Thursday, 1 December 2011

Evolution Misrepresented Through Ignorance, or Deliberately?

Sent to The Star, Johannesburg, Thu 01/12/2011 18:12, published less the blue paragraph in The Star, December 8, 2011 as “Books reveal real process of evolution”.

Seldom was the Star Letters Editor's bias for religion against science more visible than in the Letters page of Tuesday November 29, where religion gets 92 column cm (124 if one counts the picture), and my viciously-slashed letter rates a mere 16 cm.

The Star should seriously consider running a regular column to educate readers about science.
We would then be less likely to get statements like Abraham Cohen's of November 24, naturally applauded by Bob Holcombe (November 29), to the effect that evolution states that the complexity of life came about in a single accident.

To see the real process, please read two excellent books by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, "The Blind Watchmaker" and "Climbing Mount Improbable".  Here is the tiniest of summaries:

The process of evolution does rely on accidents, but that is only part of the process.  There are three factors:
1) Genes reproduce with amazing accuracy.  Very few mistakes are made, otherwise species would not be overwhelmingly stable.
2) Genes occasionally change.  Mutations do occur for various reasons, though rarely.
3) Survival of the fittest.  Natural selection ruthlessly eliminates changes that are not advantageous –most of them.  The vast majority of known species are extinct.

It is like a Lotto, but you can keep your correct numbers.  After a few rounds you would have all winning numbers!

Thus evolution builds continually on useful characteristics, constantly improving all species as they fiercely compete.

Dawkins likens it to a mountain with a steep cliff at the front.  To leap from the bottom (the origin of life) to the top (the complexity we see today) seems so incredible that people may believe that it can only have happened by magic.

However, if we look around the back of the mountain, we find gentle foothills with paths meandering ever higher and leading gradually but eventually to the top.  Thus evolution, by billions of years of slow improvement, locking in useful attributes and discarding others, reaches the improbable summit.

Note that I said "meandering".  We carry in our bodies many of the blind choices that evolution made at the time, features that no intelligent designer would make.  So we have weak spines, strange neural paths, appendices, tonsils, short lives, poor eyesight, only two hands, no wings, thin skins, and can't digest cellulose, to name a few.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Evolution is the Only Game in Town

Sent to The Star, Johannesburg Wed 23/11/2011 10:28. Published in part (less parts in blue)
 as “Who would create a body like this one?” in The Star, November 29, 2011

Siegfried Berger ("Science also expects us to blindly follow" in Star Letters, November 22) in reply to my viciously-trimmed letter published on 17 November, tells us that science is also a dogma.  Not true: Science works on the evidence.  The evidence shows that there is no comforting, "intellectual guiding hand" steering evolution.

Would an intelligent creator have designed the human body like this?  Humans suffer from back problems: Understandable when you consider that we are using, vertically, a spine that developed horizontally.  The discs suffer because they are not "made" to carry compressive loads.

Or, looking at the body from a town-planning point of view, what intelligent planner would put the fun-fair next to the sewage farm?

There are many other examples: Our difficulty in giving birth, the appendix, nerves that follow strange paths.

Evolution indeed proceeds without an end product in mind, but the results are not "accidental".  Mutations arise occasionally by chance. Survival of the fittest then ruthlessly eliminates changes that are not advantageous.  Some have likened it to a Lotto where you can keep your correct numbers for the next round.  After a few rounds you would have all winning numbers!  Thus evolution builds continually on the useful characteristics, constantly improving all the fiercely competing species.

However, many mutations that an intelligent designer would want, haven't happened or did not survive at the time.  So we have short lives, poor eyesight, only two hands, no wings, thin skins, can't digest cellulose, to name a few.

The irrepressible Bob Holcombe weighs in in the same edition, with "Many researchers believe that science need not exclude a creator".

He says that evolution can not be proved because we can not run it as an experiment.  Poor reasoning.  Science works on evidence and logic too.  The results of evolution are there to study, and we have a record in fossils and matching geological strata, along with several dating methods that agree.

Mr Holcombe defends the biblical story of creation as symbolic, with the days representing ages.  What then does the bible mean with the oft-repeated "and it was evening, and it was morning"?  The bible means literal days.  It just happens to be wrong.

Mr Holcombe's "loving god" is obviously not the jealous god of the bible, who delights in genocide and misogyny, approves of slavery and human sacrifice, imposes "original sin", and murders people for collecting firewood on a Saturday.

Finally, Mr Holcombe says that societies that deny god are declining rapidly.  In fact, objective measures of human well-being –longevity, mental health, lower crime, reduced HIV transmission, etc.– are highest in secular societies (western and northern Europe), and lower in those with a strong religious component such as the US and Muslim countries.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Theory and Reality: Evolution is Both

Sent to The Star, Johannesburg Sat 12/11/2011 10:23, published published Thu 17/11/2011 minus the parts in blue as “Evolution is a fact, and that’s a fact”.

Bob Holcombe, in Readers' Letters of Friday November 11 ("Telling that his books have been taken off the shelves"), lambastes UFO-believers.  And so he should, because this is fringe stuff and highly debatable.

However, having deplored this deception, he tries a worse one of his own: To denigrate what he calls "unproven theories of macro-evolution" and promote the bible as good cosmology.

When someone says that evolution is "only a theory" he is not making a statement about evolution, he is showing his abysmal lack of understanding of basic science.

In science, some words have a more precise meaning than in everyday speech.

I am an engineer. If you tell me that you are "under pressure", I may ask "how many kilopascals?” Pressure is defined as force divided by area.  (All people live under pressure: About 100 kPa of atmospheric pressure)

Similarly, to a layman, a "theory" is something unproven, a guess, a conjecture.

When a scientist talks of a "theory" she means a coherent explanation of empirical phenomena, that is well-proven and logically consistent with observed facts.  It takes a lot of work by many scientists for a system to graduate from a "hypothesis" to a "theory".

Would Mr Holcombe like to tell us that Electromagnetic Theory (proof: electric light) or the Theory of Relativity (proof: the atomic bomb) is also "just a theory"?

The reason evolution is taught in schools is that it is fact: Proven beyond doubt to the satisfaction of all serious scientists.  The evidence is overwhelming that simple creatures evolved into more complex ones over millions of years.

Only those blinded by misguided "faith" in a literal interpretation of scripture believe –despite all evidence to the contrary– that the universe was created magically in six days.  Oddly, these same people question the existence of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.

There are also scientific words for the biblical story of creation. They are "myth" and "fallacy".

Thursday, 10 November 2011

ASA Defends Imaginary, Not True Values

Sent to The Star, Johannesburg Thu 10/11/2011 22:01, not published.

I refer to Irvine Moyo's letter "Ads can't venture where even angels dare not tread" in the Star Letters, Thursday November 10, supporting the ASA's banning of the Axe "Fallen Angels" advert.

The ASA should have banned Axe's adverts for their sexism, but we can see that the ASA supports religion but not gender equality.

Mr Moyo, you can wax lyrical about your "Almighty God", His Bible, and His Angels.  However the reality is that your god and his angels are imaginary, and your bible is a quaint collection of fables.

You like the moral standards given by the bible?  The bible approves of murdering people for collecting sticks on Saturday, the subjugation of women, slavery, and genocide.

If you do not want your religion to be mocked, you should not follow such a mockable religion.

Consider what you as a Christian probably believe: That in the face of all geological and other scientific evidence to the contrary, the earth is only a few thousand years old and was created over six days.  That god is one person and three people at the same time, which any maths teacher can tell you is nonsense.  That god committed adultery with another man's wife so that the other part of him could be born into the world.  That this part then died to make up for the sin we inherited from some people who ate the wrong fruit generations before.  But actually he didn't stay dead; he got his life back again.  That if a priest mumbles over wafers and wine, they become the flesh and blood of your god (never mind that no human DNA is present).  And you should take part in ritual cannibalism by eating this.

You probably also believe that anyone who doesn't believe what you do, will be tortured forever after they die by your just and loving god.

Muslims believe the latter too, except that you have to believe in their god.  And in a polygamist who flew to Jerusalem and heaven on a magical flying horse.  That if you enrich the corrupt dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and throw stones at a pillar, you will be blessed. And other nonsense like, if you do something really evil by blowing yourself up along with a lot of people you don't like, you will be rewarded in an unverifiable hereafter with many virgins. Or maybe they won't' be virgins, but raisins: What a let-down!

You think that such superstition deserves respect, instead of gales of raucous laughter?

Monday, 12 September 2011

With Justice Moegeng in Charge, We'd Better All Pray

Sent to The Star, Johannesburg Mon 12/09/2011 21:06, published minus the parts in blue as “No proof that prayer helps” in The Star (South Africa); September 21, 2011

I refer to Brenda Rethman's letter on Friday, "Chief Justice may be God's choice".

When you talk to god, it's called Praying.  When god talks to you, it's called Schizophrenia.

What objective evidence is there that Justice Moegeng was called to do anything by any god –and if so, which one?

Ms Rothman cites an anecdote where she believes that her god removed a blood clot.
I had a friend who died of cancer despite his congregation praying for him.

Anecdotal evidence is not helpful because people tend to remember when their prayers were answered, but not all the times they were not.

We need scientific studies to tell whether, when prayer is involved, there is any statistically measurable difference in the outcome.

This research has been done (e.g. the STEP study, which can be found on Wikipedia etc.) and has shown that praying for others has no effect, except in one case: When the person knows they are being prayed for.  Then, if there is an effect, it is counter-productive.  The researchers hypothesised that a kind of "performance anxiety" was involved.

The STEP study involved recovery from surgery.  But people recover from surgery anyway.  Why not look for something completely unequivocal?  Something that could not be produced by mere chance, but would definitely demonstrate the power of prayer?  After all, we are talking to the Creator of the Universe here, not some little fairy that might be able to sway the chances by a percentage point or two!

Here is an experiment that you can do for yourself to prove definitely whether prayer works.

Get a group of friends together and pray that, over the next month, all amputees in South Africa re-grow their lost limbs.  (You might ask Oscar Pistorius if he wishes to be excluded, lest it hurt his Olympic chances)

Is this a worthy and selfless cause?  Of course!   Would it be a miracle?  Given current scientific knowledge, yes.  Would a positive result glorify god and bring lots of converts? Definitely.

So do it!

I prophesy that nothing will happen.  Because prayer has no effect.

Why does prayer have no effect?  Because the gods being prayed to, don't exist.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Let All His Enemies Pray Publicly for Malema

Sent to The Star, Johannesburg Mon 29/08/2011 09:08, not published.

I am pleased to see people praying publicly for Julius Malema.

Scientific research (e.g. the STEP study) has shown that praying for others has no effect, except in one case.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence in support of prayer, but none is unequivocal.  In every case, other causes could have been responsible, and it is difficult to say if prayer was the cause.  Some blindness appears to cure itself.  Cancers go into spontaneous remission.

However there is an experiment you can do for yourself that will prove unequivocally whether prayer works.

Get a group of friends together and pray that, over the next month, all amputees worldwide re-grow their lost limbs.  (You might ask Oscar Pistorius if he wishes to be excluded, lest it hurt his Olympic chances)

If this a worthy and selfless cause?  Of course!  A miracle?  Given current scientific knowledge, yes.  Would a positive result glorify god and bring lots of converts? Definitely.

So do it!  I prophesy that absolutely nothing will happen.  Because prayer has no effect.

Except in one case, according to the STEP study: When the person knows they are being prayed for.  Then it is often counter-productive.  The researchers hypothesised that a kind of "performance anxiety" was involved.

So if you want to waste your time, pray for Malema.  But if you want to harm him, tell him that you are praying for him.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Municipal Property Rates Bill Unconstitutionally favours Religion

Sent to The Star, Johannesburg Wed 20/07/2011 09:21, Published as “Why only churches?” in The Star (South Africa); July 21, 2011; 318 words

In the comments on the Municipal Property Rates Amendment Bill, it has been pointed out that a part of the bill is designed to kill the rental housing market, and is probably unconstitutional.

There is another important part of what will become the Act, that is equally unconstitutional, and has escaped notice.  The current Act forces municipalities to not charge rates on "places of public worship".  Despite submissions, the amendment makes no provision to remove this zero rating from the new Act.

The Bill of Rights, clause 9 (Equality) says (1) Everyone is equal before the law.  (2) Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. (3) The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on any grounds, including religion.

The zero rating of property used for religious purposes constitutes unfair discrimination in favour of those who belong to religious bodies. What is the justification for this?  Are the gods short of money?  Why should religion be favoured over other recreational activities, even over schools and crèches, old-age homes, and other worthwhile endeavours?

Comments must be faxed to (012) 334-4811 or emailed to by 22 July 2011.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Star's Great Creationism Debate

Sent to The Star, Johannesburg, Tue 24/05/2011 20:46 – Published with minor changes and minus the parts in blue, as “Gaping holes in creationists’ argument” on Mon May 30, 2011.

The Creationism Debate of Thurs May 19 2011 needs a whole page of rebuttal, which the Editor is unlikely to give me, but here goes:

Dr AM Levin makes a creditable attempt to reconcile the Creation myth with what happened according to science.  He interprets the "days" of creation as mapping to various geological eons.

For him these are not literal days but "ages".

However he misses a vital point: For each "day" the bible repeats "And the evening and the morning were the n-th day" (in those days, and still in Jewish tradition, the day was taken to start at sunset).

These were meant to be understood as literal, 24-hour days, not symbolic ages.  Or what are "evening and the morning" symbolic of?  

If we are to take the bible as symbolic, perhaps the gods of the bible are also intended to be symbolic, rather that actual existing entities?

Ron Schurink wants us to believe that modern civilization has a debt to monotheistic religion, i.e. Christianity.

We can debate whether Christianity, with its three gods that somehow get shoe-horned into one, is really monotheistic.

However there are two genuinely monotheistic superstitions, namely Judaism and Islam, which he totally forgets.  Both developed high cultures, as did the non-monotheistic superstitions of the east.

History shows that Christianity vehemently opposed scientific progress as far as possible, and its remaining centres of power still do so, as in the Catholic Church's opposition to contraception.

Leon du Toit raises the hoary red herring of the missing links in the fossil record.

It is difficult for us as humans, with a lifespan of the order of 100 years, to understand a hundred times a hundred times that, i.e. a million years.  For anything to survive that long is amazing.

Fossils do not form easily: They need very specific conditions.  So, the fact that we find fossils at all is remarkable.  To find a complete record is well-nigh impossible.  

As Richard Dawkins has wittily pointed out, when a fossil is found that fits neatly into the gap between two others, the creationists are very happy, because they now have two gaps to complain about instead of one!

The case of the eye is another one that Dawkins has dealt with more than adequately.

To inadequately summarise a whole chapter, would an awareness of light in certain cells give the animal an advantage?  Obviously yes.  

That individual would then be more likely to survive, breed, and produce more offspring.  The rare mutations that produced better vision would be favoured, and would propagate.  

As to partially-developed eyes, the eye is a soft structure not preserved, like bones, in fossils.  

However, throughout the animal kingdom today we find eye-like structures in various stages of development: All the way from mere sensitivity to light, through to the eyes of the eagle.

Finally, du Toit says that we have not yet been able to synthesise life.  True.  How long have we been at it, and how long did it take evolution?  Nature, experimenting on a huge number of whole planets, took billions of years –so at least give the scientists a few thousand!