Postmodernism Redefined

The cover of Dr. Lawler’s book

I am not a fan of postmodernism, at least as it is generally defined. Because of this, I have written a couple of posts (here and here) that portray it in a negative light. A frequent commenter on this blog, Jake, took issue with my negative portrayal and suggested that I read Postmodernism Rightly Understood by Dr. Peter Augustine Lawler.

Since I appreciate Jake’s excellent comments and have learned from him on more than one occasion, I wanted to read the book, but it took me a while to get to it. I finally did read it last week. It was an interesting book that discussed several important authors and their ideas. Some of the authors (like Walker Percy, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Allan Bloom) were familiar to me, but others weren’t. As a result, I learned a lot and was exposed to several new ideas. However, I think the book misses the mark.

Now, of course, I am practicing philosophy without a license, while Dr. Lawler is a trained philosopher with lots of experience. Thus, you can take this criticism for what it is worth. Nevertheless, I don’t think this book is a defense of postmodernism. It is more of a discussion of anti-modernism, and based on Lawler’s obvious admiration of Walker Percy (who definitely deserves admiration), it is more a defense of Thomism.

Of course, it’s easy to get lost in the language of philosophy, so let’s make sure we are all on the same page. When it comes to philosophy, modernism suggests that we should ignore traditions (both religious and social) and the inherent biases that come with them, and we should try to judge the world critically. The more unbiased we can be in our judgments, the better. If we do that, we will be able to control our own destiny.

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Forbes Censors Article About a Scientist Who Is Skeptical of Climate Hysteria

Dr. Nir Shaviv speaking in Australia

Dr. Nir J. Shaviv is an astrophysicist of some renown. He has over 100 scientific papers to his credit and is currently chairman of the Racah Institute of Physics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I think it’s safe to say that Dr. Shaviv knows a thing or two about science and how it is done. One of his specialties is studying the effect that cosmic rays from the sun have on the earth’s climate. So just to make it clear. Dr. Nir Shaviv is a well-respected scientist who has published peer-reviewed research specifically about earth’s climate.

Does this mean we have to believe what Dr. Shaviv says when it comes to earth’s climate? Of course not. However, it does mean that he is a recognized expert in the field. Even when I disagree with experts, I still try to pay attention to what they say and the data they produce, because they know more than I do when it comes to the issue I am investigating. Thus, while I certainly don’t have to agree with the conclusions of any given expert, I do have to at least try to understand the data the expert has collected and why he or she thinks they point to a certain conclusion. If I don’t do that, I am no longer thinking scientifically. After all, the only way you can make a scientific conclusion is to consider all of the data. Ignoring data because I don’t agree with the source is not scientific; it is emotional.

Why am I bringing this up? Because last night, I was scrolling through a news feed and noticed a Forbes article entitled, “Global Warming? An Israeli Astrophysicist Provides Alternative View That Is Not Easy To Reject.” Obviously, that title was very interesting to me, so I clicked on the link. Unfortunately, what I found was a message that said:

After review, this post has been removed for failing to meet our editorial standards.

We are providing our readers the headline, author and first paragraphs in the interest of transparency.

We regret any inconvenience.

This seemed rather odd to me, so I decided to do some digging. What I found did not reflect well on Forbes.

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One Way To See How Special Earth Is

A sample of the exoplanets “conservatively” thought to be in their star’s habitable zone, along with familiar planets for scale. (click for credit)

Thirty-five years ago, Dr. Theodore P. Snow wrote a book entitled Essentials of the Dynamic Universe. On page 434 of the 1984 edition, he summed up the obvious consequence of the idea that earth was formed as a result of natural processes without any need for Divine intervention:

We believe that the earth and the other planets are a natural by-product of the formation of the sun, and we have evidence that some of the essential ingredients for life were present on the earth from the time it formed. Similar conditions must have been met countless times in the history of the universe, and will occur countless more times in the future.

In other words, there is nothing special about the earth; it is one of many planets that harbor life. The more we learn about the universe, the more we should realize just how mediocre the earth is.

Since Dr. Snow penned those words, almost 4,000 exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) have been discovered. How many of them are similar to earth? The most reasonable answer, based on what we know right now, is zero. Why? Well, let’s consider one and only one factor: whether or not the planet is in the habitable zone of its star. That’s the distance from the star which allows the planet to get enough energy to stay warm enough to support life as we know it.

Out of nearly 4,000 exoplanets, how many are within the habitable zone? With the recent discovery of a planet charmingly known as “GJ 357 d,” the number of planets that might possibly qualify is 53. If we are conservative in our estimate, the number drops to 19, but let’s be as optimistic as possible. Out of nearly 4,000 exoplanets, only 53 might possibly be in the habitable zone.

What do I mean when I say “might possibly be in the habitable zone?” Well, there are a few factors that influence a planet’s temperature, and the distance from its star is only one of those factors. Another important issue is the planet’s atmosphere. With the right mix and right amount of greenhouse gases, a planet that is a bit far from its star could be in the habitable zone, because even though it gets only a little energy from its star, its atmosphere holds onto that energy really well. In fact, that’s why GJ 357 d might possibly be in the habitable zone. It gets about as much energy from its star as Mars does from the sun, but it is massive enough to hold on to a pretty thick atmosphere. It’s possible that the atmosphere could make up for its distance from the sun, so astronomers say it is possibly at the “outer edge” of the star’s habitable zone.

Now think about that for a moment. If we consider only one factor necessary for a planet to sustain life (being in the habitable zone of a star), just over 1% might possibly have it. Of course, there are lots of other factors necessary for life as we know it. A life-sustaining planet must also have an abundance of water, the right mixture of non-greenhouse gases in its atmosphere, the right mix of chemicals in its crust to provide nutrition to organisms, a shield from both ultraviolet rays and cosmic rays that come from the star around which it orbits, a reasonable speed of rotation around its axis, etc., etc. The earth has all these things, but a survey of nearly 4,000 exoplanets shows that just over 1% have only one of those things. What’s the chance that one of those planets has everything else it needs to support life? The most reasonable answer based on what we know is zero.

Despite what naturalists expect (and most still want to believe), it is clear that the earth is a very, very special planet. One might be so bold as to say that it is the Privileged Planet.

Human/Animal Hybrids?

Pallas and the Centaur, by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482

A Facebook friend posted this article on my timeline, and then a reader of this blog sent me an email that included the same article plus this one. Both articles report on experiments that will attempt to produce human/animal hybrids. This idea obviously makes a lot of people uneasy, so I thought I would explore it a bit here.

First, let’s make sure we know exactly what these experiments are trying to accomplish. They are not trying to make some human/animal hybrid like the centaur pictured on the left. Instead, they want to take animal embryos and edit out key genes necessary for the animal to grow a specific organ. They then want to inject pluripotent human stem cells into the embryo. Since pluripotent stem cells have the ability to become any kind of cell, the thought is that the human pluripotent stem cells would grow the organ that the animal embryo cannot grow, resulting in an animal embryo that is growing a human organ. So this is less of a human/animal hybrid and more of an animal/human chimera.

Why would anyone want to do this? Well, it is estimated that more than 7,000 people die every year because they need a transplant but cannot get the necessary organ. This process would greatly increase the pool of organs available for transplant, thus saving many people’s lives.

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Data Indicate That Earth Was Warmer in The Middle Ages

Inferred temperatures for Antarctica as a Whole over the past 1500 years.
(graph from study being discussed)

For some time, climatologists have accepted the fact that from about the year AD 1000 to AD 1200, the temperature of the Northern Hemisphere was unusually warm. In fact, most studies indicate that it was warmer than it is today. This period of warm temperatures has been referred to as the “Medieval Warm Period,” the “Medieval Climate Anomaly,” or the “Medieval Climate Optimum.” A few hundred years later, the Northern Hemisphere experienced cooler-than-normal temperatures, and that part of earth’s history is sometimes called the “Little Ice Age.” Many climatologists argue that both the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age were limited to the Northern Hemisphere. However, a series of studies indicate that these periods of extreme temperatures were experienced worldwide.

I just recently became aware of these studies because the latest one appeared in my news feed. This study used the results of climate proxy data from 60 different sites. If you aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to data that scientists use to attempt to understand climate conditions of the past. Tree rings, for example, are sensitive to temperature and precipitation, so it is thought that we can use them to determine past climate conditions of the region where trees have been growing. Many climate-sensitive things like recorded harvests, coral growth, pollen grains, etc. can be used as climate proxies. The more climate proxies you have for a given region, the more likely you are to be able to determine the local climate conditions over the times for which you have those data.

As I said, the study used proxy data from 60 different sites to reconstruct the temperature of Antarctica over the past 1500 years. The overall graph from the study is given above. As you can see, according to the study, Antarctica was significantly warmer from AD 500 until AD 1250 than it is today. The pink region is the time over which the Northern Hemisphere experienced the Medieval Warm Period, and as you can see, the study’s data indicate that Antarctica was experiencing warmer-than-average temperatures as well. You can also see that those temperatures then fell over the next 750 years or so, producing colder-than-average temperatures. Thus, Antarctica seems to have experienced both the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.

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How I Address the Age of the Earth in My Courses

My publisher has been getting several questions about how I address the age of the earth in my science courses. This probably stems from the fact that there is a lot of misinformation going through the homeschooling community regarding my position on the issue. I thought I would try to clear things up with a post.

First, my position on the age of the earth hasn’t changed in more than thirty years. I turned from atheism to Christianity in my late high school years, and at that time, I was happy to believe what my teachers told me about the age of the earth. It was more than four billion years old. I was told that we knew this because of radiometric dating methods, which involved studying the relative amounts of radioactive atoms in rocks and fossils. This “fact” of science was later reinforced when I went to university, so I was still happy to believe it.

Then I started my Ph.D. program in nuclear chemistry. I learned about radioactive decay in detail and started doing experiments with nuclear reactions. Most of my work was done at the University of Rochester Nuclear Structure Research Lab, which also had a group that did radiometric dating. I never did any of that work myself, but I watched them do their experiments, asked them questions, listened to their presentations at the lab, etc. Based on what I learned there, I decided that I couldn’t put much faith in the ages given by radiometric dating.

This caused me to question the age of the earth from a scientific perspective. Theologically, I wasn’t committed to any age for the earth. Certainly the most straightforward interpretation of Genesis is that the universe and all it contains was created in six solar days, and that leads to a young-earth view. At the same time, however, there were early church Fathers (as well as ancient Jewish theologians) who didn’t interpret the days in Genesis that way. So I attempted to investigate the subject with an open mind. I found that in my view, science makes a lot more sense if the earth is thousands of years old rather than billions of years old, so I started believing in a young earth. The more I have studied science, the more convinced I have become that the earth is only thousands of years old.

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In This Case, the Journal Science is Holding Back the Progress of Science

Sometimes, scientific journals hold back the progress of science.

***Please note that while political beliefs are mentioned in this post, it is NOT a political post and political commentary will NOT be approved.***

Science is supposed to be self-correcting. The history of science is full of mistakes, but over time, those mistakes are usually found, and the findings are communicated to the scientific community so that the mistakes no longer influence scientific thinking. Unfortunately, one of the main ways that findings are communicated is through scientific journals, and there are times when scientific journals are not interesting in correcting mistakes, especially when those mistakes reflect badly on the journal’s reputation. I recently ran across a story that illustrates this point.

Back in 2008, the most prestigious scientific journal in the United States, the journal Science, published a study that attempted to understand the root causes of political beliefs. They exposed several participants to images and sounds designed to evoke fear and correlated the participants’ response to their political beliefs. Based on their results, the authors concluded:

…individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

In other words, if you are prone to fear, you are more likely to be a conservative. If not, you are more likely to be a liberal.

The study was ground-breaking, and it has strongly influenced scientific research in the field. Indeed, at the time of this posting, the study has been referenced in 257 subsequent studies. There’s only one problem. It probably isn’t correct. How do we know? Because some researchers who were initially interested in expanding on the results of the study began doing some experiments, but the experiments didn’t seem to support the conclusions of the 2008 study. In an attempt to see what they were doing wrong, the researchers contacted the authors of the 2008 study so that they could replicate their methodology. They weren’t trying to demonstrate that the 2008 study was wrong. In fact, they were trying to use its methodology to “calibrate” their study so that they could get consistent results.

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MIT Professor Writes About Her Conversion from Atheism to Christianity

Dr. Rosalind Picard (click for credit)

Rosalind Picard is a Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is also a Fellow with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, which is one of the highest honors that an engineer can receive. She even invented an entire branch of computer science called affective computing. She is obviously an incredibly smart woman who is a very successful in her field. She is also a Christian.

Several months ago, one of my readers on Facebook sent me an article Dr. Picard wrote. It describes her journey from atheism to Christianity, and I loved reading it. I really wanted to write about it as soon as I had finished reading, but every time I had a chance to blog, there was something else that I thought I needed to cover. Then I forgot about it. I was probably distracted by something shiny. That happens a lot. Recently, I was reminded of her story, so I want to share it, because in many ways, it is a lot like my own.

Of course, the best way to read her story is to just click on the link above, but I will add a bit of my own “color commentary,” just because I relate to so much of what she has written. For example, aside from the grade school part (it was junior high for me), the first paragraph of her story could have been written by me:

As early as grade school, when I was a voracious reader and a straight-A student, I identified with being smart. And I believed smart people didn’t need religion. As a result, I declared myself an atheist and dismissed people who believed in God as uneducated.

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More Global Warming Nonsense

A satellite image of the Great Lakes

One reason the public doesn’t take “climate change” (the disaster previously known as global warming) seriously is because the media report on it so stupidly. Essentially, any bad thing that happens in the world is due to climate change. Consider, for example, the Great Lakes. Their depths started to decline noticeably in the year 2000. In 2007, New Scientist ran a story entitled:

Global warming is shrinking the Great Lakes

This, of course, is exactly what you would think global warming would do. Increased temperatures should increase evaporation rates, causing lake water levels to drop.

Fast forward to today, when the Great Lakes are at record high levels. What could be causing this? Climate change, of course! As PhysicsWorld puts it:

So, what has changed and why have water levels fluctuated so wildly in less than 10 years? Drew Gronewold and Richard Rood of the University of Michigan argue that climate change has disrupted the balance between evaporation and precipitation in the Great Lakes region.

Of course, when one looks at the data (compiled by the NOAA), one sees that there has been no recent “wild fluctuations” in the levels of the Great Lakes. Their levels have varied over the past 100 years, but the variation has not become “wilder” in recent years:

Now I don’t think most people take the time to look at data like those I presented above. However, they do notice desperation when they see it. When the media take great pains to find ways to blame everything on climate change, it is natural for most rational people to start questioning whether or not it is causing anything.

Soft Tissue Showdown

Soft tissue structures in a dinosaur bone that the authors interpret as biofilms left by modern bacteria (image from study being discussed)

Since Dr. Mary Schweitzer shocked the paleontological community with her discovery of what appears to be soft tissue in a dinosaur fossil, scientists rushed to find more examples of such soft tissue in fossils that are thought to be many millions of years old. They were apparently successful (see here, here, here, here, and here, and here).

Reactions to these finds follow one of three schools of thought. Some in the scientific community (like myself) beleive that the soft tissue is from the creatures that made the fossils and is therefore evidence that the fossils are not millions of years old, since there is no plausible mechanism by which soft tissue can stay soft that long. Some believe that the soft tissue is from the creatures that made the fossils and are seeking a means by which it could stay soft for millions of years. So far, those attempts have not been successful (see here, here, and here). The rest accept the seemingly obvious fact that soft tissue cannot possibly stay soft for millions of years and therefore argue that the soft tissue that has been found cannot be from the creatures that made the fossils. The results of a recent study at least partially support the view of those in the third camp.

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