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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tough Times, Prayer, and the Ratchet Effect

I originally wrote this several weeks ago, and have been debating whether or not to actually post it. Without going into too much personal detail, I'll say that my friend is recovering well from the stroke. He still has a long road of therapy ahead of him, but he's definitely doing well. So, since tomorrow's Thanksgiving, let me say that I am thankful for all those things that I mention below.

GraceSeveral weeks ago, my wife's cell phone rang at 3:30 in the morning. One of our friends was calling to tell us that her husband (also our friend) was having a stroke, and that she was taking him to the hospital. My wife got dressed to meet her there, while I stayed home to be with our daughter.

There was nothing I could do there at the house, so I thought I'd try to be practical and at least get some sleep. That didn't work at all. I was awake most of the night, and only slept in fits.

While I was laying there awake, I guess my Christian upbringing came out, and I was tempted to pray. After all, when I still believed in God, praying would have seemed like the natural thing to do. It's such a feeling of helplessness - not knowing what happened, or what's going to happen, and only being able to lay there and wait. Well, I have to admit that I did end up praying, but not to a god. No matter how strong the emotional temptation, the rational side of me knew that Yahweh was no more real than Zeus or Thor, and praying to any of those myths would have been equally ineffectual. I figured that if any of the mystical stuff that people believed in were true, the common thread to most religions was that we have souls*. And if souls did exist, then my grandparents would be the souls who were most likely to actually care about and want to help me, so I prayed to them. And, I prayed out loud, because I figured that ghosts probably wouldn't be able to read minds any easier than living people. I did recognize that I was praying more for my own peace of mind than actually hoping anything would come of it, but I figured that it couldn't cause any harm, so what did it matter, anyway. I know it all sounds silly, but that feeling of helplessness is just so strong.

Several hours later, after I dropped my daughter off at school, I headed over to the hospital. Now, I fully expected people to be praying. That's just what religious people do in times like this, and even a former christian turned atheist like me had given in to the temptation. For the most part, it didn't bother me much. Sure, it troubled me a bit on an intellectual level, but there are more important things than trying to be right all the time, and it would have taken a real jerk to argue about such things at a time like that.

But... There was one person that really irritated me - the hospital chaplain. He shouldn't have. He didn't seem like a bad guy, and maybe under different circumstances I would have like him just fine. I was probably irritated with him simply because he was a stranger intruding on us during a troubling time. Anyway, the comment he made that really ticked me off, and made me bite my tongue, was something to the effect of, "Well, it's all in the hands of the Big Surgeon, now." Don't call your myth a surgeon. Don't compare it to the hard working men and women who are doing real good. Don't sit there all smug, and pretend that praying is going to do one damn bit of good. If our friend recovers well from this stroke, I'll thank the fact that his wife was a nurse, recognized immediately the signs of a stroke, and rushed him to the hopsital. I'll thank the doctors and nurses, who spent years going to school to learn how to treat these conditions, and acted quickly and competently when our friend showed up in the ER. I'll thank the researchers, who developed the clot buster drugs that give people now a much better chance of surviving and recovering from strokes. I'll thank the researchers before them, who spent decades and centuries increasing our knowledge, to even know what a stroke is, to give any hope of how to treat it. I'll be thankful that we live in this day and age instead of a couple hundred years ago, when, prayer or no prayer, he wouldn't have had a chance.

This also reminded me of an effect that many people have noticed and commented on before - the ratcheting effect of religion. When good things happen, like our friend's recovery, people are supposed to be thankful to God for all he's done for them. But when bad things happen, like the stroke to begin with, it's all part of his mysterious divine plan, and they're supposed to accept that it must have happened for a good reason.

Well, if prayer's what it takes for people to get through tough times, let them pray. I won't try to stop them, but I won't join in, either. What I will do is continue to visit the hospital to offer my support, to run over meals, to help out with errands and chores in the coming months, and to offer any real help that I can.

* - I've written about souls on this blog before. In short, I really do doubt that we have souls, which is why I recognized I was praying for my own peace of mind more than anything else.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Strengths and Limitations

Strengths and Limitations

TEA LogoThe Texas State Board of Education had their first hearing on school science standards. There's a lot of hoopla over a certain phrase that's been in the standards since 1988, to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories. When the draft science standards were released in September, which were, according to the Dallas Morning News, created by "review committees of teachers and academics," the wording had been removed. Now, the new Science Standards Review Panel, a six member group containing three ID supporters, one of whom is even the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture from Washington state, have unsurprisingly put that language back into the standards, slightly reworded as "analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations" of scientific explanations, along with a recommendation for middle school students to "discuss possible alternative explanations" for scientific concepts (source).

Before I begin discussing this, since I realize that around half the population of the U.S. doesn't accept evolution, let me make it clear that evolution has, in fact, happened, and our knowledge of the history of life on this planet, although incomplete, is still pretty good. I've already posted A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution explaining much of this, which also has links to much more in depth material on evolution. Moving on...

On the face of it, teaching strengths and weaknesses of any theory sounds like a great thing. After all, there are weaknesses in our current understanding of evolution: which is more accurate - gradualism or punctuated equilibrium; what is the relative importance of natural selection versus genetic drift versus sexual selection versus other forms of genetic change; what are the relative importances of allopatric, peripatric, parapatric, and sympatric speciation; how do epigenetics contribute to evolution; etc. But, understanding the larger debate, and recognizing that organizations like the Discovery Institute try to use this language to inject pseudoscience into students' education is what makes it worrying. I mean, just take a look at what the inappropriately named organization, Texans for Better Science Education, considers weaknesses of evolutionary theory (most of these are covered in Talk Origins' Index to Creationist Claims). If the language in the science standards opens the door to drivel like that, we're definitely doing our children a disservice.

There's also the question of what is the proper role of a pre-college education. You only get the students for 12 years, and there're a lot of knowledge and skills that they need to be taught in that time. There's one school of thought that says that it's more important to teach students how to think than what to think. I agree with this to an extent - critical thinking skills are essential to evaluating all the information the students will receive outside school. It's not as if school can cover everything, or as if our body of knowledge as a civilization is static. There will always be new challenges and new information that these students will face once they become adults, and they need to know how to approach those. However, evaluating claims about the world also relies on a strong foundation of knowledge. It's hard to evaluate someone claiming the Earth is flat without a working knowledge of at least geography, and maybe a little bit of astronomy and physics. So, it is up to schools to find the proper balance of teaching that foundation along with critical thinking skills.

And this is where the "strengths and weaknesses" or "strengths and limitations" requirement as part of the science curriculum comes into question. How much can actually be covered in a high school biology class? Can we really give students the good strong foundation they need in evolutionary theory before addressing some of those weaknesses I listed above? Should it just be a token paragraph as part of the lesson plan about future research opportunies? Think about another high school science topic - physics (since this requirement is about all science topics, not just biology). There's so much to teach students as is (universal gravitation, forces, vectors, friction, etc.). How much time do you think teachers should be devoting to describing the weaknesses in the classical (Newtonian) model, other than maybe a brief, single day lesson about Einsteinian relativity?

Out of all the controversies about teaching evolution in the various states of this country, this current one in Texas, other than generating some heat in the blogosphere and among a few interested parties, is probably pretty mild. After all, it's only a short phrase that's already been in place for the past 10 years, and not even one that explicitly requires teaching of creationism or Intelligent Design. With competent teachers, evolution will still be taught well. And with the creationist teachers, I don't know that the phrase would make much of a difference, anyway. The place where I see this having the biggest impact, and which will probably turn into a bigger battle, is when it comes time to choose the new textbooks. I'd hate to see our state waste taxpayer money on a book like Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Moon

Speaking of space, my daughter and I broke out the telescope tonight, and I figured that just for the hell of it, I'd try to take a picture of the moon. No fancy equipment - just sticking the camera up against the eyepiece, and doing my best to get it in focus.

The Moon
(click image to enlarge)

If anyone's interested, it was an Astroscan telescope, and the box the eyepiece was in said "Plossl F15." The camera was a 7.2 MP Sony DSC-W80. I probably could have gotten a little better picture if I'd messed around a bit more, but I thought this one still turned out decent.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List Updated for October

Top 10 ListI'm about half a month late in getting to it, but here are the 10 most popular pages from this site for the month of October. Once again, it's pretty similar to months past. The big surprise this month is that an old blog entry, Golden Compass - A Surprise at the Bookstore, made the top 10 this time around. The only other time it made the list was back in January, when I blogwhored and advertised it on Pharyngula.

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Physical Comparison of Humans to Other Animals
  4. Programming
  5. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  6. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  8. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool
  9. X-Plane, UDP, and Visual Basic, for X-Plane version 8
  10. Blog - Golden Compass - A Surprise at the Bookstore

List for Previous Months

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Universe Is Big

Douglas Adams once wrote,

Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.

Phil Plait from the Bad Astronomy Blog recently posted about "the deepest ground-based look into the universe ever undertaken." I've put a compressed image below, but I would highly recommend downloading the 32MB full resolution image (The ESO reorganized their site. The image can now be found here. It's offered in several resolutions, including a gigantic 78.6 MB tiff. You could also use this flickr link instead, for a slightly lower res version). Don't be fooled - most of those smudges of light aren't individual stars; they're galaxies.

Deep Look Into Space

Okay, to give an idea of scale, I've superimposed that image onto the moon, to show how much of our field of view it takes up (If you make a thumbs up sign and hold it at arm's length, the full moon's about the size of your thumb nail). Not just that, but notice that little white square in the top left corner of the superimposed image? Well, I put the full size of that portion on the right. Note that in the image above that that region appears to be pretty empty, but once you zoom in on it, you can see there's still a lot there. And remember, those are galaxies, not individual stars. That's why it's so impresive to download the full size image and just scroll around it.

Image Superimposed on Moon

Okay, to put this into a little more perspective, I did a rough calculation. It seems like people like comparing stars to grains of sand. Well, it's been estimated that our galaxy contains around 100 billion (1 x 1011) stars. For a rough calculation, let's assume we have spherical grains of sand around 0.5mm in diameter (source), or about .02 inches in diameter. I won't bore you with the calculations, but 100 billion grains of sand would have a combined volume of 231 cubic feet. Assuming a 64% packing ratio (because there're going to be air spaces in between the grains), you'd actually need a container of around 361 cubic feet to hold all that sand, which works out to a cube of around 7 ft. per side.

So, the point of all that calculation - if you had a 7'x7'x7' container full of sand, that's about how many stars there are in our galaxy. Assuming we have an average size galaxy (some are bigger, some are smaller), just about every smudge of light in the image above represents around that many stars. I really can't even begin to comprehend that - all I can do is describe it. Scrolling around that full size image gives me butterflies in my stomach thinking about just how big this universe is.

Added 2008-11-14 Okay, that assumption about our galaxy being typical has been bugging me a bit. I still haven't been able to find a good source showing the distribution of sizes of galaxies (admittedly, I haven't looked very hard), but Wikipedia says that most galaxies range in size from 10 million to 1 trillion stars. So, repeating the calculations I did earlier with that star count, it would take a 15x15x15 ft cube to hold a trillion grains of sand, and a 4x4x4 inch cube to hold 10 million. Now, a 4" cube may not be all that big compared to the 15' one, but that's still a lot of grains of sand.

Now, just to add one more bit of comparison, if you're in a dark area on a clear night, you could probably see around 2000 individual stars with your naked eye (since you can't resolve individual stars in the Milky Way or 3 three galaxies you can see with the naked eye, the Andromeda Galaxy, The Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud - source1, source 2). It would only take a 1/4 inch cube to hold that many grains of sand.

So now, when you look at the picture, you'll have a slightly more accurate guess of how many stars each one of those smudges of light represents.

I'll also add that after working on this entry yesterday, and then staring up at the night sky with a near full moon for comparison, it made me feel tiny.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Voodoo DollIt's a good thing I'm not superstitious, or I'd think I was cursed.

I live in Wichita Falls. Our local airport (SPS) has a few flights a day to and from DFW airport. Flying the connecting flight from Wichita Falls makes trips so much more convenient - I can spend my time reading instead of concentrating on all the cars around me. It might cost a little more, but if I'm going to be traveling by myself, once you factor in gas for a round trip to Dallas along with the cost of parking, getting the connecting flight isn't such a bad option pricewise.

There's one problem, though. DFW gets hit by a lot of thunderstorms. It seems like every time I try to fly out of Wichita Falls, on the way back home, my first flight gets delayed by weather, and I end up missing the flight from DFW back to Wichita Falls. Thinking back, I'd say that it's worked only once out of the five times I've tried it. I usually end up renting a car and driving back home. So, not only did I spend more for my airplane tickets to begin with, but I get stuck paying the rental car fee and gas on top of that.

Given my past luck, I'd pretty much decided on giving up trying to fly out of Wichita Falls. However, my brother got tickets to the Steelers game for this past weekend, and thought it would be fun for the three of us brothers and our dad to go watch it. So, this was a trip for just me, where my wife and daughter were going to stay behind in Texas. And it was in November. How many thunderstorms hit in November? So I decided to take my chances and fly out of Wichita Falls.

I think you can guess what happened. On the way home, I was supposed to land in DFW at 7:15, and then catch an 8:00 flight to Wichita Falls. I knew it was a little close, but I figured I'd be okay. Well, with a thunderstorm that just sat right over the area, we had to divert to Shreveport to get more fuel where we sat for a while waiting for the weather to clear, and we didn't get to DFW until after midnight. Just a little bit too late to catch my 7:15 flight. Anyway, I was too drowsy at that point to try to drive home, so I spent the night in DFW and flew back the next morning.

I'm not going to say that I'll never again try to fly out of Wichita Falls. However, I'll be sure that I never again schedule the last flight of the day from DFW to Wichita Falls, and to give myself a little more time between flights.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Creationists Still on Texas Board of Education

TEA LogoNot too long ago, I blogged about how the Texas Board of Education had nomianted three creationists to the six member Texas Science Standards Review Panel. What's more, two of those creationists aren't even from Texas, and have published a textbook that could potentially be adopted by the school system (no conflict of interest there).

Well, the way the panel was chosen was that they had to each be nominated by two BoE members. The six members who nominated the creationists to the panel were Cynthia Dunbar and David Bradley (nominated Meyer), Barbara Cargill and Ken Mercer (nominated Seelke), and Gail Lowe and Terri Leo (nominated Garner). (more info at Texas Citizens for Science)

Creationist BoE members up for relection included David Bradley and Gail Lowe (both running against Democratic challengers), and Terri Leo, Barbara Cargill, and Patricia Hardy (running against third party challengers). The results are in, and all five were re-elected.

On the plus side, two rational board members, Mary Helen Berlanga and Mavis Knight, both up against Republican challengers, were also re-elected. So, at least the creationists didn't gain any power.

I know I probably shouldn't be surprised by this, but it's still disappointing.

Added 2008-11-05 Cynthia Dunbar wasn't up for re-election this time around, but this gives a good idea of just what type of people we have on our BoE down here. She posted the following comment to the Christian Worldview website a few days before the election.

So we can imagine the blatant disregard for our Constitution, but what other threats does an Obama administration pose? We have been clearly warned by his running mate, Joe Biden, that America will suffer some form of attack within the first 6 months of Obama’s administration. However, unlike Joe, I do not believe this “attack” will be a test of Obama’s mettle. Rather, I perceive it will be a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is threat to tyranny.

Argh. I can't believe these people have control over the curriculum for my daughter's education.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Get Out and Vote

I Voted Today

Now any of you that haven't voted yet, go out and do it.

Image Source: Whirlwend

Civic Duty

With all this talk of civic duty going on right now, I can't help thinking of a certain line over and over (not safe for kids, and probably NSFW)

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