Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On Harris On Collins

I apologize to anyone who is absolutely, positively and utterly sick to death of hearing about Sam Harris and Francis Collins. I really would like to stop posting on the subject, but events well beyond my control are keeping this subject alive. I do want to take a minute, though, to explain my own continued and keen interest in this matter.

First of all I have loathed the New Atheists since I first heard of their loathsome existence. In fact, I already didn't like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett from way back when they were red-baiting Stephen Jay Gould and accusing him of being a closet theist! Srsly - check this out, from 1997: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Debate/Gould.html. I have also loathed Christopher Hitchens ever since he turned into one of George W. Bush's second tier poodles (well below Tony Blair on that roster).

Far more seriously, though, Harris' NYT column on Collins' nomination to be NIH Director represents a genuinely dangerous escalation in the blindly intolerant idiocy that is the New Atheism. One would not be surprised to hear such overtly bigoted sentiments being expressed by David Duke, but the New York Times is unlikely to ever provide space to Duke on their OpEd page. When it is proposed with a straight face to bar someone from a prominent public office on the basis of their religion and the proposal is trumpeted in the pages of the New York Times by someone who is seen by many as a "liberal", a best-selling author, an invited speaker at such venues as The Aspen Festival, a winner of a PEN Award -- well this really and truly is something new under the sun.

Thirdly, as I already alluded to, others keep kicking this very undead horse. Andrew Brown's Guardian piece on Sunday really got the New Atheists riled up -- especially since Brown very clearly called them out on the issue of religious bigotry.

Finally, as anyone who has read more than a few posts in this blog knows I am quite frequently, and quite harshly, critical of Christianity and Christians, and I am often critical of what I see as "Christianizing" biases in scholarship dealing with Paganism (both modern and not so modern). But I think it is important to oppose religious bigotry even, no, strike that, especially, when it is directed at a religion other than one's own.

Added later: And on the off chance that anyone doesn't "get" why I keep posting pictures of lesbians and gay men smooching - it's because those who have religious beliefs should feel free to openly express, indeed, to celebrate, those beliefs. Just as people in love should be free to openly express and celebrate their love. And if anyone doesn't like it, that's just too freaking bad.

Thinking Like a (Pagan) Scientist, Part Un

More than 20 centuries ago it was well known that the earth is a sphere. In fact, Cicero, in his famous Dream of Scipio, written in 51 BC, describes the polar, equatorial and temperate climate bands that circle the earth. Figure 1 to the right is an illustration from Macrobius' sixth century AD Commentary on the Dream of Scipio.

Isaac Asimov's classic essay How Did We Find Out Earth Is Round? gives an excellent overview of how ancient people were able to arrive at the conclusion that the earth is a sphere (click here to download a pdf of the essay).

In addition to knowing that the earth is a sphere, it was also known, in theory, how to calculate the size of the earth, in particular its circumference. Scientists even knew (again, at least in theory) how to also calculate the size of the moon, the distance between the earth and the moon and the distance between the earth and the sun.

There was a very basic problem, though, facing ancient scientists. In fact the same problem is ever present in any scientific investigation: all measurements involve some non-zero amount of error. The amount of error, or uncertainty, in the raw data is then "propagated" as that data is used as the basis for calculations. Eratosthenes (see below) is often credited as the first person to calcluate the earth's circumference, but he did not directly measure how big around the earth is using some gigantic tape measure - obviously. Rather he took three measurements (see Figure 2 to the right and below), and used these to do his calculation.

In fact, the results that ancient scientists arrived at were often not that bad. For example, Eratosthenes of Alexandria (c. 276 - c. 195 BC) calculated the circumference of the earth to be about 25,000 miles, which is extremely accurate. But over 100 years later, Posidonius of Rhodes (c. 135 BC - 51 BC) concluded from his measurements and calculations that the earth's circumference is actually about 18,000 miles, and then about 200 years after the famed scientist Ptolemy (90 – 168 AD) (another Alexandrian) concurred with Posidonius.

Erroneous estimates of the earth's circumference (based in large part on those of Posidonius and Ptolemy) that significantly underestimated the size of the earth were what led Christopher Columbus to believe he could sail to the "Indies"!

It is essential to appreciate that ancient scientists were absolutely correct in their fundamentals: they understood the shape of the earth, and they understood in theory how to calculate it's size. In other words they knew how to (1) take observations of the natural world, (2) draw conclusions from those observation in the form of mathematical relationships, and (3) conduct experiments based on those mathematical relationships. Let's look at each of those one at a time in a little more detail.

(1) Reproducible observations. The spherical shape of the earth is readily observable to those who spend time on the open seas. Objects "disappear over the edge" of the sea as they move away from an observer. The higher up the observer is, the further away the "edge" appears to be. But in addition to this observable property of the earth, Eratosthenes, Posidonius and Ptolemy also relied on observations of the relative position of the sun in the sky and how it varies with latitude, as well as on observations of the positions of fixed stars in the sky at different locations at different time. These other observations (of the sun and stars) also played a key role in their experiments.

(2) Mathematical relationships. If the earth is a sphere then all of the known geometrical properties of a sphere hold for the earth. That is, an abstract sphere provides a "mathematical model" for (the shape of) the earth. Also, the earth and the sun, or the earth and one or more fixed stars, can be represented as so many spheres and points suspended in space, and the geometrical relationships between those abstract spheres and points will be the same as those between the actual earth, sun and stars.

(3) Conducting experiments. Based on the abstract geometrical relationships above, practical experiments can be conducted such as the famous one done by Eratosthenes, who simply measured the length of the shadow cast by an obelisk at noon on the day of the summer solstice. With the length of the shadow and the height of the obelisk in hand all he needed was the distance between the obelisk and the earth's equator, which had already been measured. Although he did not use trigonometry, he had methods of doing the same kind of calculations as those implied in Figure 2 above.

Ptolemy, by the way, was also one of the most important Astrologers of the ancient world. In his Tetrabiblos he strove to present Astrology in a way that was "philosophically fitting". Like most philosophically minded Astrologers, Ptolemy was an adherent of the Stoic school, which not only provided the philosophy of choice for Astrologers but also simultaneously "invented astrophysics, for they believed, as we do, that the same physical laws applied throughout the universe." [A History of Western Astrology, S. Jim Tester, pp. 68-9]

Posidonius, for his part, was one of the greatest polymaths of all times, with published works on Astronomy, Geology, Philosophy, Mathematics, History, Meteorology, and Miltary Science. He is often credited as the originator of the Stoic theory of sumpatheia (see especially Karl Reinhardt's Posidonius: Kosmos und Sympathie). Posidonius was a pivotal figure in the history of ancient philosophy. He lived during a time when there was ever increasing "eclecticism", and he himself especially blurred the distinctions between Pythagoreanism, Platonism and Stoicism in a way that was very similar to, and possibly directly influenced, the late antique school of Plotinus and his famous intellectual descendants (especially Porphyry, Iamblichus, Julian and Proclus).

Eratosthenes' was the third person appointed as head of the Library of Alexandria which was simultaneously a center of scientific research and also a religious institution, as part of the larger Musaeum ("Temple of the Muses"), which was run by a head priest appointed by the king, Ptolemy III Euergetes, who also appointed Eratosthenes to his position. Eratosthenes studied philosophy with the famous Ariston of Chios, and may have also studied with Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school.

"He doesn't keep it to himself."

Here is the most recent tidbit of bigoted lunacy from PZ Myers:
We aren't interested in what public officials do in their free time. They can have whatever legal hobby they want, they can favor whatever private rituals they want, they can associate with any non-dangerous group on their weekends that they want, whether it's going to church or gathering to watch football.

So what's different about Collins? He doesn't keep it to himself. He is openly and avidly evangelical, brags about adding religious messages to NHGRI announcements, and recently built a high-profile website that promotes evangelical Christianity. I don't mind a Christian in charge of the NIH, but I do object to a missionary, especially one who has said some awfully stupid things about science, being put in control of such a large chunk of our country's science budget.
Before going any further, what the frak is this crap about "adding religious messages to NHGRI announcements"? For those who don't know, NHGRI stands for the National Human Genome Research Institute, which Francis Collins was head of from 1993 to 2008. When the first complete human genome had been sequenced by the NHGRI under Collins' leadership, two years ahead of schedule and under budget, apparently Collins had the temerity to make a reference to God at some point during the celebrations.

I have yet to track down exactly what it was that Collins is supposed to have said, and PZ Myers provides no quotation, nor any kind of citation as the basis for his "accusation". Nor did Sam Harris make any mention of this supposed theological faux pas in his NYT Times OpEd piece attacking Collins' nomination. This is the closest thing Myers, Harris & Co. have to any concrete evidence that there is some "danger" in allowing this religious fanatic be the NIH Director. He might mention God!!!

(This is a very serious issue for New Atheists, by the way, because they get very confused anytime they hear a scientist express any kind of religious belief. They apparently have very low tolerance for self-induced cognitive dissonance.)

Apparently the New Atheists have been scrambling to come up with something, anything, to try to distract attention away from the fact that they have now taken a very public position against one of the most basic principles of democracy: freedom of religion. This is the best they can do. I am sure that within the next couple of days someone will manage to find a copy of the dreaded mention of God and once we see the exact quote in context, there will be no there there.

But what really bothers Myers is not that Collins' might have, once, in his 15 years of work on the Human Genome Project, let slip that he believes in God without first taking his lab coat off. What bothers Myers is far more sweeping than that. Religious scientists are, in Myers' way of seeing things, supposed to skulk about as if they had a terrible, dirty secret to hide. After all, it's bad enough that there are religious scientists in the first place, but must we sit idly by while they "openly and avidly" flaunt their disgusting beliefs in public? Why, oh why, must they "insist on publicly harmonizing their faith with science". Have they no shame?

In other words, PZ Myers is just a garden variety bigot. If he could, he would rid the world of people he disagrees with. But, for now at least, he feels that he cannot accomplish that much, so he merely insists that they keep it to themselves!

PZ Myers wants us all to know how open minded he is. He assures us: "I don't mind a Christian in charge of the NIH." He just doesn't want any uppity Christians, that's all. I keep waiting for him to tell us that some of his best friends are Christians.