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Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Historian Asks: Is it okay to lie about history for a good cause?

Posted by jlwile on July 22, 2014

Pinocchio, the beloved character in Carlo Collodi's novel, had a nose that grew when he lied. (click for credit)

Pinocchio, the beloved character in Carlo Collodi’s novel, had a nose that grew when he lied.
(click for credit)

Not too long ago, the Fox network aired a reboot of Cosmos. The first version, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was a thirteen-part series hosted by Dr. Carl Sagan. The reboot, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, was a thirteen-part series hosted by Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. While both series were mostly about science, they each mentioned the history of science from time to time. While I can’t comment on the first series, I can say without a doubt that the new series was spectacularly awful when it came to science history.

It started off badly when the first episode elevated Giordano Bruno to the status of scientific hero and martyr. The problem is, of course, that history tells a completely different story. Bruno was a champion of all sorts of strange ideas (such as that Satan would be redeemed by God and that Jesus was a magician, not the Son of God), and when he did discuss science, it was clear he didn’t understand it very well. He ended up being a martyr for magic and the occult, not for science. In addition, the serious natural philosophers of the day, like Kepler and Galileo, opposed Bruno.

Perhaps the worst treatment of science history by the new Cosmos was its discussion of Newton. Dr. Tyson actually claimed

Newton’s laws of gravity and motion revealed how the sun held distant worlds captive. His laws swept away the need for a master clockmaker to explain the precision and beauty of the solar system. Gravity is the clockmaker. [Episode 3: "When Knowledge Conquered Fear"]

Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, the Master Clockmaker was the reason Newton came up with his Universal Law of Gravitation. Unlike the philosophers of the past, Newton believed that all motion should follow the same basic set of principles. This led to his Universal Law of Gravitation as well as his Laws of Motion. Why did Newton believe this? According to Dr. Morris Kline:1

The thought that all the phenomena of motion should follow from one set of principles might seem grandiose and inordinate, but it occurred very naturally to the religious mathematicians of the 17th century. God had designed the universe, and it was to be expected that all phenomena of nature would follow one master plan. One mind designing a universe would almost surely have employed one set of basic principles to govern related phenomena.

So rather than sweeping away the need for a Master Clockmaker, the laws he discovered were firmly rooted in the belief that there is a Master Clockmaker.

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A Great Story I Heard During a Radio Interview

Posted by jlwile on July 18, 2014

This is Vivienne McNeny, the Sociable Homeschooler. (click for her radio show website)

This is Vivienne McNeny, the Sociable Homeschooler. (click for her radio show website)

I just finished an interview with Vivienne McNeny, host of an internet radio show called The Sociable Homeschooler. It was a delightful interview for many reasons, not the least of which is that Mrs. McNeny has a wonderful personality and is great at interviewing people. At the beginning of our time together, she told a story that was very encouraging to me, and at least a part of that story should be encouraging to many homeschoolers as well.

She and her husband homeschooled their children, and although they are both focused on the arts, their youngest son, Simon, was focused on science. They used my high school curriculum for science, but they also read my book, Reasonable Faith: The Scientific Case for Christianity together. She says that her son enjoyed the book, and when he went to college, he referenced it in a paper he wrote for one of his science professors, Dr. Collin Thomas. Dr. Thomas requested a copy of the book, and Simon gave him one. He said that he really enjoyed the book, even though he is not a Christian.

Now, of course, that part of the story was encouraging to me, but the rest of the story should be encouraging to many other homeschooling parents. She said that this professor used to feel sorry for homeschooled students…until he started getting them in his college classes. Now he thinks they are better college students than his publicly-schooled students. She interviewed him on her radio show approximately two years ago, and the interview is fascinating. If you have time, I encourage you to listen to it in its entirety. It starts at 15:20 on the recording that is posted on the website.

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About That Habitable Planet…

Posted by jlwile on July 15, 2014

This NASA image represents an artist's conception of what the first four planets around Gliese 581 were thought to look like in 2010.  (click for larger version)

This NASA image represents an artist’s conception of what the first four planets around Gliese 581 were thought to look like in 2010. (click for larger version)

Gliese 581 is a star that exists about 20 light years away from earth. It became important in the astronomy community back in 2005, when a planet (dubbed Gliese 581b) was detected orbiting it.1 Two years later, two more planets (dubbed Gliese 581c and Gliese 581d) were found there.2 Two years after that, a fourth planet (Gliese 581e) was found.3 All of that was interesting, but it didn’t catch much attention outside of the astronomy community.

Then something amazing happened. A year later, Dr. Steven Vogt and his colleagues found two more planets (Gliese 581f and Gliese 581g) orbiting the star. The amazing thing is that one of those planets (Gliese 581g) was found in the habitable zone of the star! What does that mean? If a planet is too close to its star, it will get very hot. If it is too far from its star, it will remain cold. Life as we know it requires a fairly narrow range of temperatures to exist, so if a planet is to host life, it can’t be too close or too far from its star. It must be in a position that is “just right,” and we call that position the habitable zone of the star. Gliese 581g was in that zone, and even more amazing, it had a mass that was only 3.1 times as much as earth’s mass!4

What did that mean? It meant that Vogt and his colleagues had found the first planet that might be enough like earth to support life. Since it was only 3 times as massive as earth, it was expected to be rocky (like earth), and since it was in the habitable zone, it could have the right temperature to support life. Of course, there are lots of other requirements for a planet to be able to support life as we know it, but that was ignored in all the excitement. NASA released an image (shown above) of what the four inner planets orbiting the Gliese 581 might look like. Notice that the most prominent planet is Gliese 581g, and notice how similar it looks to earth. Dr. Vogt said:

Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent.

I blogged about this planet back in 2010, noting that it might not even exist. Well, it turns out that the latest, in-depth study of Gliese 581 confirms that Gliese 581g, along with Gliese 581d and Gliese 581f, don’t exist.

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Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges

Posted by jlwile on July 10, 2014

This sign contains the English translation of Wheaton College's motto, "Christo et Regno Ejus."  (click for credit)

This sign contains the English translation of Wheaton College’s motto, “Christo et Regno Ejus.”
(click for credit)

On June 30, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by University of Pennsylvania English professor Peter Conn entitled, “The Great Accreditation Farce.” In that article, which Binghamton University history professor Adam Laats calls a “hatchet job,” Dr. Conn tries to argue that Christian colleges which require their faculty to sign a statement of faith should not be given accreditation. After all, he says:

Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious.

Now I have to admit I have some sympathy for that argument. In a post I wrote nearly three years ago, I highlighted one Christian university that does not make its faculty sign a detailed statement of faith: Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. In that post, I said Anderson University “gets it” when it comes to what a university is all about – honest, open inquiry. In my view, a detailed statement of faith restricts the search for truth, and that’s not what a Christian university should be about. Certainly, a Christian university should be staffed by Christian faculty, but it should not restrict that faculty’s fields of inquiry with a detailed statement of faith.

Even though I have some sympathy for Dr. Conn’s argument, it is wrong on at least two counts. First, while I would never teach at a university that requires a detailed statement of faith, that doesn’t mean such a university shouldn’t receive accreditation. After all, the purpose of accreditation is not to make sure the university is a bastion of skeptical and free inquiry. Instead, according to The U.S. Department of Education:

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.

This has little to do with how much skeptical and unfettered inquiry is going on at the institution. Instead, it has everything to do with the quality of the classes, the depth of the material covered, and the standards to which the institution holds its students.

The other reason Dr. Conn’s argument fails is more important: Using his argument, very few (if any) secular colleges could be given accreditation, because they don’t allow skeptical and unfettered inquiry, either.

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When it Comes to Temperature, You Might Not Be Able to Trust the Data!

Posted by jlwile on July 8, 2014

Temperatures for the state of Maine from 1901 to a few years before the present, according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).  The two graphs were downloaded at different times and indicate completely different results.

Temperatures for the state of Maine from 1901 to a few years before the present, according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). The two graphs were downloaded at different times and indicate completely different results.

In 2013, certified consultant meteorologist Joseph D’Aleo was putting together a talk and wanted to show a graph that illustrated how the average temperature of the state of Maine had changed over time. He went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) and downloaded the data. As shown in the top graph, the average temperature showed no trend (warming or cooling) for more than 100 years. This year, he was preparing a talk and wanted to update the graph. He went back to NOAA’s NCDC and downloaded the exact same temperature record, including more recent years.

The change was dramatic, as shown in the bottom graph. The data showed a clear warming trend. Was this dramatic changed caused by more recent years added to the new graph? No. It was caused by the old data! Between the times D’Aleo had downloaded the data, the temperatures for some of the previous years had been lowered, and the temperature for some of them had been raised. However, it seems that more of the earlier years were lowered and more of the later years were raised (or lowered less). As a result, the message of the graph had changed remarkably. Where just one year previously, the data showed no warming over the past century, that same data now show a significant warming trend over the exact same time period! As he states:

Does anybody know what the REAL temperature of Maine is/was/is supposed to be? I sure as [**BLEEP**] don’t. I don’t think NCDC really does either.

What caused Mr. D’Aleo to share this experience? It was a revelation that started with Steven Goddard (aka Tony Heller).

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Flu Shot During Pregnancy Produces Unexpected Benefits

Posted by jlwile on July 3, 2014

If this woman gets a flu shot, it may produce benefits for her child. (click for credit)

If this woman gets a flu shot, it may produce benefits for her child. (click for credit)

I try to keep up with the medical literature, but a chemist who reads this blog, Dr. Jonathan D. Sarfati, made me aware of a couple of studies that I had missed over the past couple of years. Those two studies led me to a third study, and when all three of them are put together, they make a strong case for pregnant women getting the flu shot. I know there is a lot of misinformation out there related to the flu shot, but the evidence makes it clear that the shot is not only safe but also very beneficial, especially for pregnant women.

The first study Dr. Sarfati sent me was published in The American Journal of Public Health back in 2012. The authors used used Ontario’s birth record database (called BORN) to analyze more than 55,000 single-child births that took place in Canada during what the authors call “the 2009–2010 H1N1 pandemic.” They specifically looked at which mothers got the H1N1 flu vaccine. They found that 42% of the mothers did get the vaccine, while the rest did not. They also found that the mothers who received the vaccine were 28% less likely to deliver before their full term and 19% less likely to have a child with a low birth weight. The most striking finding, however, was that mothers who got the vaccine were 34% less likely to have a stillborn child.1

Now this study was specifically focused on a time that health-care officials labelled as a pandemic. Does the flu shot offer the same benefits to the children of pregnant women during non-pandemic flu seasons? Another Canadian study indicates that it does. That study looked at a different database (one in Nova Scotia) for births that occurred from November 1, 2010 to March 31, 2012. There were more than 12,000 births during that time period, and only 19% of the mothers in the group had the flu shot. Nevertheless, they were 25% less likely to give birth to preterm infants and 27% less likely to give birth to infants with low birth weights. Unfortunately, only live births were considered in the analysis, so the risk of stillborn infants was not addressed.2

These two studies together make a very strong case that for the sake of their unborn children, pregnant women should get the flu shot. The other study that Dr. Sarfati sent me was a bit less conclusive (in my opinion), but it does suggest a link between the flu shot and autism. However, it’s not the link anti-vaccination advocates are looking for.

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The Appalachian Home Educators Conference

Posted by jlwile on July 1, 2014

The view from Charlie's Bunion, which is a rock formation on the Appalachian Trail.

The view from Charlie’s Bunion, which is a rock formation on the Appalachian Trail.

This past weekend, I spoke at the Appalachian Home Educators Conference. I gave a total of eight talks over three days, which is a lot! Six of the talks were solo: Being a REAL Environmentalist, Why Homeschool Through High School, What About K-6 Science?, “Teaching” High School at Home, “Teaching” the Junior High and High School Sciences at Home, and Teaching Critical Thinking. I also did two talks with Diana Waring: Homeschooling: The Environment for Genius and Textbook Myths and How to Deal with Them.

In addition to having a great time talking with homeschoolers, I got a chance to spend some time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The highlight was an 8-mile hike (4 miles there and 4 miles back) on the Appalachian Trail to a rock formation known as “Charlie’s Bunion.” The rock formation itself isn’t all that spectacular, but the view from it is! The picture above gives you some idea of what I saw. It was truly gorgeous.

Of course, the conference was the reason I went, so let’s get back to that. The talks went well, and I got a lot of great questions. One student who had used some of my books and then went to a secular university came up to me while I was at my publisher’s booth. He had a whole list of questions he wanted to ask me after spending a year learning science from an evolutionary point of view. I enjoyed answering his questions, and I was so happy that he was willing to take the time to get a different opinion instead of just blindly accepting what his professors told him, as is (unfortunately) the case for so many university students.

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Even More on Slime Molds

Posted by jlwile on June 25, 2014

A slime mold chooses the shortest path to the food (labelled "AG") in a maze.  (Image is from the article being discussed.)

A slime mold chooses the shortest path to the food (labelled “AG”) in a maze.
(Image is from the article being discussed.)

I recently ran across a 14-year-old study that I found incredibly interesting. I normally discuss studies that have occurred in the past few years on this blog, but since this study goes well with two other blog posts I have written (here and here), I thought I would go ahead and write about this one as well. In the experiment, the authors studied a slime mold (Physarum polycephalum) that was in its plasmodium stage. During this stage of its life, it is a huge, single cell that has thousands of nuclei.

The researchers grew the slime mold on a maze (as shown on the far left of the image above). Once it had covered the maze, they put out some food in the form of nutrient-rich agar (labelled “AG” in the image above). They put one source of food at the beginning of the maze and another source of food at the end. There were four paths through the maze that connected the two food sources. In a mere four hours, the slime mold had built connections between the two sources using all four of the paths (as shown in the middle of the image above). However, in another four hours, it had worked out the shortest of the four routes (as shown on the right of the image above), and that’s the only one it maintained.

Now as I pointed out in my other two posts about slime molds, these organisms are thought to be “primitive,” because they are thought to have evolved long ago, even before plants and animal evolved. Nevertheless, when presented with puzzles, they are able to solve them. In fact, in one of the previous studies I wrote about, it was suggested that these “primitive” organisms could help us design better networks. Based on the results of this study, such networks would probably be very efficient.

In my high-school biology course, I stress over and over again that there is no such thing as a “simple” organism. The more we study nature, the more clear that becomes.

Yet Another Failed Evolutionary Prediction

Posted by jlwile on June 23, 2014

This a colony of coral from the genus Acropora, the same genus analyzed in the study that is being discussed.  (click for credit)

This a colony of coral from the genus Acropora, the same genus analyzed in the study that is being discussed. (click for credit)

One of the main ways to test the validity of a scientific hypothesis is to use that hypothesis to make predictions. If those predictions are confirmed by the data, more weight is added to the validity of the hypothesis. If those predictions are falsified by the data, the validity of the hypothesis should be called into question. When it comes to the hypothesis of evolution (in the flagellate-to-philosopher sense), prediction after prediction has been falsified (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds to the very long list of failed evolutionary predictions.

In this case, the researchers were studying the phenomenon of apoptosis, which is programmed cell death. In an organism that is composed of several cells, it is important to have a mechanism by which cells that are diseased, very old, or otherwise unstable can be removed. That way, they won’t harm the rest of the organism. This is one of the purposes of apoptosis. When a cell recognizes that it is a potential threat to the organism as a whole, it can actually release protein-destroying chemicals that cause it to kill itself.

Not surprisingly, the process by which apoptosis occurs is incredibly complex. Nevertheless, scientists have made a lot of progress in understanding it. We now know that there are specialized enzymes that start the process. They belong to a group called the TNF receptor-ligand superfamily. In this superfamily, there are TNF ligands (collectively called TNFSF) and receptors (collectively called TNFRSF). When the ligands bind to the receptors, a process starts that can either cause the cell to override its programmed cell death or continue on with it, depending on other chemical signals that are taking place within the organism.

Now don’t get lost in the terminology here. The idea is that multicelled organisms must have a way to get rid of cells that might be bad for the organism as a whole. One way this happens is for special chemicals from a group called TNFSF to bind to other special chemicals from a group called TNFRSF. This activates a process that determines whether the cell should continue to be a part of the organism or kill itself for the good of the organism.

The researchers who published this study decided to analyze apoptosis in one of the more “primitive” organisms on the planet, a species of coral called Acropora digitfera. According to the researchers, corals like this species have been around for 550 million years, so it should be a good representative of some of the earliest animals that ever existed on the planet. Given that assumption, the researchers thought that the apoptosis process in corals should be rather simple – at least a lot less complicated than what we see in the “higher” animals such as flies, birds, and people. Surprisingly, they found the exact opposite.

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A Father’s Day Drama

Posted by jlwile on June 18, 2014

(click for credit)

(click for credit)

This past Sunday was Father’s Day. I was traveling home from the California Homeschool Convention, so I wasn’t able to attend the church I regularly attend. However, I did put together a drama that was performed to honor the fathers who came to church that day. My “go to” actor in the drama team took responsibility for it, and everyone says that it went really well.

I want to add one note about how you might stage this to make it even more enjoyable. The drama is about how a son’s perception of his father changes as he grows up. To illustrate each perception, I took pictures of men in our congregation and had them projected onto the big screen. I did this to make the drama as simple as possible, since I wasn’t there to deal with all the headaches. However, I think the drama could be even better if you used different actors to represent the different perceptions. This would make for a larger cast and a lot of costuming issues, but I do think it would be more interesting and more fun for the congregation.

As is the case with all my dramas, please feel free to use this script in any way that serves the Body of Christ. I would appreciate credit, but that’s not necessary.

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