Books Archive

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review - Thousands, Not Billions, Part II

In Part I of this review, I introduced what this book was about (an attempt by creationists to justify a young earth through radiometric dating), gave a few general comments, and described what I considered to be the most serious flaw with their hypothesis - not accounting for the heat that would be created through accelerated nuclear decay.

In this part of the review, I will address additional points from the book. It's a bit longer than the first part, but that's because I preferred to keep Part I short and to the point, and not distract from such a glaringly obvious flaw. The points here are more details.

Rather than go through chapter by chapter, I'll jump straight to the last chapter, where they summarized their most important points. I'll list those points here, followed by my commentary.

As a note, I've relied rather heavily on the Talk Origins site for references. In many cases, I'll provide several links for more information. The 'Index to Creationist Claims' links are usually short and succinct, while the articles are much more detailed. Note that both the Index to Creationist Claims and the Talk Origins articles list their references, allowing the reader to research these points even further, if they want.

Since Talk Origins covers most of these points so well already, there's little need for me to repeat everything here, so my commentary will be rather short.

1. For some years there has been a growing realization that carbon-14 atoms are found where they are not expected. With a half-life of 5,730 years, C-14 should no longer exist within "ancient" fossils, carbonate rocks, or coal. Yet small quantities of C-14 are indeed found in such examples on a worldwide scale. The RATE work extends this information with carbon-14 measurements in additional coal samples and also in diamonds. The RATE carbon-14 experiments on diamonds are the first ever reported in the literature. Measurable levels of C-14 are found in every case for both coal and diamond samples. This evidence supports a limited age for the earth. There is a widely held misconception that carbon-14 dating is in direct conflict with creation and the young-earth view. Instead, however, the carbon-14 findings strongly support a recent supernatural creation.

In Part I, I mentioned that this book ignored all of the other evidence for an ancient Earth. That point is especially significant here. Carbon-14 dating is very reliable. We know this by comparing Carbon-14 dates to other dating methods, such as, to quote from Wikipedia, "tree growth rings (dendrochronology), deep ocean sediment cores, lake sediment varves, coral samples, and speleothems (cave deposits)." In fact, since the forces responsible for creating atmospheric C-14 haven't remained strictly constant, causing slightly varying levels of C-14 throughout history, these other independent dating methods can be used to create calibration tables for C-14, making C-14 dating even more accurate.

But, the above doesn't explain the findings of the RATE team. How did C-14 end up in ancient rocks? Well, there are several possible sources. Any types of fissures that would expose the rock, either directly to the atmosphere, through ground water that carried dissolved carbon, or biological sources, could account for the C-14. But even for completely isolated rocks, there's another source. Remember that although cosmic rays are primarily responsible for C-14 in the atmosphere, that's not the only way that C-14 can be created. Underground, the radioactive decay of the uranium-thorium isotope series releases neutron and alpha particles, which in turn can create C-14, and are probably the main source of C-14 in ancient rocks and minerals. And remember, we're talking about trace amounts of C-14 - not enough to significantly affect dates for younger samples with much higher concentrations. Contamination and poor procedures can also be a source, which is discussed in detail in the third link below.

More info:

2. Zircons play a prominent part in the RATE studies. These are tiny crystals which often occur in granite, one of the most abundant rock types on earth. Within their crystal structures, many zircons hold helium atoms which result from the decay of internal uranium atoms. Zircons brought to the surface from deep underground are assumed to be ancient. The New Mexico zircons studied by the RATE team have a radioisotope age of 1.5 billion years. If this were true, then the internal helium atoms should long ago have escaped from the zircons. Instead, however, the RATE scientists and others find high concentrations of helium still present inside the zircon crystals.

RATE research obtained some of the first high-precision data on helium diffusion in zircon. A theoretical model based on this data gives an age for the earth of about 6,000 years. The presence of helium in zircons is a serious challenge to the concept of deep time. The helium also represents compelling evidence of accelerated nuclear decay in the past.

Reading the section of the book that dealt with this, I was struck by their lack of mention of pressure in calculating the helium diffusion rate in zircon. I would imagine that high pressure would have a significant effect - compressing the zircon and reducing the size of passages that helium could migrate through. Without including pressure in their experiments, I don't put much stock in those numbers representing what's actually going on under ground. In other words, if you don't know what the helium diffusion rate is in the conditions a rock experienced, you can't know how much helium should be in the rock.

As with all radiometric dating, the possibility of contamination is always a concern, as well.

According to the article provided in the second link below, it turns out that there are far more errors in the RATE study than I could list in a short review such as this. These include mistakes in math, misidentifying minerals, and probable helium contamination from nearby helium deposits, to name just a few.

More info:

3. Radiohalos are tiny spherical defects in rocks. They result from the decay of clusters of radioactive atoms, mainly uranium and polonium. The frequent occurrence of these halos in rocks is evidence for widespread nuclear decay. Halos are present in abundance in granites whose formation accompanied the Genesis flood. This indicates that a large-scale acceleration of nuclear decay occurred during the year-long flood event.

There is a longstanding mystery concerning radiohalos. Many of them appear to have formed during the decay of short-lived polonium radioisotopes. These transient isotopes must in turn be supplied by the decay of other isotopes with much longer half-lives. However, evidence for the long-life parents is often missing. These halo-forming isotopes include the polonium isotopes 210, 214, and 218. To explore this mystery and other questions, many thousands of radiohalos were measured in rocks worldwide. This was perhaps one of the largest-scale radiohalo studies ever undertaken.

The RATE research suggests that the polonium isotopes are derived from uranium via accelerated decay. The polonium atoms then were rapidly removed and transported away from their uranium sources by underground hydrothermal fluids. The polonium atoms accumulated at new sites and formed secondary radiohalos near their uranium parent halos. Thus, the short-lived isotopes are not parentless after all, but instead were physically removed from their point of origin.

I don't have much to say on this, other than directing readers to the links below. From studies done by others, it appears that the biggest problem with the RATE research is that polonium probably wasn't responsible for the halos. It seems most likely that a radon isotope (a decay product of uranium) was their source. Given that radon is a gas that can diffuse through the minerals, there is no problem with the halos being separated from the uranium. In fact, when others have looked for halos, they've found them clustered around cracks in the minerals, which is exactly where you'd expect to find them if it was due to gas diffusion.

More Info:

4. Many rock units worldwide were analyzed by radioisotope dating techniques. These experiments include the parent-daughter isotopes potassium-argon, rubidium-strontium, samarium-neodynium, and also the lead-lead method. The efforts gave fresh data on apparent age and their consistency. Some examples of concordance, or agreement in age were found, while many other examples showed discordance, or disagreement. In fact, both extremes often occurred in the same rock unit.

Great trust is traditionally placed in the results from isochron plots. These are graphs which are thought to give valid information on initial conditions, possible sample contamination, and sample age. The RATE results raise serious cautions concerning the interpretation of isochrons. Even when an isocrhon plot of data appears to produce a straight line with excellent statistical support, the calculated sample age is often in conflict with other results. The conclusion is that no isochron age can be trusted with confidence.

Once again, this result appears to be due to bad methodology on the part of the RATE team. Read the first link provided below. Depending on what samples are dated and what methods are used, there can be quite a bit of variation, but this is already known by geochronologists. For example, if you take samples of a metamorphic rock, then you're bound to get different dates from different minerals in the rocks. Also, if you use a dating method that relies on a certain element, such as potassium, but the mineral you're dating doesn't have much potassium in it, then you're not going to get very reliable results. When researchers take appropriate samples, and use appropriate methods, they do get consistent dates.

More Info:

5. There are three important assumptions made in radioisotope dating. Each has been addressed by RATE research and found to be subject to failure. The first assumption is that the initial conditions of rock samples can be determined accurately. This is challenged by the many discordant isochron dates. Also, ancient dates are often obtained for volcanic rocks known to be very recent in origin. The second assumption is that the open or closed nature of rock samples can be determined and quantified. However, there are frequent indications of the mixing of mantle and crustal isotopes with rock samples. Also, polonium radiohalos show the movement of isotopes through rocks and minerals by hydrothermal transport. The third assumption is that nuclear half-lives have remained constant throughout history. This assumption is countered by the unexpected helium found in "ancient" zircons. also, there are abundant radiohalos and fission tracks in rocks which were rapidly deposited during the Flood.

Most of the points raised above are dealt with elsewhere in this review, so here I'll only deal with one - the claim of ancient dates for recent volcanic eruptions. To be fair, the book didn't deal much with dating of recent volcanic eruptions. It was only discussed in a few paragraphs. However, since they used it as a point of evidence, it's still worth discussing.

The main thing I was most struck by was how this 'fact' was discussed, which points to a larger problem with the book. The RATE team did date some rocks from a volcano named Mount Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, but then simply stated matter of factly that other recent volcanic rocks had also been given ancient dates, without any reference. In fact, the book only had a grand total of 16 references at the end. Compare that to any good science book, such as Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, which has around that many recommendations for further reading (or more) at the end of each chapter, and literally hundreds of references in the back of the book. Even on this blog, I try to use references as much as possible. Granted, mine usually aren't to primary sources like peer reviewed journal articles, but at least it lets the reader know where my information came from, and gives them a starting point to research it further.

Moving on, here's the quote where the volcanos dated by others were mentioned the first time.

The RATE radioisotope studies reveal large-scale errors for volcanic rocks known to be less than a century old. Similar results have been previously published for many other modern lavas which yield exceedingly old ages. This is particularly true of basaltic lavas on ocean islands such as Hawaii. These young rocks commonly carry "ancient" radioisotope signatures inherited from their mantle sources.

It seems that there is a study of Hawaiin lava that this could be referring to -
J. G. Funkhouser and J. J. Naughton, "He and Ar in ultramafic inclusions", Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 73, 1968, pp. 4601-4607. However, the creationists are either misinterpreting or misrepresenting what the study actually says. The study was specifically looking at xenoliths, or inclusions, which are recognizable material that's been embedded in the flow, and not part of the magma that came up from deep underground. So the researchers knew that the inclusions were going to be older than the lava. What's more, when they dated what was recognizable as the magma from the eruption, they found that, "The matrix rock of the Hualalai nodules was erupted during 1801-1802 [Richter and Murata, 1961] and, indeed, can be said to contain no measurable radiogenic argon within experimental error." So they did correctly date the eruption as very recent.

More Info:

6. The concept of accelerated decay arises many times in the RATE work. It is the logical inference of placing millions or billions of year's worth of nuclear decay, at present rates, into a short time frame. The episodes of increased nuclear activity appear to have occurred during the creation week and also during the flood of Noah's day.

The evidences for vast amounts of decay include the abundance of nuclear decay products, high concentrations of helium atoms residing in zircon crystals, radiohalos, and fission tracks. Theoretical RATE studies suggest several possible ways by which nuclear decay could have been accelerated. Of special interest are large changes in decay rates that can result from a temporary adjustment of various physical constants and parameters. The ideas are rather complex and involve nuclear forces, higher dimensions, and string theory. This theoretical RATE work provides possible mechanisms for accelerated nuclear decay.

I know this is a smart alec answer, but I would have thought that the "logical inference of ... millions or billions of year's worth of nuclear decay" would be millions or billions of year's worth of time for it to happen in.

Obviously, the biggest flaw in arguing for accelerated decay is the point I made in Part I - you must also account for the accelerated release of energy. Seeing as how the Earth isn't vaporized, I seriously doubt a period of accelerated decay such as what has been proposed by RATE.

RATE has proposed that the accelerated decay occurred universe-wide. Luckily, we can study the past for our universe. In fact, that's all we can study, given the huge distances involved and the time it takes light to reach us (this in itself is another indication of an ancient universe, given that some observed galaxies are billions of light years away). Nothing we see in studying the universe (and especially relevant for this discussion are supernovae) indicates that radioactive decay has ever been any different than it is now.

They also mentioned a "temporary adjustment of various physical constants and parameters." These constants control more than just radioactive decay. In fact, the whole point of fine tuning arguments so often used by creationists is that the universe would be very different if those constants were even slightly different.

There is even more discussion of how we know the decay rates have been constant in the links below.

More Info:

7. The RATE radioisotope dating measurements also contribute information regarding accelerated nuclear decay. These measurements reveal two distinct trends. First, the isotopes which decay by alpha particle emission tend to give older dates than the isotopes which undergo beta decay. Second, heavier isotopes tend to give older dates than lighter isotopes. Neither of these trends should exist if the radioisotopes have had constant half-lives and accurately measure the ages of rocks. This decay information may provide useful clues to understanding the mechanisms responsible for accelerated nuclear decay.

Given all the problems discussed above about the RATE team not producing accurate dates, I don't see any reason to even address this point. The effect they're mentioning isn't seen by other researchers.

8. The linguistic studies of Genesis 1:1-2:3 likewise support a recent creation. This research shows that biblical texts may be identified as either narrative or poetry with a high degree of confidence, based on the Hebrew verb forms used by the authors. The distributions of finite verbs in numerous Old Testament narrative and poetic passages were analyzed. The Genesis creation story is found to be a narrative account describing literal historical events. This conclusion challenges all efforts to explain away the early chapters of Genesis as non-literal poetry, metaphor, or allegory. The research also contradicts the currently popular idea that the Genesis account describes the big-bang theory in pre-scientific terms.

When I was still a Christian, and assumed the Bible had to match up with reality, I interpreted Genesis figuratively. Now that I'm no longer a Christian, and don't have to force the Bible to be an accurate book, I can take it for what it is. And, to be honest, I tend to agree that the writers of the first book of Genesis did believe it was a literal story. Actually, I'll take it a bit further. I think the writers believed in the same cosmology as other nearby cultures, that the earth was a flat disc with a dome - the firmament - above it. It would certainly explain Genesis 1:6-8.

More Info:

Throughout the book, the author mentioned Noah's Flood several times. It was actually a bit surreal to see someone seriously discussing the Flood as a legitimate topic. The author didn't go into detail about the Flood, so I won't discuss it in detail here. Rather, I'll simply direct interested readers to the appropriate page on Talk Origins. In particular, I like section 7 of that article, discussing how a global flood is completely inconsistent with the geological record.

Before closing this review, I'll take one last chance to put this in perspective (bordering on an argument from authority combined with an ad hominem). A handful of researchers, who have admitted that they already believe in a young Earth because of scripture, and that they will 'channel' data to fit that perspective, have done a few studies that they say indicate the Earth is only a few thousand years old. The scientific community, composed of people from multiple religious backgrounds, have performed thousands and thousands of experiments over more than a century, and reached a consensus that the Earth is around 4 1/2 billion years old. I mentioned Charles Lyell in Part I of this review. He was the man who popularized uniformitarianism when he published Principles of Geology, before Darwin even got aboard the Beagle. Lyell was a Christian. He struggled with the theory of evolution because he thought it went against his religious beliefs. Most of his contemporaries who were convinced by his book and the other science being done at the time were also Christians. Obviously, they thought the evidence for an ancient Earth was irrefutable, and didn't come up with the explanation simply because they wanted one that didn't include God. The point is, when people aren't blinded by preconceptions, they tend to agree with the scientific consensus.

So, I've now read a modern 'scientific' book on creationism. Obviously, I wasn't convinced by the arguments it contained. If anything, it's reinforced my view that creationism is nonsense. But, I suppose it was worth reading to see an opposing point of view. It's also prodded me to learn more about geology and physics, and learning more is always a good thing.

I usually end my reviews with a recommendation for or against reading the book. In this case, I definitely recommend against, unless you already know enough about the science, or are willing to put in the effort to research the claims. Otherwise, the arguments can sound convincing, and could mislead most of the people who read the book. If you don't know about these topics already, go read a real science book on geology.

I'll leave this challenge open. If anybody wants to recommend a better book that argues for creationism, I will read it and evaluate the arguments.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review - Thousands, Not Billions, Part I

A few months ago, I asked for a recommendation of the best book creationism had to offer. A friend of mine suggested Thousands... Not Billions: Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth. So, I bought it and read it.

The book is a summary of a research project known as Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (RATE), associated with The Institute for Creation Research (ICR). The book was written by one of the Researchers, Dr. Don DeYoung.

The subtitle of the book, "Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth", might lead you to think that there'd be a bit of discussion of evolution. There wasn't. The book looked only at the age of the Earth, and focused entirely on radiometric dating.

Now, I realize that books can only have a finite scope. This book's focus was radiometric dating. Fine. Just don't expect that pointing out a few anomolies in this one field is enough to overturn the diverse forms of evidence from other fields for an ancient Earth (particularly if your anomolies are down to bad methodology). Keep in mind that radioactivity wasn't discovered until 1896 by Henri Becquerel, and radiometric dating wasn't attempted until the early 1900s. When you consdier that Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, it's obvious that radiometric dating didn't form one of the pillars of the theory. In fact, it was already known that the earth was ancient, though with less certainty of the exact age, from other sources. Uniformitarianism was first proposed in the 18th century by James Hutton, and later popularized by Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology in 1830. These geologists were looking to other forms evidence, such as the layers of sediment that had built up in different areas, and comparing those to known forms of deposition in the present. Just look at the White Cliffs of Dover for a formation that took countless years to form.

There was one passage that didn't come until near the end of the book, on page 169. However, I'm going to include it here at the beginning of the review, because it clearly shows the mindset of those involved.

Furthermore, the unchanging Scripture message has priority over all transient models of earth history. The RATE team concludes that Scripture is the standard to which interpretations of scientific data must conform. This does not imply the rejection of any data whatsoever. However, it does call for the positive channeling of data interpretation in a proper biblical perspective.

This is exactly the wrong way to do science. They've already decided on their conclusion, based on their interpretation of scripture, which, as they made clear elsewhere, is definitely a young earth. From that stance, there is no evidence at all that could convince them of an ancient universe, because they would just 'channel' that evidence to fit with their preconceived notions. They even hinted at this in the book, that where they run into a roadblock that isn't explainable by any other means, they can just invoke divine intervention. This is hardly any better than Last Thursdayism.

Throughout the book, the author indicated that accelerated nuclear decay was responsible for their findings. This hypothesis was mentioned many times throughout the book. Obviously, this raised some serious red flags. When I think of accelerated nuclear decay, I think of this:

Mushroom Cloud from Wikimedia Commons -

Now, depending on just how accelerated the decay might have been, it might not necessarily have set off an explosive chain reaction. But, it would still release huge amounts of energy. This, to me, is the biggest flaw in the whole hypothesis presented in the book, and is the reason why I've addressed it first, before getting to any of their other points. You simply can't propose that there was accelerated nuclear decay without accounting for the energy it would have created.

Given how huge of a problem this is for the hypothesis, I would have expected that they would have devoted considerable space to addressing it - a chapter, at the least. Instead, it received 3 paragraphs. Here, quoted in full, is their attempt at addressing the heat problem associated with accelerated nuclear decay, and in fact, since the first describes the problem, only the latter two attempt to address it.


The heat energy given off during nuclear decay raises an important question. What prevented the earth from melting completely during the rapid decay which amounted to millions of year's worth at present rates? Calculations show that this much decay of uranium and thorium atoms within a typical rock mass would raise the rock temperature as high as 22,000ºC. This temperature is nearly four times hotter than the surface of the sun and would likely vaporize entire rock masses in explosive events, but the crust of the earth did not melt during the Flood period. In fact, the presence of radiohalos and fission tracks in many rocks shows that rock temperatures remained below about 150ºC during the formation of the halos and tracks. Otherwise, these crystal defects would be thermally erased. Also, zircons in many rocks still contain helium atoms resulting from accelerated decay, yet the zircon crystals themselves were not melted during the nuclear decay process.

Somehow the enormous amount of heat resulting from isotope decay must have dissipated quickly. One tentative, rather novel proposal is called cosmological cooling (Humphreys, 2000). It is highly theoretical in nature and involves general relativity, higher dimensions, and a rapid expansion of space. Consider a kitchen refrigerator which is cooled by the expansion of a confined, compressed gas. In somewhat analagous fashion, an expansion of space would result in cooling on a universal scale. In this explanation, the heat energy generated by the nuclear decay goes into the expansion of the fabric of space itself. The key is to have accelerated decay simultaneously accompanied by a temporary, large-scale stretching of the space surrounding earth. Since there is evidence of much radioactive decay throughout the solar system and in space beyond, the expansion must be universal in its extent. There are definite hints in Scripture of an expansion of space during the Genesis flood (Humphreys, 2000). It is proposed that an enormous expansion of space, 20-fold times or greater, occured during the Flood event.

Big-bang enthusiasts also propose an inflationary stretching of space. However, their inflationary big bang occurs at the very beginning of time, within the first second, and only increases the universe from atom size to that of approximately a marble. In contrast, the cosmological cooling model places its expansion in the time frame of the Flood. Such an extreme alteration of the physical universe actually might drop the temperature too far and cause the reverse problem of over-heating, that is, a frozen earth. Further theoretical work is ongoing regarding the amount of heat produced by nuclear decay and the possible mechanisms for its removal. The RATE team views the extreme heat generation associated with accelerated decay as a serious issue, but not an insurmountable problem. (page 152)

Just to be thorough, here is the only other mention of the problem, from the Challenges for the Future section of the conclusion.

1. Accelerated nuclear decay involves millions or billions of years worth of decay occuring in just days or months of time. Even at present rates, considerable heat is produced by radioactive nuclear decay. An acceleration of this process will multiply the heat output greatly. This heat, which is produced within rocks, must be removed, or it could melt or even vaporize the earth's crust. This clearly did not happen to the earth. In fact, the existence of zircons with helium, radiohalos, and fission tracks shows that the host rocks and minerals have not experienced excessive heating. These physical records of nuclear decay would rapidly disappear if temperatures increased to hundreds of degrees. Possible mechanisms have been explored that could safeguard the earth from severe overheating during accelerated decay events. One of these involves cosmological or volume cooling, the result of a rapid expansion of space. Many details remain to be filled in for this and other proposed processes of heat removal. (page 179)

So, their response to the problem of all this energy is to propose that the very fabric of space time itself expanded! You don't just have a functioning universe, expand space 20 fold, and then expect the universe to keep on functioning just like it was before. And unlike the Big Bang, there's no physical evidence at all for this expansion (and I'm curious just what type of scriptural evidence there is). The only reason they're proposing it is as a post hoc rationalization to maintain their preconceived notions.

More Info:

To tell the truth, with such a gaping hole in their hypothesis, I don't think there's any real need to even address the rest of the book. This is a fatal flaw if there ever was one.

Still, I have fun debunking bad science, and I suspect the type of people who read my blog have fun reading those debunkings, so I'll take a look at their other points. But for that, you'll have to wait for Part II.

Update Part II is now online.

Updated 2010-11-29 Added a link to the entry where I requested creationist literature, and slightly reworded the opening paragraph.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review - The God Delusion

While reviewing unfinished blog entries, I came across this one. I'd originally intended to write a very in depth review of this book, but never quite got around to doing it, and it's now been years since I read the book. Still, what I'd already written wasn't bad, so I figured it was worth cleaning up a bit and posting on the blog.

After putting it off for over a year and a half, I finally read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. There were a couple reasons I put it off so long. First, when the book first came out, I was just coming to grips with non-belief, and I was still too embarassed to take the book to the cashier. Second, even as I did become more comfortable with atheism, I thought that the book would just be a lot of preaching to the choir. However, thanks to the urging of a few people, I decided to go pick up the book, and I'm glad I did.

To be honest, for me, a good portion of the book was preaching to the choir, but not quite as much as I'd feared. I anticipated 420 pages of dissecting arguments for the existence of gods, pointing out inconsistencies in religious doctrines, and reasons why non-belief is the more rational choice. And while a good part of the book does address those points, that's only about half of it. The rest of the book deals with different but related issues, such as the roots of religion, the basis for morality, and reasons for speaking out against religion.

I have read several unfounded complaints of the book. Just consider the first editorial review on the book's Amazon page by Publisher's Weekly.

For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe...

While Dawkins can be witty, even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense..."

He insists that religion is a divisive and oppressive force, but he is less convincing in arguing that the world would be better and more peaceful without it.

Admittedly, some sections use strong language, particularly introductions to chapters, but I never read anything as scornful, nor particularly intolerant. Yes, Dawkins described Yahweh as "psychotic," but that was in the context of the atrocities of the Old Testament (such as Jephthah and his daughter from Judges 11). And after re-reading the section on Aquinas, I think Dawkins was justified in calling it like he saw it - Aquinas's arguments weren't all that good.

The last part of this review is something I've seen used as the sole argument of some reviews. It has nothing to do with the proposition of whether or not a god exists, only the consequences of belief in a god. And personally, I think Dawkins did address that aspect fairly well, though I guess that's a matter of personal opinion.

I don't entirely agree with all of Dawkins' arguments, but I still recommend this book.

Added 2010-11-23 Thinking about The God Delusion again, I recall a certain passage that I found really funny (just about the only humorous passage from the book). As luck would have it, it was one of the parts available from Google Books. I'll included the lead in for context. So, here's the passge, from page 86:

More recently, the physicist Russell Stannard (one of Britain's three well-known religious scientists, as we shall see) has thrown his weight behind an inititiative, funded by - of course - the Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improves their health.

Such experiments, if done properly, have to be double blind, and this standard was strictly observed. The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients, nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls. Those who did the experimental praying had to know the names of the individuals for whom they were praying - otherwise, in what sense would they be praying for them rather than for somebody else? But care was taken to tell them only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Apparently thta would be enough to enable God to pinpoint the right hospital bed.

The very idea of doing such experiments is open to a generous amount of ridicule, and the project duly received it. As far as I know, Bob Newhart didn't do a sketch about it, but I can distinctly hear his voice:

What's that you say, Lord? You can't cure me because I'm a member of the control group?... Oh I see, my aunt's prayers aren't enough. But Lord, Mr Evans in the next-door bed... What as that, Lord?... Mr Evans received a thousand prayers per day? But Lord, Mr Evans doesn't know a thousand people... Oh, they just referred to him as John E. But Lord, how did you know they didn't mean John Ellsworthy?... Oh, right, you used your omniscience to work out with John E they meant. But Lord...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Books, A Year in Review - 2010, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia Commons Here is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year. Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

I've always tried to point out my favorite books in these posts. Like last year, though, I had quite a few favorites this year. From kids fiction, it would be Treasure Island and The Higher Power of Lucky (with Night of the Twisters being borderline for making the favorites list). In adult fiction, it would be The Count of Monte Cristo and Flat Land. In non-fiction, it would be Guns, Germs, and Steel, Misquoting Jesus, The Tangled Bank, and Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. So, out of 20 books read, 8 are my favorites (with a 9th almost making it).

Continue reading "Books, A Year in Review - 2010, Part II" »

Monday, November 8, 2010

Books, A Year in Review - 2010, Part I

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsWell, it's that time of year again, when I look back over my reading habits for the past 12 months*. I've been doing this for several years, now (see previous reviews for 2007, 2008, and 2009). It all started with an article about an AP-Ipsos poll on people's reading habits. Among other things, it pointed out that around 1 in 4 adults in this country hadn't read any books at all in the previous year, and that among those that had, the average number of books read was 6. (Yes, this is the second time I've copied that sentence verbatim).

Like in the past two years, I'm breaking this up into two entries. In the first, I'll reflect on my reading habits (which means it probably won't interest many people), and in the second, I'll give a brief review of each book.

So, here are all the books I read in the last year, sorted by topic instead of by the order in which I read them.

Children's & Young Adult Fiction

  1. Treasure Island
  2. The Higher Power of Lucky
  3. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
  4. Night of the Twisters
  5. Firegirl
  6. Lyra's Oxford
  7. The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread
  8. The Demigod Files (A Percy Jackson and the Olympians Guide)

Adult Fiction

  1. The Count of Monte Cristo
  2. Flatland/Sphereland (Everyday Handbook)
  3. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4
  4. Animal Farm: Centennial Edition
  5. The Android's Dream
  6. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!


  1. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
  2. Myths and Legends From Ancient Greece and Around the World
  3. Catholicism for Dummies, Pocket Edition**
  4. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
  5. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
  6. The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution
  7. Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

So, that's 21 books altogether - pretty close to what I've read the past two years.

I guess I might as well get used to it - I like kids books. Three of those kids books I read because my daughter read them and recommended them to me, but the other five I read entirely of my own volition.

I did read a bit more adult fiction this year than in years past. I've got a few books I want to read next year that should continue that trend.

I have to admit to not reading the full version of The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a paper back we had laying around the house, and I never took a close look at the cover. I was halfway into the book before I actually studied the cover and read "Translated and Abridged by Lowell Bair". At that point, I was too caught up in the story to put it down and wait until I had the full version. So, I went online and read about the translations. Many of the 'abridged' versions of The Count of Monte Cristo were actually censored versions - they left out parts that were unbecoming to Victorian sensibilities. The book I read included those parts, at least, but I have no idea how it compares to the full unabridged story.

My non-fiction books weren't so heavily biased towards biology this year. I only read two books on evolution. The first, The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution), was one that I'd specifically mentioned last year as being on my wish list. The other, Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution, fulfilled one of my stated goals from last year, of getting "away from general evolutionary books, and more into those on specific topics." I still want to read Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom) and Why Evolution Is True. Maybe I'll get to them next year.

I did get into religious books a bit more this year than other years, although the pocket edition of Catholicism for Dummies hardly counts as a book (I almost left it off this list). I'll try to read at least one or two books on religion each year, but I don't know if I'll keep on reading as many as I did this year.

I'm still working on knocking out this list. I knocked out a few more this year, which only leaves 89 left to go.

All in all, I think my reading was pretty balanced this year, but I could probably add a little more history and philosophy in there.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I'll post my reviews for each book.

Update 2010-11-15 Part II is now online.

* Okay, I'm a little late this year. I usually do this post in October. To keep the comparison fair, I only included the books I read up until around the middle of October, and left off the books I've read since then.

** I found the pocket edition of Catholicism for Dummies in the dollar rack at Target. I haven't been able to find it online, yet, but I'll link to it if I ever do.

Updated 2010-11-10 I completely forgot about one of the books I'd read last year, The Demigod Files (A Percy Jackson and the Olympians Guide), so I added it, and updated the counts.


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