Posts Tagged ‘Science’

You remember that documentary called “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed“? That was the one that came out a year or two ago, hosted/narrated by Ben Stein, that looked at incidents where educators and scientists were ridiculed, denied tenure, and sometimes fired simply for believing that there might be evidence of design in nature. Well, here’s another one for Stein to investigate….

David Coppedge of JPL

David Coppedge at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

David Coppedge is a high-level IT specialist working at the esteemed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA lab overseen by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Until recently, Coppedge was a “Team Lead” Systems Administrator on the ambitious & high-profile Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. Then, Coppedge was demoted for religious proselytizing on the job. But, is that really what he did? Not quite.

It seems that Coppedge is guilty of talking about Intelligent Design and loaning/giving pro-ID DVDs to some of his co-workers. He did not force anyone to talk about ID or to take the DVDs. These co-workers had expressed interest or at least willingly accepted the DVDs. None of these people complained to the higher-ups. While Coppedge is a Christian (who edits a private, pro-ID blog), no proselytizing was actually involved. But, one of the supervisors who was aware of the discussions allegedly confronted Coppedge, angrily asserting that “Intelligent Design is religion”, accused Coppedge of “pushing religion”, and ordered him to stop talking about ID, religion, or politics, (why not sports, too?) or he would be fired. That was back in March of 2009, at which point Coppedge says he complied with the demand. He then got a written warning and was demoted the following month.

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, Jr., has now filed a lawsuit on behalf of his client in the California Superior Court in Los Angeles. Caltech, JPL, and three of Coppedge’s superiors (i.e., his direct supervisor, group supervisor, and the Manager of IT Resources for the CIO) are all named in the suit. The allegations include: religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation; violation of free speech rights; and wrongful demotion.

Hold up! “Religious discrimination…”? Didn’t I just say there was no proselytizing going on?

Yes. But, the anti-ID crowd usually conflate or connect modern ID Theory with creationism (e.g., “intelligent design creationism”). Of course, anyone who knows much about Intelligent Design and is intellectually honest knows the difference. While compatible with creationism (which begins with a religious text), ID actually begins with observations about the physical world and what we know about the effects/products of intelligent agents versus those of mere chance & necessity. It is the philosophical (and perhaps theological) implications of recognizing design in nature that upsets certain people, especially committed materialists. So, they rhetorically refer to ID Theory as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” and then dismiss it as religious nonsense.

Although ID is not religion, and the DVDs in question “make no reference to any religion, scriptural text or religious belief”, what matters is that JPL’s management decided the problem was that Coppedge was “pushing [his] religion”. The problem for them is that it is illegal for an employer to “discriminate against an employee based on what they deem is religion,” as per California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). (Go here for counterpoint arguments to what ScienceBlogger Ed Brayton and ACLU lawyer and Loyola law professor Gary Williams have to say on this.)

According to Casey Luskin, an attorney who works at the Discovery Institute and is a consultant on the suit,

For the offense of offering videos to colleagues, Coppedge faced harassment, an investigation cloaked in secrecy, and a virtual gag order on his discussion of intelligent design. Coppedge was punished even though supervisors admitted never receiving a single complaint regarding his conversations about intelligent design prior to their investigation, and even though other employees were allowed to express diverse ideological opinions, including attacking intelligent design.”

Incidentally, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, “Earlier this month Coppedge claims he met with his supervisors, who told him that the written warning was inappropriate and it would be removed from his file. The suit calls this is [sic] ‘an admission of liability.'” JPL maintains their position that Coppedge’s conduct was inappropriate, that his demotion was justified, and the “gag order” on his speech in the workplace remains in effect.

JPL logo

JPL logo

The other important issue, here, is that of free-speech and First Amendment rights. To some degree, employers have a right to monitor and restrict what their employees talk about while on the job. Issues of profanity, racism, and sexism come to mind. But, did JPL act appropriately in this case? Keep in mind that the lab is federally funded and is the primary planetary spacecraft center for NASA, an agency of the U.S. government’s Executive Branch.

This is just the latest of several such cases where public and private institutions are alleged to have unfairly discriminated against scientists and others for holding and/or promoting views contrary to the Darwinist establishment. In fact, Becker is also representing the American Freedom Alliance in their First Amendment suit against the California Science Center in Los Angeles, which I blogged about at “Shenanigans at the California Science Center“.

You can read the formal complaint in its entirety here. I found the details of the confrontation, secret investigation, and subsequent disciplinary action (Section E, pp. 8-14) particularly interesting and disturbing. I can only imagine the kind of stress, anxiety, humiliation, and fear for his continued employment that Coppedge has been under the past year.

Anyone who thinks that today’s culture of science allows an open discussion of evolution is sorely mistaken,” said Dr. John G. West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture. “When it comes to intelligent design, private and government-run agencies are suppressing free speech.”

What say you?

Oh, in case you were wondering what the offensive DVDs were, check out “Unlocking The Mystery Of Life” and “The Privileged Planet“.

Seven TRILLION electron volts! (7,000,000,000,000 eV) Or, 7 teraelectron volts. (7 TeV) Holy bug-zapper, Batman, that sounds like a lotta juice! If only we could bottle it, that would be one great “alternative” source of energy.

Hold on, cowboy! We’re talking electrons, here. You know how small those things are, right? Fact is, one mosquito buzzing around your head represents about 1 TeV of kinetic energy, so we’re looking at 7 flying mosquitoes’ worth of energy. Doesn’t sound like much, but it was enough to get scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) all a-tizzy last month.

Large Hadron Collider, aerial view

Aerial view of Large Hadron Collider, with location of tunnel drawn on

Some of you may remember that I posted a couple months ago about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on — actually, more than 570 ft. beneath — the French-Swiss border. Well, this was part of the experiments that particle physicists have been planning for the $9.4 billion particle accelerator. They were able to get two beams of protons up to 3.5 TeV each and ram them together! (Boys will be boys! Of course, there are girls involved, too, so, um,… nevermind.) A new world record for man-made particle collisions!

The 17-mile tunnel through which the collider loops is supercooled with liquid helium to just a couple degrees over absolute zero, making it “the coldest place in the universe”. There are two beam pipes that mostly run parallel, each containing a proton beam, which travel in opposite directions around the ring. More than 1600 powerful, superconducting magnets — recently repaired after electrical overheating caused major damage back in Sept. 2008 — keep the beams focused and “on track”, as it were. By altering the magnetic forces slightly, the two beams can be forced to cross at four intersection points and, hopefully, cause at least a few of the billions of protons to collide. Half a dozen detectors — two general purpose and four specialized — are set up at these points to, er, detect the various types of energy, forces, matter, & antimatter that are generated by the collisions.

Attempts earlier in the day experienced problems with the beams, so they had to “dump” the protons and inject fresh ones to create two new beams. But, on March 30 at 13:06 Central European Summer Time (CEST), the first successful collision was achieved, and scientists tuned in worldwide cheered enthusiastically.

“It’s a great day to be a particle physicist,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. “A lot of people have waited a long time for this moment, but their patience and dedication is starting to pay dividends.”

Inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

Inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) -- notice the little man standing near the bottom

Now, they can begin studying this latest batch of data from the somewhat-controversial LHC project. The hope is to start getting some answers about things such as the origins of the universe, the nature of matter-antimatter asymmetry, supersymmetry, maybe even the elusive “God particle” (aka Higgs boson). The previous record for similar attempts was 2.36 TeV, but it was insufficient to mimic the desired conditions from the moments following the Big Bang. (Next, they plan to double the output to 14 TeV! But, not before 2013.)

Nature does it all the time with cosmic rays (and with higher energy) but this is the first time this is done in Laboratory!” tweeted one scientist.

You may also remember from my earlier post that some people who heard of the planned experiments warned of the mini black holes that could be generated and the apocalyptic results. But, as you may have noticed, such fears were (so far) unfounded, because, well, we’re still here.

With these record-shattering collision energies, the LHC experiments are propelled into a vast region to explore, and the hunt begins for dark matter, new forces, new dimensions and the Higgs boson,” said ATLAS collaboration spokesperson, Fabiola Gianotti. “The fact that the experiments have published papers already on the basis of last year’s data bodes very well for this first physics run.”

Sounds very promising, and I’m intrigued by what exciting discoveries lie just over the horizon. (For more quotes and more info on the experiments scheduled, check out this ScienceDaily article and related ones.)

Last time (Part 1 & Part 2), Beckwith & Koukl demonstrated how the evolutionary approach to explaining morality actually denies it. Now, for an even bigger problem…

Why Should I?

This third observation uncovers the third and most serious objection to the idea that evolution is adequate to explain morality. One question can never be answered by any evolutionary assessment of ethics: Why ought I be moral tomorrow?

One of the distinctives of morality is its ‘oughtness,’ its moral incumbency. Assessments of mere behavior, however, are descriptive only. Since morality is essentially prescriptive — telling what should be the case as opposed to what is the case — and since all evolutionary assessments of moral behavior are descriptive, then evolution cannot account for the most important thing that needs to be explained: morality’s ‘oughtness’.

Chimpanzee in deep thought

Chimpanzee in deep thought

One question really needs to be answered: Why shouldn’t the chimp (or a human, for that matter) be selfish? The evolutionary answer might be that when we’re selfish, we hurt the group. That answer, however, presumes another moral value, that we ought to be concerned about the welfare of the group. But why should that concern us? They would say ‘because if the group doesn’t survive, then the species doesn’t survive.’ But why should we care about the survival of the species?

Here’s the problem. The responses intended to explain morality ultimately depend on some prior moral notion to hold them together. Based on an evolutionary view, it is difficult to explain why we should not be selfish, or steal, or rape, or even kill tomorrow without smuggling morality into the answer.

The evolutionary explanation disembowels morality, reducing it to mere descriptions of conduct. The best the Darwinist explanation can do — if it succeeds at all — is explain past behavior. It cannot inform future actions. But prescription, not description, is the essence of morality. As we have seen, evolution may be one explanation for the existence of conduct we choose to call moral, but it gives no reason why we should obey any moral rules in the future. If one countered that we have a moral obligation to evolve, then I’ve won my point. If we have moral obligations prior to evolution, then evolution itself can’t be their source.”

Hah! I love it.

Earlier in the chapter, the authors point out:

Evolutionists may be right when they say that we’re not compelled to adopt the morality of evolution. The danger of social Darwinism, however, is not that society must adopt the law of the jungle but rather that it is allowed to. The exploitation of the weak by the strong is morally benign according to Wright’s evolutionary view of morality.

What Darwinists cannot do is give us a reason why we ought not simply copy nature and destroy those who are weak, unpleasant, costly, or just plain boring. If all moral options are legitimate, then it’s acceptable for the strong to rule the weak. No moral restraints would protect the feeble, because moral restraints simply wouldn’t exist….

Bongo is not a bad chimp; he’s just a chimp. No moral rules apply to him. Eat the banana, Bongo.”

Chimp sitting and eating

Bongo the Chimp finishes his banana

In my last post (Part 1), Koukl & Beckwith explained why morality entails more than mere conduct; motive and intent are also parts of the equation.

Denial by Neo-Darwin

This leads us to the second problem, which runs much deeper than the first. When morality is reduced to patterns of behavior chosen by natural selection for the survival value, then morality is not explained; it’s denied. Wright admits as much. [This is a reference to Robert Wright, journalist and author of The Moral Animal — Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology.] Regarding the conscience he says: ‘The conscience doesn’t make us feel bad the way hunger feels bad, or good the way sex feels good. It makes us feel as if we have done something that’s wrong or something that’s right. Guilty or not guilty. It is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we’re in touch with higher truth. Truly a shameless ploy’.

Evolutionists like Wright are ultimately forced to admit that what we think is a ‘higher truth’ or morality turns out to be a ‘shameless ploy’ of nature, a description of animal behavior conditioned by the environment for survival. We’ve given that conduct a label, they argue: morality. But they say there is no real right and wrong.

Comtemplative chimp

Contemplative chimp

Does Bongo, the chimp, actually exhibit genuine moral behavior? Does he understand the difference between right and wrong? Does he make principled choices to do what’s right? Is he worthy of blame and punishment for doing wrong? Of course not, Wright says. Bongo merely does in a primitive way what humans do in a more sophisticated manner. We respond according to our genetic conditioning, a program ‘designed’ by millions of years of evolution.

Philosopher Michael Ruse admits that evolution and objective morality are at odds: ‘Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…. Never the less… such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction… and any deeper meaning is illusory.’

The evolutionary approach does not explain morality: it denies it. Instead, it explains why we think moral truths exist when, in fact, they don’t.”

Go here for Part 3.

Every once in awhile, you hear someone trying to describe how evolution/Darwinism — really, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis — explains “morality”. Often the explanations involve recent observations of “morals” (or the rudiments thereof) among one or another type of animal — elephants, whales, birds, cats, dogs, apes, etc. But, IMHO, there is always something missing. The naturalistic philosophers and scientists never really explain the concept of the transcendant, objective morality. At best, all they can do is suggest why certain individuals or communities — human or perhaps not — may adopt a certain code or guidelines to live by. Why is that?

Rather than try to piece something together myself, I’d like to address this issue, at least in part, by quoting from a couple philosophers. (Don’t worry; they are quite readable for us layfolk.) The next three posts will constitute a passage — roughly 3 pages’ worth — from Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (1998), by Francis C. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl. Hope you enjoy it!

More Than What You Do

Recent studies have attempted to show that animals exhibit rudimentary moral behavior. In one case, a group of chimpanzees ‘punished’ Bongo, a ‘selfish’ member of their band, by withholding food from him. Apparently the moral rule was this: Chimps shouldn’t be selfish.

Chimp eathing a banana

Chimp eathing a banana (ooh-ooh! yum!)

This assessment has serious problems. First, drawing conclusions about animal morality simply from behavior reduces morality to conduct. But true morality also entails nonbehavioral elements, too, like intent and motive.

We can’t infer actual moral obligations from the mere fact of a chimp’s conduct. We can observe that chimps in community share food and that when they do they survive better. But we can’t conclude from this that Bongo ought to share his bananas or else he’ll be immoral because he hasn’t contriguted to the survival of his community.

Further, in fixing blame we distinguish between an act done by accident and the same act committed on purpose. The behavior is the same, but the intent is different. We don’t usually blame people for accidents: If the boy didn’t intend to trip the old lady, we don’t fault him.

We also give attention to the issue of motive. We withhold blame even if the youngster tripped the elderly woman on purpose if the motive is acceptable: He tripped her to keep her from running in front of a train….

Motive and intent cannot be determined simply by looking at behavior. In fact, some good behavior might turn out to be tainted, depending on the motive and intent: giving to the poor when one wants to be well thought of, instead of having a genuine concern for the recipients. Indeed, it seems one can be immoral without any behavior at all, such as plotting an evil deed that one is never able to carry out.

Morality informs behavior, judging it either good or bad; it’s not identical to behavior. Rather it is something deeper than habitual patterns of physical interaction. Therefore we can’t draw conclusions about animal morality simply based on what we observe in their conduct.”

Go here for Part 2 and Part 3.

Some of you may remember back in December when I mentioned the public unveiling of Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo craft — soon to be “the world’s first commercial spaceship.” Now christened the VSS Enterprise (yeah!), the ship is back in the news with another historic milestone.

VSS Enterprise in captive carry flight

VSS Enterprise (aka SpaceShipTwo) in captive flight with WhiteKnightTwo

Mounted on a pylon between the twin fuselages of the WhiteKnightTwo (piloted by Mark Stucky), the Enterprise had its maiden “captive carry” flight. After months of ground testing, this was the first time Enterprise actually got airborne. Taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, the ships spent just under 3 minutes soaring over the desert, reaching an altitude of 45,000 feet. The purpose was to evaluate the aerodynamics of Enterprise itself and of the interaction between the two ships and the center pylon. The tests involved the high-tech method of attaching several pieces of yarn to the pylon for observation.

“We were able to accomplish virtually 100 percent of the flight cards, we cleared the envelope out to the full release speed and altitude on the very first flight,” said Stucky. “Things just went really well.”

Next on the docket are more captive flights, followed by several non-powered glide flights, subsonic powered flights, supersonic powered flights, and finally suborbital space flights. Rigorous and varied testing continues into 2011. Then, of course, the good ship Enterprise has to get certified for commercial flight by the FAA.

While the President slashes programs and budgets for NASA, this bold, new branch in the history of manned spaceflight continues to progress, thanks to those great motivators: fame and fortune. In other words, “private enterprise”. Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson called the flight “a testament to US engineering and innovation.”

Capitalism at its best! Cool.

P.S.  For a bigger version of the above pic, plus five more images, go here. For brief videoclips of the flight, go here.

Fossil of Ida (Darwinius masillae)

Fossil of Ida (Darwinius masillae)

She’s back in the news, but just barely. That 47 million-years-old skeleton of what may be the earliest-known primate, Darwinius masillae (aka “Ida”), is getting some more attention — at least, in scientific circles.

As you may recall (go here, then come back), there was a lot of hype last year when Ida was revealed to the world with her being trumpeted as “clear proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution” and the “eighth wonder of the world”. Professor Jorn Hurum et al. were pushing the idea that Ida was not lemur-like enough to be a true strepsirrhine, so she had to be a proto-haplorhine, and therefore a distant “missing link” cousin of modern humans. But, in addition to turning up their noses at the sensationalism surrounding the find, critics said the claims being made about Ida’s place in the “family tree” (or, more accurately, “bush”) were questionable, at best, and the remains required further examination by additional experts.

Now, those experts have completed their study and published their own findings in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution,” says Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. “Every year, scientists describe new fossils that contribute to our understanding of primate evolution. What’s amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it’s nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn’t already know from fossils of closely related species.”

As Blythe Williams, lead researcher and anthropologist at Duke University, pointed out:

There’s this enormous body of literature that has built up over the years. The Darwinius research completely ignored that body of literature.”

Those who determined last year that Ida was a haplorhine highlighted certain features she shared with monkeys, apes and humans — namely, a short snout and a deep jaw. But, Williams’ team points out that this is not uncommon, even among strepsirrhines (i.e., lemurs & lorises). In fact, Ida is missing most of the key anatomical features — e.g., a middle ear with two chambers and a plate of bone that shields the eyes from the chewing muscles — that would place her firmly in the haplorhini Suborder. Thus, says Kirk. “[Y]ou can forget about Darwinius being a close relative of humans or other anthropoids.”

I knew it all along….