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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Website Update- Changes to Page, "French Polynesia Travelling Tips"

Just a small update, on my newly added French Polynesia Travelling Tips page, I've added a small paragraph about the lack of a night life on Bora Bora and Moorea (not that that's a bad thing- just so people know what to expect), and another short paragraph about the small Navy Museum on Bora Bora. I also slightly changed the introduction to the restaurant, Bloody Mary's. I had said that it was our favorite restaurant on Bora Bora. But, with as few of restaurants as are on the island, that doesn't do it justice, since it's really quite a good restuarant by any standards.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Website Update- Changes to page, "How to Interpret the Bible"

Last week, I updated my page on How to Interpret the Bible, and I'm just now getting around to documenting it. In case you've never seen it, it's an essay where I explore what seem to me to be the main positions concerning the divinity of the Bible, ranging from being divinely inspired, literal, and completely inerrant in all translations, to being a book written by humans, containing myths and stories from other cultures. In the end, I come to the conclusion that that last option seems the most likely. Most of the changes I made to the essay were small, mainly just changing the wording in a few places to make it read better. The biggest, most useful change, was that for Bible passages, I added links to BibleGateway.com, to the relevant chapters in both the King James Version and the New International Version of the Bible. Now, people can easily read the passages firsthand, 1) without having to rely on my quotation, and 2) saving them time from looking up the passage in a print version of the Bible.

Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Legalizing Homosexual Marriage, Part II

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website October 26th, 2005. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

26 October 2005

On November 8th, among other things, Texans will vote on Proposition 2, "The constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

Now, I know I've written about the issue of homosexual marriage before (2004-04-02 Soapbox Entry, but in light of the upcoming vote, and considering that I live in Texas, I thought it would be worthwhile to visit the issue on my website again (actually, this current essay began its life as an e-mail written in response to a chain mail that I received about Proposition 2). I won't try to cover all of the points in that original essay - no sense in repeating everything here since I've already written most of it down, once. However, there will still be some repetition, because I feel that the additional time to think has allowed me to reword some of the points in a better manner. This essay will also contain a few new points I've thought up since that original soapbox entry.

Just one quick note on Biblical references in this essay: in the few places where I reference a verse from the Bible, I link to the entire chapter. That's so that you can see the verse in context, not just as a verse on its own. Also, I've linked to the New International Version of the Bible, provided by BibleGateway.com. If you don't like the New International Version, BibleGateway provides several translations, including the King James verion.

Political/Legal Perspective

I'm a Christian, and I personally believe that a marriage should be a sacred committment between people through God. That's why my wife and I got married in a church. However, I also understand that we live in a country that's supposed to have a lot of personal freedom, and that we shouldn't be basing laws off of certain people's interpretation of their religion. I know that my interpretation of the Bible is probably quite different from a lot of Christians, and I don't necessarily want those people passing morality laws that affect me (such as when the U.S. passed prohibition and outlawed alcohol). And if I want that respect for myself, I have to grant that respect to others, as well. To get back to the marriage issue, if we were going to base marriage laws on what I thought was moral, it would have to go further than this Proposition 2. There would be no more common law marriages, no more marriages through JPs, no more marriages of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, or any other religion because they're not marriages through God. Heck, I could even go so far as to say no marriages outside Catholics because all of the Protestant religions aren't true Christianity because they're not part of the one, true church. I don't really believe that's the way it should be, but if I did think marriages should be based on what I thought was moral, that's the way I see it (except for that Catholic/Protestant part - my wife and I got married in a Methodist church - but that's the way a lot of Catholics do see it, including my former priest).

So, the main reason I disagree with this Proposition 2 is because I don't think religion should have much of a role in making laws, or else other Christians with different interpretations of the Bible might want to get laws passed that restrict my freedoms.

Biblical Perspective

To look at it from a less political viewpoint, let's take a look at the morality of it. I'm going to look at it from a Biblical standpoint, since the majority of people in Texas are Christians who claim the Bible as the basis for their morality, and this seems to be the biggest reason why they have a problem with homosexual marriages. The Bible definitely says that homosexuality is immoral, no doubt about it. However, how bad is it compared to other sins, and does it deserve all of this attention, to the point that we're willing to pass a law to keep gay marriages from occuring? So now we have to determine how to classify the severity of a sin. There are some people that say all sins are equally bad. If that's the case, then this debate is moot, as we should then be passing laws against everything that's sinful, not just homosexual marriages. If we go under the idea that some sins are worse than others, we need to determine how to classify the severity of sins. One way, I guess, would be to look at the punishments called out for those sins. Homosexuality deserves death in the old testament (Leviticus 20:13), so that would make it pretty bad. However, there are many sins for which the old testament would punish by death. To name just two, that nearly everybody is guilty of at one point or another, are using the Lord's name in vain (Leviticus 24:16), and working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2). So, if you use punishment to judge the severity of sins, homosexuality is on par with saying "Oh my God," or coming in to work on the weekend, or even doing yardwork on a Sunday, none of which do I hear any national debate over. (Actually, ReligiousTolerance.org has a list of a bunch of the sins punishable by death in the Bible.)

So, let's look at another way to classify the severity of sins. I think a lot of people would say that the 10 Commandments are the most important rules in the Bible, at least in the old testament. Those two sins that I mentioned above, using the Lord's name in vain, and working on the Sabbath are both addressed by the Commandments. Homosexuality isn't mentioned anywhere in there. So, if we consider the 10 Commandments to be a good measure of the severity of sin, then homosexuality isn't even as bad as saying "Oh my God," working on a Sunday, or doing yardwork on a Sunday (or Saturday, depending on how you interpret which day is the Sabbath).

As long as we're looking at the 10 Commandments, one of them is that "You shall have no other gods before me." I definitely agree, but once again, if we're going to try to base laws off of what we consider to be morality, that would throw away all of the religious freedom that exists in this country, and that's not something that I want to happen.

So basically, from the moral standpoint, there are lots of things that the Bible tells us are bad, that could be interpreted as being worse than homosexuality. I don't think we should make laws based on those other moral issues, and I think it's unfair to gay people to single out their sin, when it's no more sinful than what all of us do.

Additional Points

As far as homosexuality being unnatural, well, that's up for debate. Even if being "natural" were relevant to the law, most of the evidence seems to indicate that homosexuality is caused by biological factors (possibly genetic, possibly environmental), and that it's not a personal choice. (I've heard people argue that a predisposition towards violence could also be caused by biological factors, and that doesn't excuse violent people. But that's all up to your personal belief of what's moral and immoral, and I definitely wouldn't put homosexuality on the same level as violence.) On the "natural" part of it, there are many cases of homosexuality in other animals, not just people. How much more "natural" can you get? That's not to say that homosexuals are acting like animals, or at least not any more than heterosexuals, or else the same argument could be used to say that heterosexuals are acting like animals, because we see heterosexuality in the animal kingdom. It's just showing that homosexuality does occur throughout nature.

If you're a Christian who thinks that homosexuality is immoral, how would legalizing homosexual marriage affect you, really? It has no effect over your own personal ability to live a Christian lifestyle, nor any effect on your own marriage. It's not like passing a constitutional ammendment to outlaw it is going to erase homosexuality, and for all of you evangelicals, I'm sure it's going to do nothing to help convert them to Christianity. So what's the point? As far as the argument of homosexual marriage somehow cheapening the entire institution, I think that pales in comparison to the unbelievably high divorce rates among heterosexual couples.

Anyway, those are just a few points. I didn't want to repeat everything that I wrote in my previous essay, and I didn't want to spend so much time addressing every single issue that I wouldn't have this essay done before the November 8th vote, especially when others have already addressed many of those issues. Hopefully, this essay will at least get some people to think about this issue from a different point of view.

Further Reading

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public & Religious Fundamentalism

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website August 15th, 2005. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

15 August 2005

It seems like religious fundamentalism, specifically Fundamentalist Christianity, is on the rise in this country. I don't know if that's actually the case, whether regligious fundamentalists are just becoming more vocal, or whether it's because I moved from the northeast down to Texas, so I've noticed it more. Even though I'm a Christian, to me, religious fundamentalism seems like a bad thing. It takes a mindset that ignores scientific evidence and fosters ignorance, keeps scientifically knowledgeable non-Christians from accepting the religion, causes scientifically knowledgeable Christians (like myself) to question their faith, and in general makes Christianity seem like a religion for ignorant people. Worse, even though so many people claim to be Christians, I see a huge amount of hypocrisy in this country.

So, I'm writing this Soapbox entry. This is probably one of the least organized and least constructive essays I've ever put on my site. It's mainly just a chance for me to vent about things I see going on around me. Several of my friends fit into some of the things I'm complaining about, so don't take this too seriously. Yes, these things bother me, but my wording's probably a little bit stronger than I actually feel about it. They certainly haven't come in the way of any of my friendships.

One of the main reasons I'm writing this is because of evolution. As I wrote in another soapbox entry (2004-12-14), it just astounds me that so many people reject evolution. I got a lot of it off my chest when I wrote that essay, but every now and then I'll start reading sites like Talk Origins or The Panda's Thumb, and even Pharyngula (though his anti-Christian statements do get on my nerves at times), and it gets me all worked up again. Back in that essay, I referenced a Gallup poll that stated that a full 44% of Americans agreed with the statement that, "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." As if that wasn't bad enough, it's gotten worse. In a new poll conducted by Harris Interactive in June of this year, 54% of people polled agreed with the statement that, "No, I do not think human beings developed from earlier species." Granted, that's a slightly different wording, and a handful of the people agreeing with this statment might agree with it for different reasons than believing that we were created directly by God within the last 10,000 years, but I think this does show that more people are rejecting evolution.

A good statistic that I included in my other essay, which came from a Newsweek article referenced on ReligiousTolerance.org, "support for creation science among those branches of science who deal with the earth and its life forms [is] at about 0.14%." How can there be such a huge difference between the public and the scientific mainstream? What type of arrogance does it take for a person to say, "I know you've gone to a university and spent at least 4 years studying to earn a degree, and probably a few more years studying to earn an advanced degree, and since then you've devoted your whole career to the life sciences and used evolution as one of the central tenants of your work, while I've only had high-school biology plus what I've read in the popular press, but I'm still going to say that your life's work is rubbish," and then to repeat that roughly half a million times to all of the scientists in the life sciences field? I find it just unimaginable. And yet, here we are, with half the population saying basically just that. That's not to say that people should accept evolution solely because most scientists do. If they were smart enough and scientifically knowledgeable enough, they could go and look at the evidence for themselves (and there are mountains of evidence for evolution from several diverse fields). But most people aren't experts in all fields, so we usually accept the experts' opinions. Why is it so different in this area?

And evolution is only one of the reasons that I'm writing this. What really triggered it to begin with was that I was listening to the radio, and I heard some report about a recent execution here in Texas. And the hypocracy just slapped me in the face. On one hand, they're preaching and fighting over unborn babies' rights, trying to get practically every form of abortion outlawed and even stopping stem cell research because of the ethical implications, and then on the other hand they're turning and taking away human life simply for vengeance. Whatever happened to not throwing the first stone, or to forgiveness? And that's what really got me to thinking about the hypocrisy going on in our country.

I wonder how many people in this country have actually read the Bible. I've read it once. That's not bragging - the Bible's a massive book that will take several readings to begin to have a full understanding, but at least reading it through once is a start. But I'll bet that most people in our country don't even do that. I'm convinced that most people just listen to their preachers, or what they read on the Internet, or hear on TV, and accept it. How else do you explain so many people quoting passages from the Bible that call for the death penalty for murder, or say how detestable homosexuality is, but forget to mention that the Bible also calls for the death penalty for adultery, having sex before you're married, using the Lord's name in vain, or even for working on the Sabbath. I'm sure that most people are guilty of these sins (especially the working on the Sabbath, and to a lesser extent, using the Lord's name in vain), but there's no public outcry over them. If people read their Bibles, surely they'd see that God didn't want us doing these things, either, and just how serious of a sin it was to be punishable by death. But, people in the U.S. are happy to just kind of ignore those issues, while they make sure that people can be executed for murder and gay people can't enter into a legal marriage.

And did you know that there are still people that believe the Earth is only 6000 years old? I would have never believed it until a couple years ago, when one of my co-workers said that that was what he believed. He told me to go Google "Young Earth," and that I'd find plenty of information about it. Well, I did, and I was shocked to discover just how many people still believe that. I don't think it's half of the population like the amount of people that reject evolution, but I bet it's probably still a lot more sizeable than I would have ever imagined before, and probably growing. I mean, this is something with even more evidence than evolution, and people still reject it. Do they think God deliberately made the Earth appear old to test us. A sort of, either believe your own eyes or have faith in me? I can't imagine that God would have done that, and I can't believe how many people actually buy into it.

As long as I'm on the topic of evolution, the Kansas school board is at it again, and it seems to be stirring up controversy throughout the whole country. In that recent Harris Interactive poll that I referenced above, 55% of Americans want creationism and intelligent design taught alongside evolution in science classes. That just boggles the mind. 99.9% of scientists think evolution explains the diversity of life on this planet, and there aren't any other theories that challenge it (note I said diversity and not origin. Although that's kind of a moot point, since most people that accept evolution also accept abiogenesis). Yet people want religion and some thinly veiled religious theory taught alongside evolution. How would a history teacher feel if I said that I wanted him to teach that the Holocaust didn't really occur, because my personal belief was that it didn't (not in reality, just hypothetically). How would that be taken? I know I've heard of people that believe that, so I'm sure I could find some website out there with "evidence" to support that view. Is that really what we want our education system to be, to teach all viewpoints on a certain subject, even when some of the viewpoints are ludicrous?

I was watching T.V. in bed the other night. My wife had the remote and was looking for something good to watch. Just as I was about to fall asleep, she found a religious channel, and purposely left it there to get me riled up. It was some guy giving a presentation on how teaching "creation science" (quotes because it isn't science) isn't unconstitutional. He had all types of newspaper clippings backing up his claim (it struck me that he was using newspaper clippings, and not court reports, but never mind that). I suppose he was just trying to counter one of the arguments from the evolutionist camp, one of the ones that I never really felt that strongly about because it misses the whole point of what I think is the debate: Creationism is not science. Plain and simple. No matter what propagandists try to make you believe - there's no way to test it or make predictions off of it. Any evidence you find, like fossil evidence, geologic evidence, genetic evidence, etc. that point towards an ancient Earth or evolution, a creationist can always account for by saying that it's that way because God made it that way. (Actually, I'd say it's worse than that. Since all of the evidence indicates the Earth and its life weren't created like in the 6 day Genesis story, accepting a literal creationism is to say that we can't trust scientific evidence, so what good is science at all? Okay, that's a little extreme, but you see where I'm going.) Creationism is based entirely on faith. Even "Intelligent Design," which purports to be science, would still have to be considered fringe science, since it has so little support among mainstream scientists. Put aside my own personal feelings on how people can be so arrogant/ignorant as to reject evolution, how can people with no expertise in a certain field try to dictate the curricula in that field? Especially when virtually the entire field is in agreement on the mainstream theory? It just boggles the mind.

Here's another example. How many people understand the probability cloud to predict the location of an electron in an atom, and how many people still think of it in terms of the more simplistic Bohr model, kind of like a mini solar system? I'd wager that the majority still thinks in terms of the Bohr model, but should we let the masses dictate scientific teaching in this area as well? Of course not. So why the debate on evolution? (Actually, this brings up another irritating point of the fundamentalists. I did a Google search for "electron probability cloud," expecting to find something scientific about electrons, but the first page that came up was a creationist page!)

So, to wrap up with my ranting about evolution and education. People ought to look at the evidence and just accept it. If they're not knowledgeable enough to understand the evidence, they ought to accept based on the fact that scientists know what they're talking about. And if they're unwilling to accept evolution at all, they should at least have the sense to let scientists decide what should be taught in science classes. Leave creationism and Intelligent Design for philosophy or religion classes.

Oh, hell, this is a rant, so even though I'm done with the evolution in education part, I'm going to keep on going with the general evolution rant. I came across this page, likening comparing humans to chimps with comparing a battleship to a fork. The author was trying to make it seem ludicrous, but I think he chose a pretty poor example, never mind the fact that I think humans and chimps show much more similarity than a fork and a battleship. The author had the battleship saying that the two were related because they had so many traits in common, malleability, rusting, shininess, etc, while the fork maintained that they were obviously different. He carried the evolution analogy even further, having the battleship deduce that they must have had a common ancestry. Okay, inanimate objects don't procreate, so that's a poor analogy to begin with. But, the evolution of the technologies needed to create each did have a common ancestry. Before people were around, neither one existed, so both are products of human technology. (A better analogy to prove the author's point might have been a battle ship and a shiny rock...) Further, they are both metals, so neither one could have existed in the stone age. Both are results of technologies involving the purification and working of metal. So, in a sense, the fork and the battle ship do share a common ancestry. To compare it to evolution, it might be someting on the order of humans to worms, and the similarities between humans and chimps might have been more like comparing the battleship to a cruiser or an aircraft carrier. But still, I think the whole thing's a poor example to begin with and trying to draw these parallels is kind of difficult. I just happened to come across the page, and in my ranting mood decided to type up a response. [Update 2006-01-24: When I first wrote this rant, I just stumbled across the above "fable." I really had no idea who the author was, but my impression from the quality of his comparison was that it was just a typical religious nut typing away from his home computer. I wasn't terribly impressed by his story, and really only wrote up a response, like I said, because I was in a cantakerous mood. I just now followed the link and took another look at the story, and now that I've been looking into this topic a little more, I recognized the author, John Woodmorappe. He's actually a big name when it comes to trying to back up the Bible with science. And it strikes me how one of the "big names" can come up with such an inane story. I haven't read much of his work, but if this fork and battleship story is any indication of the quality of his writings, wow...]

Aside from the bad analogy above, and even ignoring the evidence from paleontology and genetics, it just seems to make sense that common appearance denotes common ancestry. Look at human families. It's usually pretty easy to tell relatives from non relatives because they look similar. Take a look at this picture, and tell me that this doesn't look like a person.

Cover Picture to My Family Album with Face Removed
Cover from Book, My Family Album
(But it on Amazon)

Yes, I removed the face, but not to try to be misleading, just to emphasize the similarities in our bodies. Take a look at a house cat and a lion. Their heads appear very different, probably about on the same scale as humans and chimps (though this is subjective), but everyone still sees the similarities between the two animals and considers both of them to be cats. I don't see how people can look at humans and chimps (and the other apes, for that matter), and not consider them to be closely related.

A few years ago, when I first realized just how many people in this country doubted evolution, it got me to thinking that, well, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I had been naively accepting what I'd heard on T.V. and read in magazines. So, that's when I really started to research it. Most of this I mention in my 2004-12-14 Soapbox Entry. And when I did that research, I did read a lot of creationist pages. And, to be a little less than polite, but still not putting it as strongly as I'd really like to, most of what I read on the creationist sites was just pure dribble. Misunderstandings of science, misapplications of scientific principles (like entropy, for one - if creationist's entropy interpretation were true, there'd be know way for adult forms of life to grow from eggs and seeds), out of context quotes from scientists, implications that large numbers of scientists are starting to question evolution, and on and on. I don't think I've read a single thing on a creationist or intelligent design website that's made me question evolution (though I can see how some of the arguments would be convincing to people that didn't understand science). So, I hardly ever read creationist sites, anymore, because there's nothing useful on them. I'm sure these people will come up with new "theories" and "evidence" in the future, but they've so destroyed their credibility with what I see on their websites now, that I probably won't ever read most of those theories. And this leads into one of the more frustrating points - no matter how many times somebody comes up with evidence contradicting creationist claims, or filling in some of the gaps in our understanding of evolution, the creationists just come up with more erroneous arguments. The only way to counter ignorance is through education. But creationists are worse than people ignorant in other fields, because they're actively trying to promote their ignorance and resist knowledge, and they're trying to force their ignorance onto other people, as well. How long are people going to have to keep countering creationist arguments until the mainstream finally accepts evolution? I've only been following the debate for a couple years - I can't imagine making similar arguments forty years from now. Hopefully there will continue to be organizations like the National Center for Science Education and Talk.Origins. Actually, check out the Index to Creationist Claims on Talk.Origins. It does a good job of keeping up to date with the common creationist claims and showing what's wrong with them.

I'll just go on about evolution a little bit longer, I promise. Just look at the evidence from living animals. Comparative anatomy and genetics are both very strong evidence for evolution. Common ancestry does such a good job of explaining why more closely related animals share the traits that they do. For example, why flightless ground-dwelling birds still have wings structurally similar to flying birds, even though they can't fly. And for that matter, why there are even flightless birds at all. And why humans and chimpanzees share so much genetic information, right down to non-functional regions of our DNA that have no effect on our development. Common ancestry also does a fantastic job of explaining why more closely related species tend to be geographically closer, like Australia having so many marsupials when there are hardly any others in different parts of the world. And why the new world has no great apes other than humans. But still, this can all be explained from the creationist argument that God created animals to be similar on purpose, right down to the DNA. And the geographic distribution can be explained by saying that God created distinct regions on purpose, putting similar animals close together (this ignores a literal interpretation of the Noah flood, and how the animals would have gotten back to those locations after the flood). But then, we also have evidence from the fossil record. There are several well documented transitions from one species to another (like humans and horses, to name only a couple). The two most obvious explanations that I see for this are either to say that God created multiple species, so closely related to each other that it would be impossible to distinguish between individual species (which seems very unlikely), or that species have evolved from one type to another. To be honest, I think even most well educated creationists (well educated certainly doesn't mean most Americans) now accept that "microevolution" has happened, that there can be small changes like those necessary for a proto-horse to evolve into a horse. But their theories usually involve saying that microevolution won't allow an animal to evolve into on of another "kind." Actually, "microevolution" is necessary for the theories of some of them concerning history after the supposed great flood (explaining how we could have the huge diversity of life now, but that Noah wouldn't have had to have taken all of these animals on the ark). But, if you're willing to accept "microevolution," what's the huge leap to just accept evolution in general? I just don't understand why these people can't make the jump. I mean, enough small changes taken cummulatively can eventually lead to big changes. If they're not creationists of the young earth type, there was certainly plenty of time for this to happen. Why the huge objection to this happening? And if they are creationists of the young earth type, well, what hope is there for them to accept any scientific evidence? And this still leaves the problem of how to define "kind." Some of the well defined lineages show pretty large differences between animals that are clearly related by common descent.

One more note on this, there's also the fossil evidence from ancient deposits, such as pre-Cambrian deposits, to name an example that's popular right now. Many of the modern "types" are absent from deposits of that age, and there doesn't seem to be any indication that we're going to find them. How does the "microevolution" theory account for this? And, to quote a response from someone going by JM on Pharyngula, "but if one insists upon a creator, one presumably has to explain why he/she/his noodly eminence apparently tinkered with precursor designs first, before finally 'getting it right'."

I guess part of my outrage with the evolution/creationism debate comes from how intrigued I've been by evolution and paleontology my whole life, but it goes deeper than that. Ignorance and stupidity are bad enough by themselves - nothing good ever comes out of it. People in classical times were pretty well educated, free thought was expanding (even if science wasn't in its modern form), and for the most part, people were better off for it than they had been in the past. Then, the Roman Empire fell, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages, when everything was driven by religion, and look how bad off the peasants had it. Later, the Arab world was the center of intellectualism for a while, and they were pretty well off, but look at the Middle East now that they're all religious zealots. So, abandoning science and reason for religous zealotry can have bad consequences for society as a whole, and I don't want that to happen.

That above example's probably a little extreme, but I still don't like the way this is going. Fringe scientists and politicians trying to force scientific curricula. Children are very impressionable, and I don't want my daughter growing up in a world of ignorance. It's already hard enough to keep her open to the idea of evolution with all the religion she gets in day care and her environment (this is Texas, remember). I don't want to have to fight her science class, as well, to keep her out of that ignorance.

And our xenophobic anti-science culture is already starting to have consequences. Our K-12 schools are already lagging behind other nations in science and math education. And our universities, which for so long have attracted students from other nations, are no longer bringing in the same number of foreign students. While xenophobes might not be too upset by having less foreigners, they should be upset at the reason they're not coming - our universities aren't as good (comparatively to foreign universities) as they used to be.

I suppose one main reason that the creationism vs. evolution/ancient universe debate gets me so worked up is not just because of the ignorance, but, like I mentioned above, because they're people actively trying to promote their ignorance and resist knowledge, and they're trying to force their ignorance onto other people, as well. I mean, there are other areas where the general population is ignorant. Take for example, how planes fly (if it was solely the shape of the wing, how do stunt planes fly upside down?). Being an aerospace engineer myself, that one bothers me. But, it's only being perpetuated by ignorance. Usually, once people here the correct explanation, they accept it. That's why it bothers me so much that creationists are trying to discredit science.

Well, with this type of rant, I could go on and on. Every day, I read or hear something that gets me upset about it. So, I'll just write on this one more topic before wrapping it up. On the way in to work this morning, I heard a quote by Rick Santorum, a senator from Pennsylvania. I can't remember the exact wording, and I wish I could find it somewhere on the web, but the basic gist was something to the effect that I've heard before - creationism says that we were created by God with a purpose and morals. Evolution says that we just came about by chance, so where do we get our morality standards from? This argument seems to be comprised of two basic ideas - evolution implies that we're not as special as we'd like to believe, and evolution takes away our moral accountability. On the first part, I have two responses. First, it seems that this is rejecting evolution based simply on the fact that one doesn't want to believe it. It goes against something that a person wants to believe, so they reject it. That's not the way the world works. Things aren't true or false because we want them to be- they're true or false just because that's the way the are. I mean, I'd really like for the Loch Ness monster and other such creatures to exist, but I don't honestly believe that they do. Secondly, this isn't the first time that science has shown us that we're not as special as we thought. Like I've written elsewhere, no matter how you interpret the Bible now, geocentricism was what practically everybody believed for thousands of years. It made us appear special, that the Earth was the only planet, made by God just for us. The heliocentric view came along and changed all that, and now, we know that the Earth is only one of countless planets, in one arm of the Milky Way, one of countless galaxies. How special does that make you feel? To the second part of Santorum's statement, the part about the morals, that just seems like a bunch of hogwash, too. Like many atheists point out, who would you trust more, an atheist who does good things because he wants to, or a "Christian" who does things simply because a book tells him to. There have even been quotes from "Christians" who have said that the only reason they don't go out and kill people is because of the Bible. Is that someone that you'd really trust? I think I read in The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, (so obviously, this is his opinion, and not Christian dogma), that God wants us to be good people not because the Bible says so, but because we truly want to be good people. I think that's the case. God doesn't want us to strictly follow rules. He wants the goodness to be in our hearts. Plus, there are plenty of other religions besides Christianity, and plenty of othe societies where those are the majority religions. While they may do things that some would consider sinful, I don't think that their societies are lawless chaos. It seems that most people have an innate sense of goodness no matter what religion (or lack thereof) that they follow. And besides, we're living in the U.S., where laws aren't supposed to be based on religion. I think the best measure of fairness for a free society is to look at how people's actions affect others, and base our sense of fairness on that.

Well, in the process of writing this soapbox entry, it got me to do a lot of thinking about how to interpret the Bible. So, I ended up writing a more constructive essay, How to Interpret the Bible, that I've actually included in the main writing section and not my soapbox. There's a lot of good information in there relevant to these topics, including a section on why I have so much confidence in science.

Further Reading

  • Re-Discovery Institude Mendeleev's periodicity of elements (the periodic table) is a theory in crisis. Teach the controversy. (In case you miss it, this site is a joke.)

  • Onion Article - Intelligent Falling Gravity can't be fully explained by science. Intelligent Falling fills in the gaps. (This link is a joke, too.)

  • Flying Spaghetti Monster If we want students to be taught all sides of the evolution/cretionism debate so that they can make an informed decision, we must teach them ALL of the sides, including the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory.(another joke)

  • Terrapin Tables Evolution Thread

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Slowed Rotor/Compound Technology- Why Isn't There More Research?

Carter Aviation Technologies has successfully demonstrated stable, slowed rotor flight. The CarterCopter "achieved a Mu of 1 at a flight speed of 170 mph and a rotor rpm of 107. The flight was stable and extremely smooth, and the pilots reported there were no vibrational indicators that they were even in a rotary-wing aircraft." (CarterCopter Technology Demonstrator Flight Test Data and Analysis). Data from the flight indicates that the slowed-rotor/compound concept does offer the potential for efficient, high-speed flight, in an aircraft capable of performing vertical flight like a helicopter. Yet there has been little funding into research on this concept, despite the huge promise that it shows.

Okay, I guess I should start off with the disclaimer that I'm not impartial in this. I work for Carter Aviation Technologies, and our main goal is developing a slowed rotor/compound aircraft. Let me also put in the disclaimer that all of this is my own personal feelings, and does not in any way reflect the position of the company. Moving on...

What is "slowed rotor/compound technology," you may ask. Basically, it's an aircraft where you put a rotor on the top (like a helicopter) for slow speed flight, and put wings on it for high speed flight. To help reduce drag in high speed flight, you slow the rotor down to an rpm much lower than where it operates at slow speed flight. And because the wings only need to support the aircraft at high speed, they can be much smaller than conventional wings, and don't need the complex, heavy high lift devices (flaps & slats) of conventional airplanes. The end result is an aircraft that can takeoff and land vertically (with good efficiency), but fly much faster and more efficiently than helicopters.

So, this concept seems straightforward enough. You'd think someone would have tried it before. Actually, people have. The most notable attempt (up until the CarterCopter) was the McDonnel XV-1. However, there are several technical issues associated with slowing the rotor, which that program never completely solved (for an overview of problems associated with high speed rotor flight, visit Rotorcraft Speed Limitations on my site, or the Carter FAQ or Carter Papers and Reports). In hindsight, it seems likely that the XV-1 engineers would have eventually solved all of the technical issues, given enough time and money, but the program was cancelled before they had the chance.

On June 17th, 2005, the CarterCopter reached mu-1. Basically, that's reaching the point where the rotor has slowed down so much that at the 9:00 position, all of the air going over the retreating blade is going in the reverse direction of the way it usually goes over the blade (if you don't follow that, read the explanation on the Carter FAQ). That's much slower than any conventional rotorcraft could spin the rotor, and it reduces the drag quite a bit (if you're wondering why not just stop the rotor if slowing it down reduces drag, then read this entry on the Carter FAQ, but basically the increased structural weight required without the benefit of centrifugal force offsets the drag savings). No other rotorcraft has ever achieved stable mu-1 flight. The only aircraft that ever even got close was the XV-1 (I guess one could argue that technically, the Herrick HV2A did operate briefly at extremely high mu ratios, as it transitioned from a stopped rotor to a spinning rotor in flight, but it was only a transitional condition, not a continuous flight condition, plus the pilot had to be extremely careful to keep the rotor at zero lift during the transition, and it wasn't exactly a practical approach). Unfortunately for Carter, on the very next flight, at a much lower mu ratio, for a completely unrelated reason, there was a failure, probably in the prop drive pulley, that further caused damage to the controls, so the pilots didn't have full control and came down in the middle of a bunch of mesquite trees in a farmer's field, tearing up the aircraft, and preventing any future flights to expand the envelope to higher mu ratios.

However, despite the accident, the CarterCopter did fly at mu-1, and there is data from that flight to calculate the performance of the aircraft. Granted, since this was the first time the aircraft flew at mu-1, and with the cautious approach Carter took to flight testing, the aircraft was only at mu-1 for about a second and a half before the pilots backed out. But it's not like mu-1 is some magical number, where the drag of the aircraft is going to instantly drop off, or stability is all of a sudden going to change. Like most things, it's a gradual transition, and the CarterCopter flew at a mu ratio greater than 0.9 continuously for over 20 seconds. So, there's a fair amount of data on high-mu (slow rotor) flight. And this data shows that the CarterCopter was operating very efficiently when flying at high mu ratios.

The Carter website has a summary of the flight data reduction, including graphs of Lift to Drag vs. Airspeed of the CarterCopter versus various aircraft. Lift to Drag is a good measure of the aerodynamic efficiency of an aircraft, and is used quite often in aerospace engineering. The report on the Carter website lists quite a few reasons why the company thinks the aircraft could perform better than it actually did (notably flow separation causing increased drag), but ignore that for now. Just look at the actual flight data compared to helicopters. The CarterCopter compares quite favorably to those aircraft. At the worst, the CarterCopter is operating at around the same efficiences as those aircraft (effective lift to drags of around 3 to 4), but at higher speeds, the CarterCopter operates at a much better efficiency (effective lift to drag of around 5.5), and the trend from the data shows that the efficiency of the CarterCopter is increasing at the point where the data stops, as opposed to the helicopters which at those speeds have already surpassed their peak efficiency and are on a downward trend. (Note that effective lift to drag is a little different from actual lift to drag - actually a little bit lower - and is explained in detail in the Carter report.) This alone should be enough to warrant further research into slowed rotor/compound aircraft. Here is a rotorcraft with significantly higher efficiency than any conventional rotorcraft.

Now, I'd like to direct the reader to an analysis done by Nick Lappos, comparing tiltrotors to helicopters. The original version is posted here, but if that ever goes offline, another version can be found on the X-Plane Forums. What I think is interesting to note from this report, is that the extra speed of tilt-rotors is offset by their inefficiency in hover. The report looks at an interesting parameter, ton-miles per hour, defined as speed times payload. This is a good parameter to use to show how productive an aircraft is in delivering payload. Comparing tilt rotors to helicopters of comparable size, the helicopters do much better. The report found that the "CH-53E has 1.66 times the transport productivity of the V-22."

The reason why tiltrotors are so inefficient in hover is because of their necessarily high disk-loading. Basically, disk-loading is how much weight the rotor is lifting divided by the area of the rotor disk. It's pretty well known in aerodynamics that it's more efficent to produce a force with air by taking a large bite out of the air and accelerating it a little bit, as opposed to taking a small bite and accelerating it a lot. You can see this in common examples. It's the reasons why helicopters have large rotors, and not just propellers, and it's the reason why modern jetliners have high-bypass engines, as opposed to pure jet engines. There is a good discussion of this on slide 28 of Lappos's report. Helicopters can have big rotors, limited mainly by structural considerations in the rotor itself. Tilt-rotors, because they need two rotors, one mounted on each wing, are limited in a different way. Since you can't have the rotors colliding, the blade radius is limited to being about half of the wing span. The wing span on a tilt rotor is also limited by structural considerations, since in hover the entire weight of the aircraft must be supported all the way out to the wing tips, where the rotors are located, as opposed to conventional airplanes where only the root of the wing needs to carry the entire weight of the aircraft, and the rest of the wing structure is a function of the lift distribution. This forces tilt rotors to have small wing spans, thus causing a high disk loading, and in turn making the aircraft inefficient in hover. There's another factor to consider, as well. Rotors produce lift by accelerating air downwards. The aircraft itself can block this flow, in effect reducing the effective area of the rotor. Because helicopters have such large rotors, and pretty much only the fuselage blocking the downflow, there's not much loss to the effective area of their rotors. As a percentage, tilt-rotors lose much more of the effective area of their rotors by being blocked by the fuselage and the wings, because the rotors are so much smaller to begin with.

One of the things to take away from Lappos's report is that over the long run, helicopters are more efficient that tilt-rotors, because helicopters are so much more efficient at hover because of their larger rotors. So, if a helicopter outperforms tilt-rotors over the long run because of increased hover performance, it would stand to reason that an aircraft with hover performance approaching that of helicopters, but much better high speed performance, would be the best option of all. And that's exactly what the slowed-rotor/compound technology offers. A slowed-rotor aircraft has a large rotor on the top, just like a helicopter. The only difference is that a slowed-rotor/compound aircraft also has wings, which do act somewhat to reduce the effective area of the rotor, but not to anywhere near the same extent as a tilt-rotor.

Carter Aviation Technologies successfully demonstrated that stable flight is possible at high mu ratios (low rotor rpm), and the data from the flight clearly show that slowing the rotor can significantly improve the performance of the aircraft. This technology also shows the potential to be more efficient at transporting cargo than either helicopters or tilt-rotors. For these reasons, there should more funding being spent for additional research on this technology.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Public Opinion Polls as Reasons to Teach Creationism & ID

Ever since I've gotten caught up in reading a lot of the debate between science and ID/creationism, I've noticed that many people try to use public opinion polls to say that ID or creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the science classroom. And ever since the Dover trial decision, I've read quite a few more articles using that argument, so I thought that I'd briefly address it.

Trying to base science curricula off of the public's understanding of science is just plain silly. Yes, we live in a democracy, so people should have a say in things that go on in our country. Unfortunately, most people don't have a good understanding of science. In 2001, the National Science Foundation conducted a Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology. A summary of some of the findings are copied below.

United States Europe
The center of the Earth is very hot. (True) 80 88
All radioactivity is man-made. (False) 76 53
The oxygen we breathe comes from plants. (True) 87 80
It is the father's gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. 65 48
Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False) 45 35
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True) 48 41
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False) 51 40
The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (True) 79 82
Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (True) 53 69
The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (False) 48 59
Radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling it. (False) 65 64
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around the Sun) 75 67
How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (one year) 54 56
SOURCES: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology, 2001; and European Commission, Eurobarometer 55.2 survey and standard report, Europeans, Science and Technology, December 2001.

Science & Engineering Indicators – 2004

Just look at some of those results, and not just the ones about evolution. They clearly show that a lot of people really don't know much about science. I mean, one in four people thought that the Sun goes around the Earth, half of the people surveyed didn't realize that electrons were smaller than atoms, and nearly half of the people didn't know that it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun. If this is American's understanding of basic, simple scientific facts, why should we rely on public opinion polls when it comes to teaching ID alongside evolution, or creationism in science at all, even ignoring the separation of church and state. School curricula should be determined by experts in the fields.

Really, if there's one thing that these public opinion polls tell us, it's where the weaknesses are in our science education system that need to be addressed. If our education system's so bad off that only half of Americans accept evolution, we obviously need to do a better job of teaching it (and apparently a whole bunch of other areas, as well).

Monday, January 16, 2006

Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Evolution, Why Won't People Accept It?

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website December 14th, 2004. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

14 December 2004

Evolution is a subject that gets me pretty worked up. I don't know exactly why. There are other issues in the world that are more important, but it just gets to me how so many people can ignore or reject something so scientifically important, and so well accepted among scientists. It bothers me even more when I read about people that want to force their ignorance on the population by denying evolution from being taught in schools, or by teaching creationism as valid science. It's like saying that the Earth is flat.

I've been meaning to write a well thought out, convincing essay, to try to convince people to accept evolution. That's not what this is. This is placed exactly where it needs to be on my site, My Soapbox. I'll throw in some important information here and there, but a lot of this is just for me to get it all off of my chest. Maybe by actually writing all of this here, it will help me organize my thoughts, and I'll be able to write that well thought out essay, but who knows.

Why I'm Writing This Essay

I never even knew there were people who doubted evolution until I was in high school. I watched a lot of PBS before my family got cable, and then a lot of the Discovery type channels once we got it, so evolution was just something I'd heard about my whole life, and it's not like it's a topic that comes up in everday conversation. Anyway, I was sitting there in biology class, and the teacher had just announced that we were getting ready to learn about evolution. My friend leaned over and asked me if I "bought" evolution. I said something like, "Yeah, what about you?" And he said, "No,it's got too many holes." That made me realize two things- first, that there were people that doubted evolution, and second, that I had just been accepting it based on faith in scientists knowing what they were talking about, without really knowing a lot of the evidence. To the second realization, I started to look into the evidence for myself, starting with what I learned in that biology class. And after getting a better understanding of evolution, it made me about as positive as you can be about anything that it did indeed occur, and is still occuring. Which made me figure for the first realization that my friend was probably just an isolated case, especially since it was before we had studied it in school. I figured that once you learned about evolution you would accept it, so I didn't give too much more thought to the fact that there people that doubted evolution.

After that biology class, I went on for years still naively thinking that most people accepted evolution. I knew there were a few uneducated people out there that didn't really understand it, and some religious fanatics who wouldn't accept it unless Jesus himself came and told them it was true, but I thought that by and large, most people were educated/smart enough to accept evolution, or at least smart enough to realize to accept the word of scientists who devote their lives to studying it. I went on thinking that way all through college, and for the first few years after I got out of college. Then, one day in the lunchroom where I work, somehow we got started into a conversation involving evolution. I don't remember how it got started, but I remember being the only one of the five of us in there that believed it. That just shocked me. Granted, I'm living in Texas (part of the Bible Belt), and a lot of the guys I work with don't have college educations, but they're still smart guys, and they've been through high school. I just couldn't believe that 80% of the people in that room thought that evolution was a bunch of hooey. So that started me doing some research and a few informal interviews on my own. And what I found disturbed me even more. I'd say that well over half of the people that I talked to either flat out rejected evolution, or thought of it as "only a theory" (which I'll address later). And once I got to looking at formal polls of the U.S. population, I found that there weren't a whole lot of people nationwide that believed it, either. Actually, according to a Gallup poll cited on ReligiousTolerance.org, in 1997, a full 44% of the American public agreed with the statement that, "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." 39% agreed with, "Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man's creation." And only 10% agreed with, "Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process." Those stats have stayed pretty constant since the 1980's. And that just amazes me, that almost one half of all Americans reject evolution. It's a pretty sad statistic on the intelligence/education of our nation. What's even scarier, according to a poll cited on PathLights.com, "According to a survey of 400 high-school biology teachers conducted by two University of Texas (at Arlington) sociology professors, 30 percent believe in Biblical creationism. Nineteen percent believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time." (Waco Tribune-Herald, September 11, 1988, p. 2E.) Biology teachers. What are these people doing teaching science to our children?

"Only" a Theory

Most people talk of evolution as "only a theory." I have two arguments to this- first, that it's important to distinguish between the theory of evolution occuring and the theories of how it occurs, and second, the actual definition of what a theory is. I'll deal with the latter first, since it is the more basic of the two. In science, a theory isn't an "only," it's something pretty important. To be a bit cliché, Webster's defines a theory scientifically as, "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena." Notice the "scientifically acceptable" part of that explanation. This puts a theory on pretty firm ground, since it has been accepted to some level of confidence. This is different from a hypothesis, which is just an educated guess, based on some observations, but that hasn't been rigorously tested, yet. And even this is better than just coming up with an idea, since your hypothesis has to be based off of something. Going the other way on the confidence scale, a law in science is just a theory that's been tested so many times that our confidence is close to 100% that it will always be right. So, a theory in science is an explantion of phenomena that has a high degree of acceptance, though less confidence than a law. [Update 2006-01-16: This explanation isn't quite correct. The definition of theory is correct, as a body of principles that explain phenomena, but a law isn't just a theory with more confidence. This is largely semantic, and there is debate among philosphers of science as to what exactly is theory, and what exactly is law, but a law can be thought of as an observation that's been observed so many times that it's accepted without a reasonable doubt, whereas the theory would explain what's driving that observation. There's not necessarily a difference in our confidence between a theory and a law - they're describing different concepts. Actually, the next paragraph describes this pretty well.]

Like I said above, it's important to understand what is meant when referring to the Theory of Evolution. On the one hand, it is a theory, actually more of an observation, that evolution occurs. On the other hand, there are theories as to why it occurs, and the mechanisms that drive it. This is analagous to gravity. It is an observation that gravity occurs. Then, there are theories to explain how gravity works. Scientists (and most laymen) don't always agree on those theories that explain gravity, but they pretty much all agree that gravity exists.

Most people can observe gravity directly, so they have no problem accepting it as fact. But what about things that people can't observe directly? Most people accept that everything is made up of atoms and subatomic particles, because it fits in so well with our observations and theories of chemistry and physics. And most people believe that the earth revolves around the sun, because it fits in so well with our observations and theories of the way the world works. But ask people if they believe in evolution, which fits in well with our theories of paleontology, geology, and biology, and they're not so sure, or they flat out deny it? Is there any fundamental difference between these theories? I think most people have about as much knowledge of astronomy or nuclear physics as they do of paleontology, but they are willing to accept scientists theories in those first two fields, but not in the other.

Actually, I thought of a good story to illustrate the difference between the theory of evolution occuring, and the theories about the mechanisms of evolution. Say you walk into a room, and find a dead body. You'd logically deduce that at one point there was a living person who somehow died and ended up in that room. There wouldn't be any question that the person died, but there might be questions as to how they died, or how they ended up in the room. That's the stage scientists are at now with evolution. There's so much evidence that there's no question that it occurs, just how it occurs. A creationist, on the other hand, would say that God created that lifeless body in that room, and that that's the way it's always been.

Misconceptions About the Basic Theory of Evolution

Back when I started that biology class that I mentioned above, I didn't really have a true understanding of evolution. Like I said, I just accepted it based on faith in scientists knowing what they were talking about (not that that's all that bad of a thing- I really don't understand particle physics, either, but I'll accept that everything's made up of atoms). Actually, my concept of evolution at the time was Lamarckism, or evolution based on Use & Disuse and Inheritance of Acquired Traits (The classic example of Lamarckism is the giraffe, whose ancestors originally had short necks, but strained and strained to reach higher branches, thereby stretching out their necks with each subsequent generation and passing on that trait to their offspring), which is quite different from the way evolution actually works. I hesitate to say Darwinism, because the theories of evolution have advanced quite a bit since Darwin's day, but it probably gets the idea across well enough- random variation and natural selection changing a population over time. But to get back to my point, until I got into that biology class, I didn't really know at all how evolution worked, and I think that's a problem that many people have. They just don't understand it.

I'll share two examples to illustrate these misunderstandings. Both of these misunderstandings were on the part of friends of mine, college graduates, one of them even a college professor (though not in a technical field). The one guy didn't understand why would lose body parts. I think his question specifically was the appendix- why has it shrunk to just about nothing? It doesn't seem to hurt us now, was the original organ that harmful? He failed to see the resources that went into making that organ. Sure, it may not have been all that harmful, but if it wasn't doing anything beneficial, it used energy and nutrients to grow it that could have been better applied to other things. The other guy had a misunderstanding of how white people would have evolved from black people. He thought that white people were albinos, that they must have somehow become albinos in Africa, and then fled to non-equitorial regions to escape the sun. He wasn't sure why they wouldn't have died out in Africa as albinos. I think the most probably explanation of how white skin evolved is that originally, black people migrated out of Africa to other areas. Once they were out of the hot climates, it would have been more advantageous if they didn't waste energy producing pigment for their skin, similar to the argument above on why we don't have appendices. But the point is that these were smart, educated people, and even they had huge misconceptions about evolution.

Evolution and the Bible

The U.S. is predominantly a Christian nation, and many are fundamentalists. That seems to be the biggest stumbling block to the public accepting evolution. They feel that it contradicts the creation story of Genesis. Does evolution really contradict the Bible? Well, if you accept only a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, then yes. But then you might also believe that the earth is flat.

To believe that everything was created in six days, you pretty much have to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, especially considering that there's a far more likely scientific explanation of how animals came to be. But why do people persist in saying that the Bible is literal? Many Christians don't think that the Bible is literal. In fact, in other countries, an "allegorical" interpretation of the Bile is the majority view (More Info). But here in the U.S., people still cling to a simple interpretation. A good case in point, besides evolution, of why the Bible can't be literal is the story of the great flood. Unless God changed the laws of nature, or through divine intervention changed the world to give it a misleading appearance (and why would God deliberately mislead us?), there's no evidence for a worldwide flood occuring as the Bible says. In fact, there's a great deal of evidence against it (More Info). Does this mean that the Bible's wrong? Not necessarily, if you accept the story as a moral story, and not a literal one. Same thing with creation. The main point is that God created everything, even if the story is not literal in the way that it was created. And we know from the Bible that God does not alwasy tell us everything literally- Jesus taught in parables. Yes, he probably did it to avoid persecution, but the point is that we know that God doesn't always tell us everything literally.

Also, if you accept only a literal interpretation of the Bible, then it reads pretty much as saying that the earth is flat. A lot of fundamentalists will argue this, and point out places where they say that the Bible is saying that the world is round, but these are people that, at least in this instance, are trying to force the Bible into saying what they want it to say, instead of reading it and trying to determine what the writer's meant. In other words, the most sensible interpretation of the Bible (backed by historical evidence) is that its writers believed the world was flat, and wrote the Bible that way. Now that we know more about the world, we know that the world is round. So fundamentalists, in an effort to make the Bible still seem literal, try to force passages in the Bible to read that way. It's similar with evolution. The Bible reads a certain way, probably the way that the writers believed everything was actually created, but now through science we know that it's not the case.

I think a large part of the problem is that most people do not read the Bible, or only read certain passages. Most people get their Biblical information from other sources- from sermons, or reading articles where the author chooses what scripture to quote. If people would read the Bible for themselves, the entire Bible, they would have a much better understanding of it, and with just a little bit of scientific knowledge, would realize that the Bible couldn't be literal. But instead, most people are sheep. They're told what to believe by others, and blindly follow without questioning or thinking on their own.

Creationist Propaganda

While writing this essay, I've done a lot of reading, on both the pro-creation and pro-evolution sides. And after reading both sides, the pro-creation arguments just don't hold up. However, to someone that doesn't really know a lot about science, they seem to be valid, and apparently they are doing a good job of convincing people to continue believing in creationism. But there are just so many problems with their arguments. I would love to devote a whole section of this essay to exposing those problems, but that would be a whole (long) essay in itself, plus there are other people that have already taken the time to do this, and continue doing so for new creationist arguments (like TalkOrigins.org).

One of the arguments that I do want to address briefly, however, is how many people, not just creationists, cite that scientific theories come and go, and there's no reason to suspect that evolution won't be just like the rest. Well, that's not exactly the way science works. Yes, theories come and go, but it's almost always building towards more and more certainty. An oft-cited example is Newtonian physics being supplanted by relativistic (Einstein) physics. Replacing Newtonian physics with relativistic physics is a bit different than another theory coming along to replace evolution, but I'll argue it anyway, since so many people use the example. Strictly speaking, it is true that Newton's theories do not accurately predict the world, but the differences are so small that great pains have to be taken to get an experiment precise enough to see those differences. For most cases, it's plenty accurate to say that Newton was right. So even though relativity came along and changed things, it wasn't really that big of a change. So a new theory might not be very different from current evolutionary theory. Though I don't really see what type of parallel could be drawn to evolution, at least the observation of it occuring. And besides, there are certain theories that just get so much evidence, that it seems very hard to imagine that they'll ever change. Could you really see another theory coming along saying that the sun wasn't the center of the solar system? And it hasn't really been until fairly recently that people have actually used good scientific practices, so historical arguments going back more than a couple hundred years aren't really valid, anyway.

One other creationist argument that I want to address is the "conspiracy theory." Creationists routinely claim that there is evidence that disproves evolution, but scientists hide it away, deny it, or just plain ignore it, so that it won't destroy the theory. It's as if all scientists are members of some brotherhood, bent on turning the world into a bunch of atheists. Or that at least a few scientists are/were this way, and have managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of the scientific community, "convincing" them that evolution occurs. It is true that a higher percentage of scientists are atheists than among the general population, but I think that this actually helps show why such a conspiracy could never endure in the scientific community. Scientists think analytically. They do not accept things unless there is evidence to back it up. That is the reason why so many are atheists, since they can't find any evidence for God. But it also means that they are constantly testing claims from other scientists. A good example is the feathered dinosaur hoax back in 1999. A fossil came out of the Liaoning Province of northern China, dubbed Archaeoraptor, purported to be a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds. It was even featured in an article in National Geographic. Soon after, it was exposed as a hoax, a conglomeration of bones from several different animals. But who was it that discovered the hoax? Other scientists, who themselves believed in evolution. It was the scientists' search for the truth that exposed the Liaoning fossil as a hoax, and would have long ago exposed any such conspiracy about the whole of evolution. (It's a shame that somebody made the hoax fossil, by the way, since it tarnishes the reputation of an area where so many legitimate bird, feathered dinosaur, and other animal fossils are found.)

Creationism in Schools

Whether or not you want to accept creationism over evolution, there is no way whatsoever that it should be taught in science classes in schools. By the very nature of it being a science class, science curricula should be based off of what scientists think. According to that article I had referenced before on ReligiousTolerance.org, "support for creation science among those branches of science who deal with the earth and its life forms [is] at about 0.14%." That is fringe science, if anything ever deserved the term. There is probably nearly as much scientific support for the earth being the center of the solar system, but nobody would dare suggest that geo-centricism be taught in science as a valid alternative theory. To put it frankly, among scientists that actually study fields related to evolution, there is no serious alternative to the theory that evolution occurs. Like I said above, the evidence so overwhelmingly supports it that the occurence of evolution might as well be called a fact.

The Role of Science Class in Schools

This is a little bit of a tangent, but I'll include it, anyway. My one brother's a scientist, a Ph.D. in microbiology, actually. So he and I have had a few discussions on evolution and creationism (talk about preaching to the choir). One area where we're not in full agreement is the nature of what a science class should be in elementary through high school. Being a scientist, he thinks that students should be taught how to think scientifically. Not just to learn things as fact, but to start looking at them objectively, and to start questioning them, and to perform experiments on them to determine if they're true or not. He likes to tell how when he was a judge at a high school science fair, some of the judges were ranking projects based on how good their presentations looked, even if the science was horrible. I'm an engineer, so my mindset's a little different. For engineers, it doesn't really matter how something works, as long as it does work (once again, gravity's a good example of that). So we spend a lot of our time in school being taught things as "that's the way it is." Not to question it, but just to accept it. Obviously, it's not exactly that way. We still do experiments to verify things, and we still do the proofs in our math classes, but it's a little bit different mindset from scientists. Anyway, I think that in grade school through high school, most students don't really have enough knowledge to make informed decisions. This is an extreme example, but think about how you would teach a five year old. If they ask why the sun sets, you wouldn't give them several different alternatives and tell them to pick the one they though seemed most reasonable. You'd tell them what you thought was the best answer. You're still trying to build their knowledge enough to where they can make intelligent decisions. I think that is still a large part of what grade school is. The students don't yet have enough knowledge, so a big part of science class should be giving them the knowledge that others have already determined. Yes, it's still important to have them start doing experiments and start thinking critically, but I think that at that level, the knowledge is more important.

What's the Real Harm of Creationism?

Like I wrote in the intro, why even worry about creationism vs. evolution? There are more important issues. And I think it's pretty obvious that I'm a Christian, so shouldn't I be more interested in saving souls than teaching truth about the origins of animals (including humans)? Well, one of the arguments that I'd been thinking was that creationism could actually keep people from becoming Christian, because it would alienate sensible thinking people. While researching to write this essay, I stubmled accross a quote by Davis Young that puts this far more eloquently than I could:

"The maintenance of modern creationism and Flood geology not only is useless apologetically with unbelieving scientists, it is harmful. Although many who have no scientific training have been swayed by creationist arguments, the unbelieving scientist will reason that a Christianity that believes in such nonsense must be a religion not worthy of his interest. . . . Modern creationism in this sense is apologetically and evangelistically ineffective. It could even be a hindrance to the gospel.
"Another possible danger is that in presenting the gospel to the lost and in defending God's truth we ourselves will seem to be false. It is time for Christian people to recognize that the defense of this modern, young-Earth, Flood-geology creationism is simply not truthful. It is simply not in accord with the facts that God has given. Creationism must be abandoned by Christians before harm is done. . . ."

Is this really the case? Are things like creationism really stumbling blocks to scientists being religious? Or is it just in their nature to be analytical, and not to accept something as true unless they have evidence? Either way, creationism is not doing any good. And it does keep those that believe it ignorant of a very important scientific principal.


Well, after writing all of this, I think I realize a little better why this topic gets me so worked up, and it's really a combination of a lot of things. First off is my own personal interest in evolution. I think that it's such an interesting concept, especially since that high school biology class when I started to truly understand it. Second, like I said in the previous section, is that creationist arguments could actually keep people from becoming Christian. And finally is other people's attitudes concerning evolution, how they can just utterly reject science, common sense, and all of the evidence that supports it. I don't know if it's close mindedness, ignorance, stupidity, or worse, if they're just being sheep, listening to other people's opinions without looking into the matter on their own, but all of the possibilities are bad. And now that I'm a parent, I can't imagine my daughter growing up in that cloud of ignorance, not even being taught in high school one of the most important scientific principals of our time. I'm already doing my best to keep her open minded about the relationships between humans and the other animals, so that when she's old enough to learn about evolution, she won't have any stumbling blocks. But if it ends up that she gets a science teacher that tries to tell her that humans might not have evolved from other apes, what am I supposed to do, tell her that her science teacher doesn't really know what they're talking about? (See that, I'm even getting worked up in my conclusion.)

So, I know I'm not going to change the world. But at least I can do my own small part. I'll make sure that my own daughter learns about science, and I'll try to write that essay that I mentioned up at the start of this essay. But what it's really going to take is just plain education. If students were taught about evolution in grade school and high school, and shown all of the evidence that supports it, and didn't have their heads filled with a bunch of propaganda refuting it, I'm sure that our country would quit being so backward in this regard.

Further Reading

There are many sites dealing with creationism and evolution. I list here only a handful of the most useful.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Website Update- New Page, "French Polynesia Travelling Tips"

In keeping with putting up constructive material on this website, as opposed to just ranting and raving on My Soapbox or blog, I've made a new page called French Polynesia Travelling Tips. I'd received several e-mails from people asking our advice and about our experiences in French Polynesia, so I figured it was about time to make a page for it. I added a link to the page on the French Polynesia Photos page.

Monday, January 9, 2006

Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Grammar Police

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website April 2nd, 2004. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

15 September 2004

I'm the webmaster for the company I work for. I recently received an e-mail from someone telling me about a grammatical error on the site. The typical- this is the grammar police, you used "good" when you should have used "well." And yeah, I know better. I should have written it the right way to begin with, but it just kind of bugs me that someone goes around nit-picking the site that way. Actually, this is a subject that I've given some thought to since language is one of the things that interests me, and I think that a lot of people put way too much emphasis on the rules of grammar.

People have been around for a long time, tens of thousands of years. Most likely, language has been around that entire time, and probably in more primitive forms in the species leading up to people (even if you don't believe in evolution, at least accept the fact that language has been around for thousands of years). Were there schools all the way back then? Were there grammar guidebooks, or scholars studying the language? Probably not. People just spoke. Yes, there was structure to the language, but the rules to grammar were something that were learned through use and practice, not through formal studying.

The main point of language was, and still should be, to convey an idea to another person. Grammatical rules help to make language more efficient to a point. You can't just throw together a string of nouns and verbs randomly and expect someone to fully understand you the first time around. But if you spend your time getting hung up on whether or not there's a split infinitive, or a preposition at the end of a sentence or some other nit-picking thing like that, you're missing the point. Like when I said that it worked good instead of saying that it worked well, do you think anybody really misunderstood what I meant?

Language is not an invention of scholars. It is a tool of the people. It has slowly developed over time, and it's only been in the last few hundred years that scholars have taken the time to write the rules of grammar. Since language is a tool of the people, however the majority of a population speaks a language is the correct way to speak that language. And it's dynamic. Language changes over time. Just take a look at Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or a King James version of the bible, and compare it to modern English. Does that mean that everyone speaking today is speaking incorrectly because it's not the exact way that English existed at one point in time? Or that those people in the past were speaking English incorrectly because it doesn't match our modern rules of grammar? Of course not. Like I said above, however the people speak it is correct. And since we've seen changes in the last few hundred years, we can surely expect changes in the future.

Yes, grammar is important, but language has survived for thousands of years without scholars, particularly without "grammar police." I don't think there's any reason for that to change now. So get off your high horse and let people speak.

Website Update- New Downloads Section, Updated Program

Time for my first update of the new year. I've added a Downloads section to this site. It contains compiled, executable versions of a few of the programs on my Programming page. I figured that it would be nice to make a few of my better/more useful programs available to those people that don't have Visual Basic installed on their computers, which is probably most people. To that end, I modified my Photo Page Generator program to make it suitable to run as a stand-alone program, making a configuration file that users could save to/load from, so that their settings could be recorded for the different times that they run the program (in the VB program, I just saved it as part of the source code). I also made a change to the program to allow you to make multiple galleries using images from the same directory. I've put the source code for that latest version of that program onto my Programming page, as well making a note on that page about the Downloads section.

And, since it's a new year, I've re-organized the News & Updates Archive, putting all of the 2005 posts onto a new, separate page, and starting over on the main page with 2006 posts.

Monday, January 2, 2006

Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Legality of Homosexual Marriage

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website April 2nd, 2004. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

2 April 2004

There's been a lot of information in the news as of late concerning gay marriage, so I thought I'd write down my opinions to throw into the debate. I think that marriage between homosexuals should be legal, and below are the reasons why.

In my opinion, this is a morality law, and I don't think that it's the government's job to legislate morality. The government's responsibility should be to protect citizens from other people, not from themselves. It is not the government's responsibility, nor should it be one of their powers, to mandate acceptable behavior of citizens, nor that between consenting adults, if that behavior does not affect anyone else.

The vast majority of us in this country are not government officials. We do not control the law, we can only vote for public officials and voice our opinions. If public opinion goes against us, and a law gets passed that we don't personally agree with, there isn't much recourse other than going to court, and even then we're at the court's mercy. Thankfully, for the most part, laws in this country are fair and just. But if a law is passed that affects one segment of society, a similar law could just as easily be passed that affects you, personally. The precedent will have already been set. So, if you don't want laws passed that affect you based on what other people consider moral, you have to extend that same consideration to other people.

One of the problems with trying to pass morality laws is deciding whose morals to use. It's rather straightforward to say whether a certain action does or doesn't affect others (I know there are gray areas, but don't get caught up in situations of a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa causing a hurricane in Florida). It gets more difficult to say whether or not a certain action is moral. The only criteria I can think of are either vague notions of right and wrong, or religions. The first is not going to be very cut and dry, and the second should not be used to make laws in our country, as per the First Amendment. Everyone has their own ideas of morality, and there are hundreds of religions, each with its own particular "rules." The only way, really, to make laws based on morality is to go on public opinion. But then you're faced with the problem that I described in the paragraph above, where a few people have their freedom taken away because of the opinion of the masses, and there's no guarantee that you won't be one of those people on a different issue.

Some people say that our country no longer follows the intentions of the founding fathers, that they would have intended for morality to play a part in laws. I say so what. The founding fathers gave us a good framework for our government, and they risked their lives to give our country independence, and for that we owe them our gratitude and respect, but that is all we owe them. They lived 200 years ago in an agrarian, almost universally Christian society. Times have changed. And don't forget that these are the same men that considered black people as property who only got 3/5ths representation in the government, and that women weren't entitled to vote at all. They were not always right, and I don't feel indebted to carry out their every intention. Although it's important to consider history, we should not be slaves to it. We should base our decisions on what we think is just, not on what we think somebody else would have wanted us to do.

Gay marriage also raises the question of what the definition of a marriage should be. In the legal sense, religion should have no bearing on this question (except that in view of the First Amendment, we should not pass a law that restricts religion). People get married through the state all of the time, without the ceremony having anything to do with religion. I would guess that most people in this country would say that marriage is about commitment, that the two people are committing themselves to each other for a long time. Further, there are several laws that go along with that, because of the commitment between the two people. It affects how they pay taxes, power of attorney, ability to adopt and raise children, and a whole slew of other things. Gay couples can already achieve the same legal status as heterosexual couples in many of these areas, but it's not automatic. They have to take care of each area individually. So, if they can already achieve much of this legally, why not complete it and make it automatic by allowing them to get married? "What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet."

I remember when I first read Bush's statement that if judges "insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process." I liked my friend's response of, "Yeah, I hate it when crazy liberal judges force their will upon the people by allowing them to marry whoever they want. Don't they know that the government should be in charge of people's love lives? It's like the people want the pursuit of happiness or some shit." I think that's a good summary of some of what I was saying above. But looking at the rest of Bush's statement, and now his later actions, it's clear that he wants to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. Ignoring the arguments that I made above, I don't think that a constitutional amendment is the right way to approach this issue.

The amendments in the Bill of Rights were passed to protect people's personal freedoms. All of the subsequent amendments to the Constitution, except for one, have been passed to give additional rights and freedoms, or as changes to the structure of the government. The exception, the 18th Amendment, Prohibition, was repealed XX years later by the 21st amendment because it didn't work. The Constitution should not be used to take away freedom, it should be used to guarantee rights. If a constitutional amendment is going to be passed regarding gay marriage, it should only be used to protect it, not to make it illegal.

Now, to shift this essay from strictly political/legal considerations, I'm going to look at the morality of it, at least the way I see it, since many people won't care about my personal freedom arguments above and probably still feel that morality should play a part in making laws. Being a Christian, I think that homosexuality is immoral. However, I think many people have taken a stance against homosexuality that is inconsistent with their stances on other moral issues. Also, I think that it's important to realize that most gay people are naturally homosexual. They don't choose to be attracted to members of the same sex, it's something biological.

Being a Christian, I pray and study the bible to determine what I think is moral. The Old Testament contains most of the rules for Christians, and it is very strict, and very precise. It lays out exactly what we're allowed and not allowed to do, and lays out the punishments to go along with it. When Christ came, He didn't change what was moral and what wasn't, but He did change the way that we look at punishment (John 8:7 "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.") Most Christians today would not agree with the strict punishments laid out in the Old Testament.

The Bible is very clear about homosexuality being immoral. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, it says the it is detestable, and that it is punishable by death. But there are many other crimes punishable by death in the Old Testament, including adultery, having sex before you're married, kidnapping, blasphemy, and even working on Sundays. For a fuller list, take a look at ReligiousTolerance.org (includes relevant biblical passages to the instances I stated above). So, according to the bible, homosexuality is a sin on par with having sex before you're married, or working on a Sunday. And that's about the way I see it. It's wrong, but no worse than what anybody else does. Look at how many people in our country have pre-marital sex, blaspheme, or work on Sundays, and there's no national debate over them.

One of the arguments that I've heard is that homosexuality is wrong because two men or two women together can't naturally have children. From a legal standpoint, I didn't realize that it was the government's responsibility to make sure that people procreated. From a moral standpoint, fertility is not a good criteria to use for the morality of two people being together. There are countless heterosexual couples that cannot naturally have children. Just because a couple can't bear children doesn't mean that they shouldn't be together.

But now that brings up another, seemingly more controversial, issue, that of whether gay people should be allowed to adopt children (interestingly, this is already legal even though the couple can't legally be married). This is now moving away slightly from consenting adults not affecting anyone else, because now there is a child brought into the relationship, who had no choice in the matter. But, it's not as if homosexual parents would participate in homosexuality with their adopted children. That would be like saying that heterosexual parents would do the same thing to their children. People could argue that it sets a bad example for the children, or might confuse them, but how much worse would it be than some other parent/child relationships that already exist, especially considering the argument above, that homosexuality is no worse morally than blaspheming or working on Sundays? Even if you do consider homosexuality worse than those two acts, would it be worse for a stable, successful, homosexual couple to adopt a baby, than to leave the baby in foster care, bouncing from one house to the next? Or is it any worse than a person who cheats on their spouse, or who's on their sixth marriage, or who has five kids with as many partners? Since my opinion is that homosexuality is no worse than any of the other sins that we all commit, then there's no reason that homosexual couples should not be allowed to adopt children.

I have heard it argued that by legalizing gay marriage, the government is condoning homosexuality. And to that argument, I'd like to point out that the government has already legitimized in a similar manner a partnership that I see as immoral, and that is common law marriage. I do not think that living together without being married is moral (I won't try to hide it- I'm a hypocrite on this since I moved in with my fiancée before we were ever even engaged). But the government has already legitimized this lifestyle by passing laws to automatically consider people married after they have lived together for a certain amount of time. Why is it that two heterosexual people that are unwilling to commit get all of the legal benefits of being married, when two gay people that want to commit to each other cannot?

There is also the "slippery slope" argument, that by legalizing gay marriage, the government is creating a situation where other groups will try to get their marriages legalized, such as polygamists. First off, I don't buy into slippery slope arguments very much. People have common sense. On some issues, there are definitely gray areas, but people know when they're getting out of the range that they're comfortable with, and public opinion won't let things go too far. On the other hand, what's so morally wrong with those marriages? Using the same arguments as much of the above, it's a matter of personal freedom. If you're not hurting anyone, what's wrong with it? Also, there are many religions which do practice polygamy and other forms of marriage (not to mention that many religions see nothing wrong with homosexuality). If we are to preserve those people's freedom of religion, we must permit them to carry out their customs. And from a Christian standpoint, even though most Christians today don't practice polygamy, the Old Testament has several examples, and none of those relationships were considered immoral for it.

If just for the reason of preserving people's personal freedom, our country should legalize gay marriage. But even looking at it from a moral standpoint, it's not so bad. It's no worse than many of the actions of heterosexual couples. Further, gay couples should be allowed to adopt children if they want to. They still have the potential of providing a stable, loving household to children.

Further Reading

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