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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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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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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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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How Do You Design the Best Train? Copy the Designs of the Ultimate Engineer.

Posted by jlwile on June 11, 2014

This is an Azure Kingfisher.  The Shinkansen "bullet train" in Japan was improved by copying the design of a kingfisher's beak.  (click for credit)

This is an Azure Kingfisher. The Shinkansen “bullet train” in Japan was improved by copying the design of a kingfisher’s beak. (click for credit)

I ran across a story on biomimicry a few days ago. Although it discusses things that happened a while ago, I thought it was a great example of how copying designs found in nature can improve the designs produced by modern science and technology. The story involves Eiji Nakatsu, a Japanese engineer who worked on the high-speed “bullet” trains in Japan. These trains travel at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, and not surprisingly, there are a lot of design challenges involved in such systems.

In particular, there were three design issues that plagued the trains. First, the train would produce a very loud noise when entering a tunnel, because it would be “smashing” into a column of confined air. While this slowed down the train a bit, the big problem was the noise that it produced. The loud bang would disturb not only wildlife but also nearby residents. In order to comply with Japanese noise pollution regulations, something needed to be done.

According to the article, Nakatsu met this challenge by redesigning the front of the train. As a bird-watcher, he had observed Kingfisher birds diving into water without producing much of a splash. He realized that this was similar to what the trains had to do when entering a tunnel, so he designed the front of the train to be more like the head and beak of a kingfisher. It worked. The train could enter tunnels at full speed without producing a loud noise.

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The Inquisition Strikes Again

Posted by jlwile on May 19, 2014

This painting, by French artist Edouard Moyse, is entitled "Inquisition."

This painting, by French artist Edouard Moyse, is entitled “Inquisition.” (public domain image)

Dr. Lennart Bengtsson is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Reading’s Environmental Systems Science Centre. When it comes to climate scientists, there are few more distinguished. He has been awarded the Descartes Research Prize (for outstanding scientific and technological achievements resulting from European collaborative research), the International Meteorological Organization Prize (for outstanding contributions to meteorology, climatology, hydrology, and related sciences), and the Rossby Prize (the highest award for atmospheric science given by the American Meteorological Society). He currently has 238 papers published in the nationally-recognized, peer-reviewed scientific literature, focused mostly on climate science. Obviously, his credentials speak for themselves.

About a month ago, he accepted an invitation to join The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a think tank devoted to climate science and its effects on public policy. They say they are focused on “Restoring balance and trust to the climate debate,” and their members have a wide range of views on the science behind global warming. Some agree with the opinions of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which says that human beings are causing the planet to warm and the results are potentially catastrophic. Others do not think the scientific evidence is strong enough to make such a statement, while others think the scientific evidence indicates that the climate changes we are seeing now are mostly the result of natural cycles which have been going on for a long, long time. In short, their membership represents the same variety of opinions that is found in the climate science community.

Unfortunately for Dr. Bengtsson (and science as a whole), this is considered unacceptable by the Inquisition, which seeks to enforce orthodoxy among scientists. According to the Inquisition, the science is settled. Despite the fact that the data are far from conclusive, the Inquisition has decided that to even suggest there might be something wrong with the “scientific consensus” on global warming is downright heresy. As a result, Dr. Bengtsson was bullied into resigning from his position at the GWPF. In his own words:

I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that has become virtually unbearable to me. If this is going to continue I will be unable to conduct my normal work and will even start to worry about my health and safety…I had not expecting such an enormous world-wide pressure put at me from a community that I have been close to all my active life. Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship etc. I see no limit and end to what will happen. It is a situation that reminds me about the time of McCarthy. I would never have expecting anything similar in such an original peaceful community as meteorology. Apparently it has been transformed in recent years. [Please note that English is not Dr. Bengtsson's mother tongue.]

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These Algae Falsify an Evolutionary Prediction

Posted by jlwile on May 7, 2014

This is one of the species of algae that seem to falsify an evolutionary prediction (click for credit)

This is one of the species of algae that seem to falsify an evolutionary prediction (click for credit)

Two species that are closely-related should compete for resources more strongly than two species that are distantly-related. This is a prediction Darwin himself made, and while it hasn’t been tested very much, it has been assumed to be true ever since. In 1967, MacArthur and Levins formalized the prediction1, and at least according to some biologists, it is “central to ecology and evolutionary biology.”2 It’s one of those ideas that makes sense in an evolutionary framework but is hard to test. As a result, most biologists have just assumed that it is true.

Well, while studying algae, Dr. Bradley J. Cardinale and his colleagues inadvertently put the idea to the test. They were trying to measure the competition that existed between 23 different species of green algae, such as the one pictured above (Coelastrum microporum). All these species are commonly found existing together in North American ecosystems, so it is assumed that they compete with one another. In their experiment, they took two different species from the group of 23 and put them together in a laboratory environment. They then measured how the two species competed with one another.

Now remember, they were looking at 23 different species, but they only put two species together to compete with one another. In order to look at all possible combinations of these 23 species taken two at a time, then, they had to examine 253 separate situations. They examined each combination of species twice, to make sure that their results were consistent, so they looked at a total of 506 competitive situations. However, in order to compare how the species did in competition to how they did without competition, they also had to put each species in a laboratory environment on its own. They examined each of those situations twice as well. In the end, then, they examined 552 different situations of algae growing in a laboratory environment. In other words, this was an extensive experiment.

The results of this extensive experiment were rather surprising, at least to the investigators and many other evolutionists.

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Using Stories to Indoctrinate Children

Posted by jlwile on April 23, 2014

A teacher reads a story to kindergarteners (click for credit)

A teacher reads a story to kindergarteners (click for credit)

Consider the following statement: “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe.” Do you think that’s a true statement? I do. However, if they are given enough time, many scientists will tell you that the statement is false. Sure, trees produce oxygen, but they don’t do it so that animals can breathe. Such a statement implies there is a purpose behind the fact that trees produce oxygen, and most scientists would say there is are no purposes in nature. Instead, most scientists would say that trees (and other photosynthetic organisms) evolved to produce oxygen, and the availability of oxygen in the atmosphere allowed for the evolution of oxygen-breathing animals.

Statements like the one above are called teleological statements, because teleology is the idea that there are purposes in nature. Obviously, creationists think in terms of teleology. We think that God designed the world, and just as a human designer puts purposes in his design, God put purposes into nature. Thus, trees (and other photosynthetic organisms) were designed by God specifically because He wanted to produce animals and people that breathe oxygen. As a result, He knew there would need to be a mechanism by which oxygen could be replenished in the atmosphere.

It is important to note, however, that creationists are not the only ones who believe in teleology. Indeed, atheist philosopher Dr. Thomas Nagel wrote an incredibly important book two years ago entitled Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. In that book, he clearly rejects the notion of any kind of creator, but he argues quite convincingly that the data show there must be a teleological explanation for the natural world. He is hard pressed to give an atheistic teleological explanation; he just argues that evolutionists must develop one.

In fact, even most scientists who reject teleology think in terms of it when they are caught off guard. Research shows that if you force scientists who reject teleology to evaluate scientific statements quickly, they tend to accept the teleological ones. However, if they are allowed enough time to think through the implications of each statement, they reject the teleological ones. This implies that the natural instinct of a person, even a person who rejects teleology, is to think about nature in terms of purpose. This, of course, is a danger to naturalistic evolution, which is what the high priests of science want people to believe. Thus, such blasphemous ideas must be rooted out of the human psyche.

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