Sunday, December 19, 2010

All of Chemistry About to be Rewritten!1!!1

Did everyone hear about how, "For the first time in history, a change will be made to the atomic weights of some elements listed on the Periodic table of the chemical elements". Apparently it has to do with atomic masses changing depending on where you are. Weird, huh?

No. I'm not making that up. It's what the article says. Really:
sulfur is commonly known to have a standard atomic weight of 32.065. However, its actual atomic weight can be anywhere between 32.059 and 32.076, depending on where the element is found. (Emphasis added)
Oh wait.... they're talking about "weight". Not mass. Silly me.

Oh wait. Silly them. Get outside of a gravitational field and there's no weight! Thus these ranges are a bit off.

Oh wait... that's still not what they're talking about? Well why didn't they say that?

What's really going on is that some people are wanting to include the ranges of stable isotopes (different atoms altogether) of certain, common elements. So.... they're not really changing anything. They're just pulling a bit of info off of the table of isotopes and including it on the periodic table.

No big deal really. Except now students are going to be a lot more confused about what number to plug into the formula they don't understand either. Yes. Let's compound the problems early.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Biggest Whiners over DADT

After long hand wringing, it looks like the horrible policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is going to be repealed. I think the effects will be interesting, but what's caught my eye more, are articles like this one, which make it clear who really care about the policy: The fundamentalists.
"Chaplains who aren't able to proclaim what they believe is true about this issue ... means that the soldier then, the airman, the sailor, the guardian, the Marine aren't able to get the full opportunity to hear religious faiths," retired Army Chaplain Brigadier Gen. Douglas Lee tells CNN.
Quotes like this one are what really get to me. Nowhere does repealing the policy say that chaplains can't proclaim that they think gays are evil. It just guarantees that servicemen and women will be able to be open, and perhaps for once, instead of their fellow service members nodding in agreement, they'll be able to stick up for their friends. It's harder to feel comfortable about bigotry when you have to be face to face, work side by side, and entrust your life to the people you're condemning.

This came in the wake of a report looking at the effects of reversing the DADT policy. According to the article, "Only three out of about 145 chaplains who participated in the study suggested they would quit or leave if the law were changed."

I'm not sure if that's good or bad. I think it's great that these bigots will leave and be preaching hate to less people, but at the same time, I have to wonder how many more will stay and do it anyway.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Speaking Event: 1/26 @ Illinois College

Next month, I'll be speaking at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. As usual, my talk will be a variation on the Anime Mythbusters panel I've been touring to various conventions around the midwest. However, this time I'm speaking in a more academic setting, so I'm going to be including a bit more about how this entire thing ties in with science and the real world.

I'm being sponsored jointly by the math and Japanese departments, so this should be one interesting audience to talk to. It will be Wednesday, January 26, 2011 @ 7:00 p.m. in Kirby Learning Center Room 6.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More on Darwin vs. the Sun - Science & Epistomology

Over at Universe Today, I just posted an article looking at a Catholic magazine and review called the Month from 1889 in which they covered the controversy over the age of the Earth as required by both Darwin and astronomers. History has shown Darwin as the victor in that, but there's something I left out of the article and wish to comment on here. Namely, the closing statement of the article.

Essentially, it concludes that because science, at that present moment could not fully answer the controversy that,
Science then, even by its own showing, is altogether incompetent to furnish us with a guiding line, by which we may regulate and order our lives. And as the nature of man instinctively feels the need of some such guide, and will be content with nothing less than the truth, it follows that a trustworthy basis for faith and deed must be sought elsewhere.
Although this article is now over 120 years old, I still hear this exact same argument used today (as well as the anti-science one I quoted in the UT article). I left this part of the UT article because it doesn't deal with science as much as epistemology and was better suited for here.

This sort of thinking pisses the hell out of me. While it makes a true statement, that humans are curious and want to know how things work, it promotes the cheapest and most superficial form of knowledge available, if one can even call it knowledge. Namely, it suggests that if you cannot have a satisfying and correct answer immediately from science on demand, then we should reject science and go for anything else that provides convenient and easy answers. The article promotes a search for truth, but provides no basis for establishing it and rejects the only reliable means by which to do so.

The ultimate irony in this is that the article spent several pages extolling the knowledge gained by science from Kelvin, Newton and other visionaries. But only because it provided the author with easy answers that confirmed his own biases. I suspect that if the author had lived in those times, he may have rejected the findings he later accepts. It's only from the retrospective vantage that the answers look clear.

This article highlights the confusion often apparent when new territory is being explored, but as with so many things before, the actual answer eventually came though. However, it didn't come by turning away from the search because it wasn't immediately gratifying. It came from working hard and looking for evidence. As Dan Meyer has said before, "no problem worth solving is that simple."

I cannot agree with this statement more. Instead of allowing for these cheap answers, as gussied up as they may be, we need to demand real answers. And we need to be promoting this to students and the public at large. Are things unknown in science? Absolutely. Are some of the things being hashed out today going to be wrong? Absolutely. Does this mean everything in science is wrong? Hell no. Does it mean that we should forsake science and turn to snake-oil salesmen? Absolutely not.

Those like the author of the article who answer yes to the last two of those questions should get no respect. It vexes me greatly that they still do.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Congratz to JT Eberhard

For those that don't follow his blog, JT just announced that he has taken a job with the Secular Student Alliance where he will be their new Campus Organizer and High School Specialist.

For those that don't know JT, he's the guy that put together Skepticon. Having a guy that pulled together such a large and amazing convention as that working together with the SSC to help form new secular student groups at a time when such groups are exploding and flourishing is probably one of the best things that can happen for the skeptical community right now.

So congratz to JT. We know you'll do great. And you'd better. Because we're watching.

PS: Bwa ha ha ha!

"My days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle"

At work, one of the residents* learned that I was a science major. He told me that a friend of his, a pastor, had visited Einstein and had written an interview. He had a copy and would copy it and give one to me. Being that I've been working a great deal recently on astronomical history for a large project of mine (details when it gets closer to completion), I was very interested in seeing this.

Last week, he brought the copy by and.... well, I'll just repost the majority of it here and let everyone see what they think before I give my conclusions.
The housekeeper answered the door, and I asked if I could see Dr. Einstein concerning a particular matter. She invited me in and referred me to Einstein's secretary, who at the time was his stepdaughter. The stepdaughter went upstairs to check with Einstein and, upon returning, told me that her stepfather was willing to see me. I walked upstairs to his office.

Three walls were lined with books. The fourth "wall" was really a huge pane of glass that afforded a beautiful view of the Princeton University golf course, with the tower of the Princeton University Graduate School in the distance. Near the door hung portraits of Einstein's heroes, Mohanda Ghandi and the English physicist Michael Faraday.

Einstein was dressed in baggy trousers and a long-underwear shirt, the latter sporting what appeared to be soup stains. A pair of scruffy wool-lined slippers covered his bare feet. His hair was gray, bushy and very long - a preview of the hairstyles of the 1960's. He say back in his chair, puffing contentedly away on a long curlicue pipe.

Einstein was never much concerned about his physical appearance or about material things in general. His home was not at all the palatial mansion I had thought it would be prior to me arriving in Princeton; rather, it was a plain wooden-fram structure already 120 years old. Some of its shutters were cockeyed, and the whole place wanted paint, but the inside was quite neat, even spartan, which I attributed not to any efforts of Einstein's but to his stepdaughter and housekeeper.

He invited me to sit down. I told him who I was, and then I posed a question of a religious-scientific nature (I have long since forgotten what my question was). He gave me his answer, and since he seemed to be in a rec eptive mood, I continued with other questions.

"Dr. Einstein," I asked, "do you believe in God?"

He replied: "I suppose the average atheist would consider me a believer in God, whereas the average believer would call me an atheist or agnostic. Actually, I do believe in a supernatural force."

I then asked him a few questions about the Old Testament - what, for instance, he believed concerning Noah, Moses, David and the Psalms. He showed from his answers that he was acquainted with Old Testament Scriptures, evidently because he had been brought up in a Jewish home.

From this point, I proceeded to the New Testament, saying, "Dr. Einstein, I believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God. How about you?"

"No," he replied. "I can't believe that."

"I believe," I continued, "that Jesus Christ made atonement on the cross for us human beings so that we might become children of God and heirs of heaven. How about you?"

"No," he responded. "I can't go that far with Jesus Christ."

Following his answers, he often laughed and chuckled a bit, and in this chuckling I could sense a tone of derision. This was especially apparent in connection with the subsequent remark I made.

"Dr. Einstein," I said, "according to the Bible, if we are lost, we have ourselves to blame. If we are saved, we have God alone to thank."

"To this he responded: "If that is the case, then I'll have to blame your God for giving me a mind that can't accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world." Here is where his laughs and chuckles struck me as being particularly derisive, although I knew he meant no meanness by them. They simply seemed to say, "Young man, how can you be so naive as to accept that nonsense?"

It is evidently true, as the Scriptures say, that "the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14).

Though humility was not especially in evidence on Dr. Einstein's part during the bulk of my 40-minute visit with him, yet a semblance of it did become apparent at the conclusion. As I left, I sad, "Dr. Einstein, I'd like to invite you to our Lutheran worship services at Westminster Choir College Chapel. I'd like to be able to tell my grandchildren one day that I preached to the smartest man in the world."

To this he replied, "Oh, no, I'm not the smartest man! I'm not the smartest man!" Once again he laughed and chuckled, but this time there was no derisive tone. He meant it.

Let's condense that down.

1. Arrogant preacher waltzes into someone else's home, without prior invitation.
2. Said preacher declares steadfast belief and asks if other person holds them.
3. Said preacher feels mocked when laughed at casually for having beliefs without bothering to support them.
4. Insinuates other person is not as intelligent as they seem for not sharing said beliefs.

This is a pretty perfect micro-summation of the general problem I have with religious blowhards like Jerry Falwell. They have large, public platforms, declare their beliefs, whine about persecution and intolerance when other people don't give them inherent and undue respect, and then insult the people that only go so far as to disagree and make it known!

While that's annoying enough in and of itself, the larger problem to me is that so many people seem to think this is a perfectly respectable position. There's not one iota of logic or reason in it. It only works if you already accept the conclusion that the absurd position is valid. It can only perpetuate itself by circular reasoning.

It's bad thinking. It needs to stop. These people aren't victims. A bit of scoffing isn't going to hurt them. But playing it off as if it does certainly hurts others.

* - I'm currently working at a retirement community while I finish getting my certification. I passed my last test and am just waiting on paperwork to go through so I can get back in the classroom!

PS: For those that aren't familiar with the post title, it's taken from the series Firefly in which Malcom Reynolds sarcastically informs Jayne that he's considering taking him more seriously after Jayne offers to trade a rifle for Mal's supposed wife.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Louisiana Gearing Up for Another Evolution Battle?

It looks like Louisiana school boards are looking to insert the "teach the controversy" nonsense into their classrooms. They're scheduled to have a debate on whether or note they need to balance their textbooks with "information questioning the theory of evolution."


This comes after the school board asked a review council to look over the textbook before approving it and weigh in. Fortunately, it looks like the team is at least somewhat qualified as there was an 8-4 vote to approve it by that council. Obviously the school board was looking for a different answer because they're still stalling to try to open up "debate" on the issue. This sounds reminiscent of the Kansas Evolution Hearings in which the school board flew in "experts" in Intelligent Design on the taxpayer's dime to tell the board what they'd already decided on.

Of course, the advisory council obviously has some scientifically illiterate fools on it.
State board member Dale Bayard said he plans to vote against the texts—which the state textbook-adoption committee overwhelmingly approved—and will urge his colleagues to join him.

“The textbooks in the life sciences that were proposed ... did not include all science that is currently available on the subject [of evolution],” he said, asserting that some findings “refuting” the theory have been ignored.
Additionally, the author did have to do the job of poor journalism and get quotes from someone completely unrelated to the discussion, talking to a Reverend from the 'Louisiana Family Forum, an advocacy group whose stated mission is to promote “biblical principles in the centers of influence”'.

Right. Because a reverend is an expert on what should be taught in science classes. And not to be satisfied with just trashing evolution, he went on to state he had "other issues such as global warming and “embryonic issues.”"

Thanks for reminding us that this isn't just an attack on evolution. It's an attack on science.... being waged in our classrooms. It's disgusting.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Oops. Got the title Wrong.

An article recently posted on alternet seems to think it's "shocking" that a non-religious parent has been deemed unworthy to receive equal custody of his child based on his agnostic position. While it's reprehensible and clearly shows just how little persecution the religious majority receives, despite their pleas to the contrary, it's in no way shocking. It happens quite frequently. And it's one of the reasons we need events like Skepticon: to remind the public that non-religious people are people to, deserving of the same rights as everyone else. Funny thing is, we don't get them.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Failure: Impossible

A few weeks ago, I came across this article about a school district in Alexandria, Va. which has removed the failing grade (F) from it's possible grades. Instead, failing students will receive an Incomplete (I). The idea behind this is that the school feels an F is to final. It tells students that they're over. They're done. They didn't make it. Move on because you can't do this.

To me, it's an insult to our intelligence. I'm no psychologist, but effectively, an F and an I mean the same thing: You didn't complete the course work and if you want the credit, you'll have to try again. Are kids really so dumb as to think that this changes anything?

The only thing I can see it changing is that it may not impact a student's GPA. Most times, when an I grade is used, it's a placeholder that isn't counted for tabulation of GPA. Translation: It can't hurt you. It can slow you down, but so long as you get it done, you suffer no penalty for not keeping up. Since when does this work in the real world? All we're doing is lowering the bar.

I understand the hardships of feeling like you're behind. I felt like it much of my college year. But here's the thing: Unless you're feeling challenged, you won't work to better yourself. Telling kids that they can't fail essentially removes that pushing force.

Sure, it's not a force that will drive all students. Some won't care if it's there or not, but I can't see such students caring if you call it an F or an I either. But there are students that do need that threat to keep them working. And taking that away just feels like we're letting those students down in the long run, even though they may think they like it in the short run.