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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Friday, 27 May 2005

Topic: Science

Snowflakes in DC in May – or Just Flakes

Last weekend in the pages we noted that scientists in South Korea come up with a medical breakthrough involving stem cells. The medical community cheered. The president said this was awful. Congress considered moving to loosen the rules on the medical use of stem cells, and the president, who as governor of Texas broke the record for approving executions, without paying much attention to the cases he had to review, said he would veto any such legislation. All life is sacred. And now, in his fifth year in office, this would be his very first veto – if he doesn’t veto the highway bill first.

Well things came to a head, just after the filibuster compromise. And his own party got uppity.

The basic story from Joanne Kenen at Reuters, Tuesday, 24 May –
Despite a veto threat from President Bush, the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday easily approved bipartisan legislation that would permit more federal funding of stem cell research on human embryos that would otherwise be discarded.

The House also approved by a 431-1 vote less controversial legislation that would expand research involving cells drawn from umbilical cord blood.

The embryonic stem cell bill, sponsored by Delaware Republican Rep. Michael Castle and Colorado Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette, would allow federal funding of stem cell research involving excess embryos from in vitro fertilization that would otherwise be discarded. It would not allow cloning a human baby.

The bill passed with a comfortable 238-194 margin, but was well short of the two-thirds threshold needed to override Bush's threatened veto.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe it destroys human life and object to using taxpayer dollars to finance it. They also charge that the promise of the research has been hyped.
Reuters also quotes House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – the former exterminator from Texas - "The deliberate destruction of unique living self-integrated human persons is not some incidental tangent of embryonic stem cell research. It is the essence of the experiment -- kill some in the hopes of saving others."

I think a problem may arise with his definition – that discarded, unfertilized embryos are unique living self-integrated human persons – but the bar for what could be considered a Christian evangelical Republican may be low.

The real problem Reuters notes -
… several conservative Republicans, who usually oppose abortion rights legislation, broke with their party leaders and the anti-abortion movement to support research, saying it held out hope for treating devastating diseases, like Parkinson's or diabetes.

Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in 21 years in Congress, he had voted only once against the anti-abortion movement. Announcing his support for the Castle-DeGette bill, Barton said his record would now be "100 percent minus two."

Missouri Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson described a similar struggle to reconcile her religious faith and the promise of technology. "I'm following my heart on this," said Emerson, who voiced regret for her past opposition to stem cell research.
This is going to get hot. It seems that just after the vote three Democratic and three Republican senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist asking for swift Senate action on the legislation. Their point? "The American people want this."

Bush says he’ll veto this and the White house issued a statement that the legislation "relies on unsupported scientific assertions to promote morally troubling and socially controversial research."

Yep, these guys know their science. Ask them about global warming. No proof. Ask them about evolution. The jury is still out.

But what to do if the American people want this? Tug on the heartstrings, as you see in this from the Knight-Ridder wire -
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas called stem-cell research "a scientific exploration into the potential benefits of killing human beings."

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, an obstetrician, played a recording of fetal heartbeat, and declared, "This is what it's all about."

Bush made it clear he shared that view, meeting Tuesday with a group of "snowflake babies," children born from embryos left over from fertility treatments. "The children here today remind us that there is no such thing as a spare embryo," he said.
Over at The Nation this is noted in their section they call "Outrageous Outtakes" -
Republicans have invented a new strategy for discounting science: snowflake babies. First, Republicans opposed to the bipartisan stem-cell research bill, which passed the House on Thursday, arranged a press conference with families that have adopted frozen excess embryos, featuring 21 of the 81 snowflake babies. Then, in the afternoon, President Bush appeared at the Rose Garden for a photo op with the snowflake babies as part of a press conference on bioethics. (Click here, here and here for the pictures.) And, finally, the biggest baby lover of them all, Tom "the Hammer" DeLay, spoke on the House floor behind a poster of--what else--enlarged photos of snowflake babies.
Pictures of babies always work to sway an argument. Who doesn?t like babies?

And if that doesn?t work, well, there is the prospect of a filibuster! No ? wait! Those are unconstitutional and thwart the will of the majority and the people! That what they said. But the Republicans have no sense of irony. Pro-life Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and a possible presidential contender, has confirmed he will filibuster the Castle/DeGette bill the House approved Monday.

This just gets better. Sponsors of the Senate version of the bill say they have 58 votes to approve the measure. They need 60 to stop a filibuster.

But is Bush just being reasonable? He says this legislation would violate his 2001 policy ? and that allowed federal funding for stem cell research but limited it to 78 stem cell lines that existed as of Aug. 9, 2001. Unluckily only twenty of these lines turned out to be useful for basic research. The others cannot be used in people because they were contaminated with mouse feeder cells. Oh well. One has to make do.

No is buying that these twenty lines are enough. No one is buying much of the whole snowflake argument.

Jesse Taylor here -
Bush's position is tremendously unpopular, although that's not new for him. The Wall Street Journal openly admits that Bush's line in the sand is not only arbitrary, but rests on a tenuous principle - a minority of Americans should not have their tax dollars used to finance research they consider objectionable. This, of course, makes perfect sense in light of the fact that Bush is the chief promoter of abstinence-only education, which millions more Americans find objectionable, as well as factually and morally wrong in its patent dishonesty. A plurality of Americans is being forced to support education and research in our schools that they in no way support, because Bush has the "courage" of his "convictions".

Let Bush veto a bill that nearly 60% of the American public supports. I'd love to see it, if for no other reason than that he's both deeply unpopular and resting his objection on the intensely nonsensical idea that it's okay to use baby corpses if they were already killed before he got there. There's absolutely no reason to compromise on good science to save the political fortunes of a lame duck president.
Yep, the Wall Street Journal flat out says they "don't see any great moral difference from doing time-limited research on unused embryos created for in-vitro fertilization, as opposed to letting those in-vitro embryos be destroyed."

On Thursday the Los Angeles Times says the obvious -
Photographs in Wednesday's papers of President Bush with cuddly little babies, all of whom were produced from surplus fertilized eggs at fertility clinics, represent a White House attempt to deal with the biggest flaw in logic regarding its stem cell policy ? and its moral weak point. This is the fact that fertility clinics routinely create many test-tube embryos for every human baby that is wanted or is produced.

Here is what happens to those embryos: Some are destroyed because a microscopic examination indicates that they are defective or abnormal. Some of the rest are implanted. But generally, there are some left over. These may be discarded, or frozen for future attempts, or frozen indefinitely; it's up to the customers.

A small fraction of couples choose to donate their unneeded embryos to other infertile couples. Several are implanted in each prospective mother, sometimes producing multiple births. Sometimes they produce one. Frequently, they produce none at all. And about 20% die before they reach full term. The entire process therefore unavoidably involves the creation and knowing destruction of many embryos.

This leads to two conclusions. First, Bush's policy is illogical; he not only tolerates in vitro fertilization ? the president celebrates it (correctly) as bringing happiness to many. It is a "pro-family" policy that unavoidably involves creating and destroying embryos.

Second, encouraging the donation of frozen embryos to prospective parents, even under the most optimistic scenario, would put only a small dent in the supply. According to a 2003 study, there are almost half a million frozen human embryos in storage in the United States. The vast majority of them ? 87% ? were frozen in case the parents might need them, but the vast majority of that vast majority will never be needed or used. An embryo-adoption drive wouldn't save the embryos that die in other stages of the process. And ironically, the recipients of donated fertilized eggs also generally have several implanted in the hope that one will survive. In effect, donation results in the deaths of embryos that would otherwise stay frozen.

? The president is threatening to veto this bill. If he does, these embryos will either be destroyed or frozen forever. They will not develop into cuddly babies. Therefore a veto wouldn't actually save a single embryo. His threat is purely symbolic.

If you really believe that embryos are full human beings, this doesn't matter. But if you think the issue is uncertain or ambiguous at all, it's a powerful argument to say: It's not a choice between a human life and an embryo's life. It's a choice between real human lives and a symbolic statement about the value of an embryo. And it's a statement belied by the reality of in vitro fertilization and how it works.
Well, these guys really do believe embryos are full human beings ? DeLay says so. And they love symbolic statements. That?s where the votes are.

Curiously, you don't see anti-choice men hanging out at fertility clinics to harass the women there, do you? (See that at Happy Furry Puppy Story Time with Norbizness.) And someone ? not sure who ? proposed a thought experiment. Imagine you are in a burning fertility clinic. You have seconds to get out. Your mother lies unconscious on the floor. On a nearby tabletop is a container of thousands of unfertilized embryos scheduled for disposal. Save the one human ? you mother ? or the thousands of humans? Think fast. You?d let thousands die? Yeah, right. What if they were fertilized and scheduled for disposal? Same choice?

Jesse Taylor again here -
An in vitro clinic generally deals with the embryo from stage one to the beginning of stage four. Stage four cannot complete itself unless doctors place the embryo in the womb, and if stage four does not finish, that's about as far as an embryo can get. It cannot reproduce, it cannot grow, it cannot really respond to any stimuli except implantation.

This, of course, leads Tom Delay, who received his medical degree from the back of Bill Frist's minivan, to declare that that embryos in this early stage four state are human beings. The Washington Post has the exactly correct response, but this led me to start thinking about all the ways in which we "imperil" embryos in fertility clinics.

One of the major reasons a woman will undergo invitro fertilization is that, for whatever reason, her body either rejects the implantation of embryos or she has miscarriages - in other words, her body is functioning improperly and creating an environment hostile to the production of an actual viable child. In vitro fertilization implants embryos (which are full-fledged human beings) into environments such as these, which often have a greater than 50% chance of destroying the embryo before it even implants properly, not to mention the chances for miscarriage before the embryo develops into a viable fetus. Long story short, families and doctors make a routine practice of imperiling the lives of thousands of "full fledged human beings".

It would be more "humane", in Tom Delay's world, to harvest these embryos and never implant them - the risk involved in pregnancy is virtually genocidal... and they're already alive, right?

Pregnancy is the greatest threat to humanity since the Flood. Sorry, ladies.
Jesse has it right. By the logic of Bush-Frist-DeLay you, these clinics and the doctors ? and woman in general ? are committing genocide. All the time. Yipes. This Taylor woman from Dayton, Ohio has their number.

It?s all spin.

This letter isn?t. It is from a woman who adopted one of those frozen embryos from a fertility clinic. A snowflake mom. And someone who says this administration "makes it a point of pride to display its disdain for both science and metaphysics more complex than a first grade Sunday school primer."

Just a sample -
First, 'conception', 'life' and 'living distinct beings' are not the same thing as 'fertilization', no matter how much it serves one's purposes to make it so. Fertilization and the creation of blastocysts is an unremarkable event that takes place daily. If that embryo doesn't implant, there is no conception, no life, no pregnancy. Every day millions of women have 'embryos' floating around in their uteri, flush them during menses and nobody bats an eye. These embryos that have not implanted and sunk a vein and begun the process of advancement are not, even by the most conservative of standards, life. Nobody posits funerals or mourns for the millions of these that are, with no awareness, flushed every day. Give a woman as many pregnancy tests with an embryo inside her that has not implanted as many times as you like?there will be no positive result, pee on as many EPT sticks as you like, no plus sign. This is why after an IVF transfer (the two week wait) people so anxiously wait?they are hoping?desperately?that they have CONCEIVED. It hasn't happened yet.

That embryo may or may not implant and create a conception, a pregnancy, but one thing is for certain?those women who get their period without ever knowing there was a fertilized egg that failed to implant are not flushing 'living distinct human beings.' There is the potential for a conception?nothing more. So, ladies?suck it up and deal?Bush and DeLay need you to stop menstruating post haste?just cross your legs and get thee to a an OB-GYN every 28 days. You see, we need to blood test you and ultrasound the hell out of your uterus in case you absent mindedly were about to flush a 'living distinct human being', because we're all about a 'culture of life'?just not yours. You're an incubator. We need to stem the flow of blood in this culture of death, and apparently that means your menstrual flow.

Secondly, these frozen embryos are so incredibly valuable to the administration that they cannot be used for embryonic stem cell research? because they need to be? THROWN OUT! What they fail to understand is that the disposition of these embryos, like banked chord blood or donated blood or tissue donation, lies with the donor. When you participate in an IVF cycle you sing a form that determines what happens to any leftover fertilized eggs. The choices are cryogenic preservation for: adoption, stem cell research, later transfer to the originating parent, medical research or destruction. DeLay, Bush and his cohorts are saving nothing. It's not as though these embryos in cryogenic willed for research are know suddenly going to be adopted or implanted. They won't?our 'culture of life' perversely demands that they be thrown into the garbage?that's how precious they are, and that's how much we value them. We must destroy life, according to the administration, to AVOID preserving life! Go back and re-read that sentence. ?
Read the whole letter.

This is madness, or pandering to the all-life-is-sacred pro-death-penalty torture-is-necessary evangelical voters these guys depend on to keep them in power. Or worst case ? they really believe what they say and have no clue about biology or ethics, or logic - just deep, blind faith. Take your choice.


Footnote: For information on what the South Korean breakthrough was all about, see this illustrated primer - unless your faith forbids it.

Posted by Alan at 19:02 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 27 May 2005 19:17 PDT home

Thursday, 24 June 2004

Topic: Science

On Having a Positive Attitude - The argument that happy people are quite dangerous...

Last Sunday, June 20, in the New York Times, Jim Holt's THE WAY WE LIVE NOW column was titled "Against Happiness." (You will find that here.)

Holt did a riff on some findings reported in last month's issue of Psychological Science, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Society. The findings are available only to members of the society, and since I am not a member, and you are probably not a member, we have to take Holt's words for what was found.

And what was found?

Sad people are nice. Angry people are nasty. And, oddly enough, happy people tend to be nasty, too.

As Holt summarizes -
... researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups. That, perhaps, will not come as a great surprise. But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier your mood, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments -- like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he's a member of a minority group. Why? Nobody's sure. One interesting hypothesis, though, is that happy people have an ''everything is fine'' attitude that reduces the motivation for analytical thought. So they fall back on stereotypes -- including malicious ones.
Or as Theodore Roethke, the famous poet from Saginaw, Michigan once said - "When I'm happy I can't think."

What's the problem?

This:
The news that a little evil lurks inside happiness is disquieting. After all, we live in a nation whose founding document holds the pursuit of happiness to be a God-given right. True to that principle, the United States consistently ranks near the top in international surveys of happiness. ... Of course, happiness has always had its skeptics. Thinkers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have criticized it as a shallow and selfish goal. But the discovery that happiness is linked to prejudice suggests a different kind of case against it. Does happiness, whether desirable or not in itself, lead to undesirable consequences? In other words, could it be bad for you, and for society?
Perhaps so.

Yes, some have worried that happy people tend to be apathetic and easily manipulated by political leaders -- contented cows, so to speak. Holt cites Huxley's ''Brave New World'' where the working classes are kept in docile submission by a diet of drugs that render them universally happy. But Holt argues that in the real world there is little evidence that happiness creates complacent citizens; in fact, studies show that happy people are more likely than alienated people to get politically involved, not less.

Really?

There is much here too on personal happiness, as self-delusion.

But the odd observation is that awful things can happen when people are feeling really good.

Example?

See Euphoria led to the Holocaust
Neal Ascherson, The Observer (UK), Sunday May 23, 2004

This is a review of a curious book -

The Origins of the Final Solution
by Christopher Browning
Heinemann ?25, pp. 644

It seems Christopher Browning argues here that the Holocaust began as the Nazis swept across Russia - rather than, as is usually said, as a response to their later defeat at Moscow. Things were going well (at the time) - the world was the oyster so to speak. They were happy. Their self-esteem was really high. They felt empowered and joyous. Why not get rid of the pesky Jews once and for all? What could be wrong with that?

It was a victorious, happy time. There was, then, little motivation for analytical thought.

What about now?

Things aren't going well for us in Iraq. There is much gnashing of teeth and anguish in the land, and bitter dispute.

God help us, God help the world, and God help the Iraqis if things were going really well and we were fat dumb and happy. That way lies madness.

Posted by Alan at 19:01 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
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Wednesday, 31 March 2004

Topic: Science

Leadership is Not Ever Changing your Mind - No Matter What - This Team Does NOT Flip-Flop!

See Top Focus Before 9/11 Wasn't on Terrorism
Rice Speech Cited Missile Defense
Robin Wright, The Washington Post, Thursday, April 1, 2004; Page A01

The nasty point being made here?
On Sept. 11, 2001, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to outline a Bush administration policy that would address "the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday" -- but the focus was largely on missile defense, not terrorism from Islamic radicals.

The speech provides telling insight into the administration's thinking on the very day that the United States suffered the most devastating attack since the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. The address was designed to promote missile defense as the cornerstone of a new national security strategy, and contained no mention of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups, according to former U.S. officials who have seen the text.

The speech was postponed in the chaos of the day, part of which Rice spent in a bunker. It mentioned terrorism, but did so in the context used in other Bush administration speeches in early 2001: as one of the dangers from rogue nations, such as Iraq, that might use weapons of terror, rather than from the cells of extremists now considered the main security threat to the United States.

The text also implicitly challenged the Clinton administration's policy, saying it did not do enough about the real threat -- long-range missiles.
Well, it seems the Post doesn't want to cut Condoleezza any slack here.

I'm not sure how the White House is going to punish the Post for pointing this out.

What I think is more telling is this editorial from the New York Times today - in part:
The Pentagon is foolishly racing to deliver on President Bush's grandiose 2000 campaign promise to have a still unproven, money-munching missile defense system deployed in time for the November election. It's supposed to provide protection against incoming ballistic missiles. But, so far, the rush into the old "Star Wars" dream amounts to an extravagant political shield.

The administration's obstinate intent is to fill the first silos in Alaska as early as this summer, even though the complex project -- a composite of 10 separate systems for high-tech defense -- is years from being fully tested or built. Plagued with cost overruns and technical failures, the overall missile defense program's main feat of rocketry has been its price tag: roughly $130 billion already spent, and $53 billion planned for the next five years.

Mr. Bush ought to pay attention to the powerful advice just offered by a group of 49 retired generals and admirals who say he should shelve his fantasy start-up plan. They urge that the money for that project be spent instead on bolstering antiterrorist defenses at American ports, borders and nuclear weapons depots. As things stand now, the administration is again looking for showy but questionable ways to reinforce Mr. Bush's identity as a wartime president, while ignoring sensible and effective low-tech strategies to reinforce homeland security.

There is no denying the theoretical virtue of a missile shield, considering the threat that North Korea or some other rogue nation may eventually present to the United States mainland. But the retired brass, who served in the highest precincts of the Pentagon, argue sensibly that the money for the project scheduled for early deployment, $3.7 billion of the $10.2 billion the president plans to spend next year for missile-shield projects, should be diverted to protecting parts of the American mainland that could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Yeah, yeah.

Could this Richard Clarke fellow actually be right about something here, whatever his motives, in spite of his abrasive personality, and in spite of the new rumors he may be a homosexual?

Perhaps there is a ragtag band of fanatics out to kill us - and they actually don't have any intercontinental ballistic or guided middles. Could be.

Well, on the other hand, perhaps we should let our leaders tell us what we really should fear. We should worry more about incoming missiles from North Korea or Venezuela or wherever? I guess. After all, who knows to whom our ally Pakistan sold the technology - and they did admit Iran and North Korea and Libya. And then the Pakistani president pardoned the general who sold the technology all over. Oh well.

So the word is Clarke is wrong. It's the incoming guided missiles with nuclear warheads. That's the big worry - and if you remember the State of the Union Address you should also worry about steroids being used in professional sports, and whether the two gay guys who live down the street might actually try to marry each other. Serious stuff.

And what is the Times talking about?

Try this: Bush's Latest Missile-Defense Folly: Why spend billions on a system that might never work?
Fred Kaplan, SLATE.COM - Posted Friday, March 12, 2004, at 2:48 PM PT

Fred's take?
Forces are finally converging for a genuine debate on President Bush's missile-defense program. The Republican-controlled Congress is looking for ways to cut $9 billion from the military budget (which, at $420 billion, is getting unmanageable even for hawkish tastes). It's becoming painfully clear that rogues and terrorists are more likely to attack us with planes and trains than with nuclear missiles. And a recent series of technical studies--bolstered on Thursday by a high-profile Senate hearing--has dramatized just how difficult, if not impossible, this project is going to be.

Bush's budget for next year includes $10.7 billion for missile defense - over twice as much money as for any other single weapons system. This summer, he's planning to start deploying the first components of an MD system - six anti-missile missiles in Alaska, four in California, and as many as 20 more, in locations not yet chosen, the following year.

Yet, except by sheer luck, these interceptors will not be able to shoot down enemy missiles. Or, to put it more precisely, Bush is starting to deploy very expensive weapons without the slightest bit of evidence that they have any chance of working.
No, really?
In the past six years of flight tests, here is what the Pentagon's missile-defense agency has demonstrated: A missile can hit another missile in mid-air as long as a) the operators know exactly where the target missile has come from and where it's going; b) the target missile is flying at a slower-than-normal speed; c) it's transmitting a special beam that exaggerates its radar signature, thus making it easier to track; d) only one target missile has been launched; and e) the "attack" happens in daylight.

Beyond that, the program's managers know nothing - in part because they have never run a test that goes beyond this heavily scripted (it would not be too strong to call it "rigged") scenario.
But Fred, the system could work... maybe. You've got to have faith. And this is, after all, a faith-based presidency.

And that bring us back to Condoleezza Rice and the speech she never gave on 11 September 2001 - explaining why we need to spend this enormous amount of money on something we cannot prove actually works, but might, if you think positive thoughts and have the right attitude. You cannot be narrow-minded and obsessed with the idea that there are all these dangerous terrorists out there. See the broader picture.

Okay, if one drops the sarcasm, there is a nuclear missile threat. How big a threat and how immediate? Hard to say.

But the solution to this threat doesn't work yet, and may never work. And we're deploying this system NOW - before the November election?

This, on the face of it, seems quite foolish, even if this does keep thousands of engineers and scientists here in Southern California employed. Things would be a lot more grim out here in la-la land without all this new money pouring into Boeing (Huntington Beach), Raytheon (Fullerton) and TRW (Manhattan Beach) - not to mention all the local sub-contractors.

So, the Post may be trying to make Rice look bad by mentioning this speech she never gave about this Son of Star Wars system that is costing so much and seems directed at a secondary, not primary problem. But I'd bet she'd give the same speech today, if asked, and she will certainly make the same assertion late next week when she testifies in public, under oath, to the 9-11 Commission. Clarke may have guessed right about 9-11 but was just lucky. That was an anomaly. She knows the real treat and where our efforts should go.

But, damn, it's a lot of money. And it doesn't really work.

Well, this crew, Bush and Rice and Cheney and the rest, must know best. Or so I'm told. It just keeps getting harder to keep the faith.

Posted by Alan at 22:25 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Monday, 8 March 2004

Topic: Science

DEEP THOUGHTS: God in the Spreadsheet

Kevin Drum over at CalPundit.com led me to this.

Odds on that God exists, says scientist
Stewart Maclean, Catherine Bolsover and Polly Curtis, The Guardian (UK), Monday March 8, 2004

Yeah, on this site I linked to a lot of things and made fun of Mel Gibson's movie quite a bit. But now it seems the odds are I will roast in hell for it. Mel gets to heaven, probably, and I don't. Why?
A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists.

Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being. Bayes' Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation.

The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being.
Ohio? Really?

And what does this Brit in Ohio use to work out his assessment?
Factors that were considered included recognition of goodness, which Dr Unwin said makes the existence of God more likely, countered by things like the existence of natural evil - including earthquakes and cancer.
Wait a minute, Steve! "Goodness" makes the existence of God more likely?

Let's think about that. Remember the Crusades? Remember the Inquisition? Remember the Thirty Years War? Yeah, well, looking at it the other way, smiting the godless, torturing people and mass slaughters may be a form of goodness to some. I suppose that depends on your perspective. Making sure "bad folks" die in excrutiating pain has, as a very good thing, many adherents.

Goodness is, though, a slippery term. Ask Martha "It's a good thing" Stewart. Hell, some people (like me) think anchovies are "good."

I remember when first encountering Dickens or Shakespeare my English students would whine, "But that's boring." And I would then patiently explain that they were bored, which wasn't at all the same thing as Macbeth or Great Expectations being intrinsically and inherently boring, or not. No written work was boring as such. There was no such inherent quality. But there was one's reaction - "This bores me" - that is quite valid. Of course.

I suspect this Unwin fellow is confusing reaction to something with its inherent qualities. Perhaps he should read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" where Robert Pirsig chats about such things, bringing in the Pheadrus dialogs of Plato.

That seems unlikely. This fellow would have us use Excel spreadsheets.
The unusual workings - which even take into account the existence of miracles - are set out in his new book, which includes a spreadsheet of the data used so that anyone can make the calculation themselves should they doubt its validity. The book, The Probability of God: A simple calculation that proves the ultimate truth, will be published later this month.
Why am I reminded of Douglas Adams and the question at the core of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where, of course, the answer the meaning of everything turns out to be... forty-two?

Unwin says he's interested in bridging the gap between science and religion. And he argues that rather than being a theological issue, the question of God's existence is simply a matter of statistics.
"On arriving in America I was exposed to certain religious outlooks that were somewhat of an assault upon my sensibilities - outlooks in which religion actually competes with science as an explanation of the world," he said.

"While I could not be sure, having slept through most of the cathedral services I had attended during secondary school, this did not seem like the version of faith I had remembered. In many ways, this project was for me a journey home - a reconciliation of my faith and education."
Yeah, well, Unwin, we all have our issues.

So the probability that God exists is sixty-six percent, and Unwin maintains that he is personally around ninety-five percent certain that God exists. Good for him.

Two in three chances God is out there. For this guy a nineteen in twenty chance.

Fine. Suppose we grant this, even without downloading the spreadsheet Unwin has devised.

Does this not then beg the question, if there is a God, probably, what is God doing these days? What is this business with war and death and all the rest? God's messing with us? He, or she, or it has an odd sense of humor or Mel Gibson understands fully? Perhaps so.

Posted by Alan at 16:01 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Thursday, 19 February 2004

Topic: Science

Not that it matters.

Note the following, all over the web for the last two days.

Blinded by Science

"You would think that hopelessly destablilizing two large Muslim nations and saddling the American economy with debts into the 22nd century would be enough destruction for one administration - but that would be to "misunderestimate" the Shrubster's band of merry thiefs. A group of more than 60 top U.S. scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and several science advisers to past Republican presidents, yesterday accused the Bush administration of manipulating and censoring science for political purposes. What do you expect from a government in which the President and the Secretary of Education both believe evolution is a theory and creationism is a science?"

The problems the report alludes to?

The report charges that administration officials have:

- Ordered massive changes to a section on global warming in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2003 Report on the Environment. Eventually, the entire section was dropped.

- Replaced a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet on proper condom use with a warning emphasizing condom failure rates.

- Ignored advice from top Department of Energy nuclear materials experts who cautioned that aluminum tubes being imported by Iraq weren't suitable for use to make nuclear weapons.

- Established political litmus tests for scientific advisory boards. In one case, public health experts were removed from a CDC lead paint advisory panel and replaced with researchers who had financial ties to the lead industry.

- Suppressed a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist's finding that potentially harmful bacteria float in the air surrounding large hog farms.

- Excluded scientists who've received federal grants from regulatory advisory panels while permitting the appointment of scientists from regulated industries.

"I don't recall it ever being so blatant in the past," said Princeton University physicist Val Fitch, a 1980 Nobel Prize winner who served on a Nixon administration science advisory committee. "It's just time after time after time. The facts have been distorted."

But what are facts? Science is overrated? I guess the administration believes in taking "the moral high ground" in these matters.

Posted by Alan at 10:17 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 19 February 2004 20:48 PST home

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