madison news story. "The data show that no, it doesn't. It does for some groups, but definitely not for others."
Here's how it works: For those who place a high value on science, their level of scientific understanding matters and helps shape their attitudes. For people who aren't very religious, understanding the science is linked to more positive views toward stem cell research. But for those who say religion plays a large role in their lives, scientific knowledge doesn't influence their attitudes toward the research at all. According to Scheufele, then, the answer "is not about providing religious audiences with more scientific information. In fact, many of them are already highly informed about stem cell research, so more information makes little difference in terms of influencing public support. And that's not good or bad. That's just what the data show."
The results, published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, are similar to an earlier study conducted by Scheufele and Elizabeth Corley of Arizona State University, which looked at attitudes toward nanotechnology. Again, the message is that attitudes and values are different from knowledge and understanding, which researchers would do well to keep in mind when thinking about how to communicate about controversial scientific issues with the public. —Heather Wax

South Carolina Follow-Up

South Carolina's "academic freedom" bill is dead.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Search for E.T. Is on Target

A team of researchers has announced a plan to search the sky's ecliptic plane (the plane of the Earth's orbit) for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence in the galaxy. Richard Conn Henry, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute, and Steven Kilston of the Henry Foundation will use the Allen Telescope Array in a targeted search, trying to receive signals from any technologically advanced civilization in the galaxy that might be transmitting signals in our direction.
Though the ecliptic band is quite small—only three percent of the sky—if other civilizations are out there, "and we don't know that they are," Henry said in a press release, "those that inhabit star systems that lie close to the plane of the Earth's orbit around the sun will be the most motivated to send communications signals toward Earth because those civilizations will surely have detected our annual transit across the face of the sun, telling them that Earth lies in a habitable zone, where liquid water is stable."
Henry briefed other scientists on the search yesterday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in St. Louis. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

New Play Focuses on "Theosophy"

A Dangerous Personality, a play by author Sallie Bingham about the life of controversial Russian philosopher Helena Blavatsky, is scheduled to open next week in New York City. Blavatasky, who traveled extensively throughout her life, created Theosophy, the "science of religion" as she called it, which sees every religion as an attempt for humanity to evolve toward greater perfection. Her outspoken nature attracted the attention of many famous figures of her time, including inventor Thomas Edison and missionary Hiram Bingham, and her ideas stirred up scandal. The play focuses on Blavatsky's early middle age in the beginning of the 20th century and asks, says Bingham, whether in this day and age "a woman who believed in universal brotherhood and preached the root connection of all the world's religions would also be reviled."
A Dangerous Personality runs from June 10 to June 20 at the Julia Miles Theatre. —Stephen Mapes

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Ray Kurzweil's 10,000 Dollar Bet

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has bet Lotus software creator Mitchell Kapor 10,000 dollars that by 2029 we'll have a computer that can pass the Turing Test, according to The New York Times. In other words, we're only 20 years away from an "intelligent" computer that can converse so much like a human that the two will be indistinguishable.
Others, however, like Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, aren't sure we'll ever be able to build machines as smart as we are, given how haphazardly our brain circuitry evolved. “My colleague Francis Crick used to say that God is a hacker, not an engineer,” the neuroscientist said. “You can do reverse engineering, but you can’t do reverse hacking.” —Heather Wax

Monday, June 2, 2008

Francis Collins Is Leaving His Job

Dr. Francis Collins will step down as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute on August 1 after 15 years of service. Under his watch, the institute made revolutionary strides in genetic research, most notably through the Human Genome Project and its mapping of the human genome. For his efforts, Collins received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon American civilians. More recently, Collins helped push the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, a milestone in genetic research ethics that forbids insurers and employers from denying coverage based on genetic risks. He cites the law's passage as a factor in his decision to leave, reassuring him that the research can progress in his absence. Collins, who is 58, also says he wants to write books and explore opportunities that are not available to federal employees. His 2006 book The Language of God made an impact in the field of science and religion by affirming "theistic evolution." Now that he'll have the freedom to pursue other projects, perhaps he'll become an even more participatory voice in the science-and-religion dialogue. —Stephen Mapes