Talking science and God with the pope’s new chief astronomer

Having recently finished Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, a near-future science fiction novel about Jesuits making first contact with an alien civilization, I was interested to read this interview with the Vatican’s (Jesuit) chief astronomer. Steve Fuller ought to be particularly happy with this answer, essentially the same argument Fuller made in defense of Intelligent Design Theory as science:

Q: Does God get in the way of doing good astronomy?

A: Just the opposite. He is the reason we do astronomy. I would say that is true even if you don’t believe in God. We do it first of all because we can, because the universe acts according to laws. That is a religious idea. The Romans, on the other hand, believed in nature gods that intervene according to whim—but if you believe in that you can’t be a scientist. Believing in a supernatural god is different.


You also have to believe that the universe is real and not an illusion. You have to believe that the universe is so good that it is worth spending your life studying it, even if you don’t become rich or famous. That sense that gets you up every morning is the presence of God.



Born that way? ‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking. Here’s what to watch out for. – The Washington Post

Born that way? ‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking. Here’s what to watch out for. – The Washington Post

Yesterday, Ellie’s Weekly Roundup referenced an editorial in the Washington Post arguing that “‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking.” The authors see this trend in the media, in science, and in policy. Some examples:

Consider a recent paper that argues that ethnic conflict throughout history is a result of genetic diversity among communities. The authors argue that genetic diversity is the dominant force behind conflict among groups. It pushes religious communities into battle, causes distrust among neighbors and dictates support for problematic social policies. Such an argument places the history and future of human conflict in genes, as if human interaction and environmental influences cannot match their power.

For instance, in the wake of the 2012 Olympics, nearly one-third of the news articles that evoked race, genetics and athletics posited that African American and West Indian sprinters are fastest because they descend from testosterone-heavy ancestors who survived the brutal conditions of transatlantic slave trade—a belief that found resonance and widespread acceptance in a BBC-produced documentary entitled, “Survival of the Fastest.” But there is no gene or allele for “speed,” and no direct link between testosterone and speed (while sprinters may have high testosterone, not all high-testosterone people can sprint).

A highly-praised volume by journalist Nicholas Wade, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” posited that recent genetic and genomic research suggests that Africa’s underdevelopment was a result of genetic inferiority of the communities on the continent, eschewing the devastating effects of colonialism.

I’m not convinced that there is anything new in any of these examples or that we are in the midst of a “resurgence” of scientific racism, though if there is such a trend I’d look to the rise of evolutionary psychology as an obvious source. However, the potential social damage of such studies seems obvious.

Cases like these, where scientific claims can have detrimental social consequences, are a major interest of social epistemologists. Heather Douglas, for instance, argues that in cases like this the evidential threshold for making a scientific claim ought to be higher. With so much at stake, she contends, scientists really need to be sure that they’re right before they make claims like this public. Given that the reliability of many psychological studies have recently been questioned, this seems like even more reasonable advice. In Science, Truth, and Democracy, Philip Kitcher goes even further, arguing that certain lines of research ought to be (temporarily) banned because their potential consequences are too great for our (current) society to take the risk of pursuing them. This idea is anathema to scientists, but perhaps Kitcher’s extreme solution deserves consideration of scientists aren’t able to police themselves?

Source and image: Born that way? ‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking. Here’s what to watch out for. – The Washington Post

Weekly Roundup

Brain Pickings has new research from Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Aaker on how we narrate our stages of happiness across our  lifetimes.

From “clues to possible water flows” to “NASA finds water on Mars” to “salty water flows on Mars today” to “possible niches for life, NASA says” to “life on Mars is likely, scientists say“, the discovery of recurring slope lineae on Mars has led to the usual pattern of overhyping NASA can’t seem to shed. At Quartz, Akshat Rathi deflates the NASA announcement about water on mars and what it means for future missions: “NASA’s press statement makes it seem that scientists have certain evidence of flowing water. They do not. What they have is chemical evidence that gives a strong suggestion of liquid water mixed with salts. More importantly, however, even if NASA was 100% certain that there is liquid water on Mars, it could not do anything about it.” Oh, and Rush Limbaugh thinks it’s a left-wing conspiracy.

People got pretty excited about Sunday’s super-blood-moon-eclipse. Here are some of the best pictures of the #supermoon from around the world.

The biggest surprise of MacLean’s Policy Face-Off Machine is that respondents “overwhelmingly” support making government science accessible to the public and ending current muzzling and data-destruction policies. Don Martin from CTV’s Power Play asked Evidence for Democracy‘s Scott Findlay (University of Ottawa) why science isn’t a more prominent election issue. If you want answers from Canadian politicians on pressing science questions, check out Write2Know.

“Scientific” racism is all around. The Washington Post explores the ugly history and current iteration of our preference for genetic explanations of racial characteristics.…


Will the real skeptics please step forward?

The Associated Press reported on their blog last week that they will no longer refer to those who deny the scientific consensus on climate change as “skeptics”, but will instead call them “climate change doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science”. Notably, they will also not use my preferred term—“deniers”—because it is seen as pejorative.

It seems like the main push for this change comes from scientists “such as those who are part of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry” who “complain that non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase skeptic.”

Fair enough, but to me both uses of “skeptic”—referring to “skeptics” like those from the Center for Skeptical Inquiry and those who deny climate change—are suspect. “Mainstream” skeptics seem to train their skepticism only at claims that occur outside of mainstream science—homeopathy, UFOlogy, and so on. Is this true skepticism or just science boosterism? I’m inclined to think the latter.

Source and image:

A Rare Interview with the Mathematician Who Cracked Wall Street | Jim Simons | TED Talks – YouTube

Interview with the Mathematician Who Cracked Wall Street | TED Talks

This TED interview with mathematician and founder of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies Jim Simmons should be an interesting watch for those who like the history of mathematics or the history of finance, especially the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Simons’ hedge fund started out successfully using chartist methods, but has gradually adopted more and more sophisticated models. He claims that they are still very successful today, even as many other hedge funds have stumbled.

Jim Simons was a mathematician and cryptographer who realized: the complex math he used to break codes could help explain patterns in the world of finance. Billions later, he’s working to support the next generation of math teachers and scholars. TED’s Chris Anderson sits down with Simons to talk about his extraordinary life in numbers.


Source: A Rare Interview with the Mathematician Who Cracked Wall Street | Jim Simons | TED Talks – YouTube.



New theory of stealth dark matter may explain universe’s missing mass

I’m no physicist, but isn’t “stealth” dark matter a little redundant?

A group of national particle physicists known as the Lattice Strong Dynamics Collaboration, led by a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory team, has combined theoretical and computational physics techniques and used the Laboratory’s massively parallel 2-petaflop Vulcan supercomputer to devise a new model of dark matter. It identifies it as naturally “stealthy” (i.e. like its namesake aircraft, difficult to detect) today, but would have been easy to see via interactions with ordinary matter in the extremely high-temperature plasma conditions that pervaded the early universe.


“These interactions in the early universe are important because ordinary and dark matter abundances today are strikingly similar in size, suggesting this occurred because of a balancing act performed between the two before the universe cooled,” said Pavlos Vranas of LLNL, and one of the authors of the paper, “Direct Detection of Stealth Dark Matter through Electromagnetic Polarizability”. The paper appears in an upcoming edition of the journal Physical Review Letters and is an “Editor’s Choice.”

Source: New theory of stealth dark matter may explain universe’s missing mass



Warming world has shrunk bee tongues

If you were getting tired of the peppered-moth-in-industrialized-Britain example of evolution in action, here’s a new twist: bee tongues evolving in response to global warming! This example isn’t likely to convince skeptics of evolution or global warming, but maybe it’s efficient to have all your enemies arrayed against you at once?

In the midst of a widespread decline in bees, particularly in the United States, a few bumblebees are finding a way to cope: shorter tongues. In just 40 years, the tongues of two bumblebee species living high up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains have shrunk by almost 25% in their average length, according to a new study. A warming world has spurred these changes, researchers conclude, because the total number of flowers has declined in this region—and the shorter tongue enables the bees to suck nectar from more kinds of flowers.


“It’s one of the best examples of the effect of climate that I’ve seen,” says Sydney Cameron, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved with the work. But the bees’ successful adaptation may be the silver lining of a very dark cloud. A variety of so-called long-tubed flowers, including penstemon, Indian paintbrush, clover, wild indigo, monkshood, bluebell, snapdragon, larkspur, and foxglove, require long-tongued bumblebees for pollination. “The reality is that long-tube flowers will disappear,” Cameron warns. And then, “you are losing biodiversity on a major scale.”


Many of the bumblebees that first arose sport tongues about half the length of their bodies, having evolved special relationships with particular long-tubed flowers. Matching tongue length to flower depth makes foraging and pollination more efficient, and many such matches have evolved through time.


But globally, long-tongued bumblebees are declining, says Cameron, as are many bees, in part because of climate change, pesticide use, and habitat loss. There were also indications that in some species, long tongues were shrinking.

Source: Warming world has shrunk bee tongues

At least 10 Afghan civilians, including eight schoolchildren, have been killed in fighting involving Western troops in Narang district of Kunar Province in Afghanistan. (RAWA)

A Crook against the “Evidence for Technocracy”

Anthony J. Gavin at Ways of Worldmaking has a great discussion of value neutrality in science, specifically relating to Canadian science policy. His discussion is based on a CBC debate between University of Ottawa biologist Katie Gibbs, who argues that federal politicians ought to be discussing science policy during the leadership campaign, and columnist Clive Crook, who argues that scientists should just stay out of politics altogether and simply provide politicians with objective facts on which to base their decisions.

Gavin’s whole discussion is interesting, but I was particularly intrigued  by this line of argument:

Gibbs’ view puts value-content not into the facts discovered by scientists, but into science itself. Usually scientists and philosophers of this persuasion appraise whichever their notion of the scientific method: used to arrive at facts by way of the testing of hypotheses against empirical observations, through the fuse of several degrees of abstraction. The facts themselves do not have any value-content, but the scientific method does. Her view envisions greater autonomy for researchers and rings of class individualism and elitism, affording value to an epistemic culture in-demand rather than their specific product. Crook’s view, on the other hand, is conservative against the progressive element contained in the rising intellectual microcosm within the capitalist class.


Neither view seems quite correct to me. Facts have value-content, both inwardly and outwardly. Consider the fact, “75% of all casualties in World War II were civilians”. If you’re interested, that’s nearly 50 million people. Value-content comes into this fact through the productive means which birthed it. For example, does a person who succumbs to a lingering lung infection from having inspired a modicum of Mustard Gas several years after the end of the war count as a casualty? What about the countless infants in the following generation that would die simply for having been born into crushing war-torn poverty?


Outwardly, the fact is harrowing to hear. It makes me unhappy. It makes me dislike war. No doubt my reaction upon hearing this fact is socially and culturally conditioned, but this does not rob it of its value-content. If anything, it correlates value-content with shared evaluative practices and norms. It seems that we are inclined to make use of facts when we reason, and that we evaluate facts according to our own worldviews and against our own experiences.


Methods, such as experimental practices and statistical models of inference, do not have value-content, but are value relevant in their factive manifestations. Value judgements are made even in ostensibly minute methodological details. But ‘science’ (supposing a group of spuriously connected methodologies) has no intrinsic value. Science is the dominant epistemic culture living in a postcolonial and multicultural society. Public uptake of the scientific worldview is as much a role for the scientist-as-citizen as it is a role for science journalism. The understanding of and receptivity to scientific facts is a function of the ideological outgrowth of the institution, whose expansion under the neoliberal model is fueled by market forces.

My instinct is to argue the opposite: that facts could conceivably be value free, given suitable precision, but the decisions that scientists make never can be. Gavin argues that “casualty” is an inherently value-laden term, pointing to the agonizing decisions required to define just what a casualty is, and the emotions that such considerations engender. I agree that all of the decisions involved in defining casualty are decisions that involve values, but I don’t see that this makes “casualty” itself value-laden, once the decisions over how to precisely define it have been made. Conversely, the decision to accept a statement such as “We expect average global surface temperatures to rise by two degrees over the next century” is no less value-laden for having no obvious “valuey” words. I believe that Heather Douglas’s discussion in Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, supports my view, but Gavin’s discussion makes me wonder if I’ve misread her.


Source: A Crook against the “Evidence for Technocracy” | ways of worldmaking.

Image Source:


There Is No Theory of Everything

Simon Critchley at the New York Times relates the life an work of philosopher Frank Cioffi, focusing on his account of the relationship between science and the humanities:

Despite the astonishing breadth of his interests, Frank’s core obsession in teaching turned on the relation between science and the humanities. More particularly, his concern was with the relation between the causal explanations offered by science and the kinds of humanistic description we find, say, in the novels of Dickens or Dostoevsky, or in the sociological writings of Erving Goffman and David Riesman. His quest was to try and clarify the occasions when a scientific explanation was appropriate and when it was not, and we need instead a humanistic remark. His conviction was that our confusions about science and the humanities had wide-ranging and malign societal consequences.

Source: There Is No Theory of Everything – The New York Times.


Weekly Roundup

“A man travels to outer space, while his identical twin remains on earth…” Thanks to astronauts Mark and Scott Kelley, NASA can finally replicate this mainstay of physics textbook examples (although it’s no true twin paradox, as the ISS doesn’t travel at near-light speed).

Questions surround the details of last week’s announcement of homo nadeli, with some scientists criticizing the premature creation of a new species. Others implicate the PR-science journalism-imprecise headline hype cycle has been implicated. And the Atlantic asks why the homo nadeli specimens haven’t been dated yet; it turns out it’s very difficult and complicated to accurately date fossils from so long ago.

If you haven’t yet heard of #clockboy, WIRED has a rundown of Ahmed Mohamed’s saga.

Jacking up the price of lifesaving drugs then doubling down on social media, tends to send your reputation right down to moustache-twirling villain levels. Just ask Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli.

Finally, a primer of key moments in technological and cultural history of the mid-to-late 20th century.…