Tag Archives: science

Some Standard Wisdom on Brain Pickling

One of the recurrent themes in the articles that caught my eye while reading through the 1880 editions of the Christian Standard was the confidence with which they trumpeted the scientific knowledge of their day. Looking at the science of a bygone era, in edition to being tremendously amusing, ought to give us pause today about our own scientific hubris and force us to wonder how future generations will perceive our cutting-edge thought, particularly as it filters down to the popular level. This piece was copied by the Standard from Scientific American, which is still in publication.

[…], by far the greatest anatomist of the age, used to say that he could distinguish in the darkest room by one stroke of the scalpel the brain of the inebriate from that of a person who lived soberly. Now and then he could congratulate his class upon the possession of a drunkard’s brain, admirably fitted from its hardness and more completed preservation for the purpose of demonstration. When the anatomist wishes to preserve a human brain for any length of time, he effects that object by keeping that organ in a vessel of alcohol. From a soft pulpy substance , it then becomes comparatively hard, but the inebriate, anticipating the anatomist, begins the indurating process before death, begins it while the brain remains the consecrated temple of the soul while, while its delicate and gossamer-like tissues still throb with the pulse of heaven-born life. Strange infatuation this, to desecrate the God-like. Terrible enchantment that dries up all the fountains of generous feelings, petrifies all the tender humanities and sweet charities of life, leaving only a brain of lead and a heart of stone.

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Creation vs. Evolution vs. Catholicism

The Barna Group, commissioned by BioLogos, has just released an intriguing new study about sharp divides among “today’s pastors” about science, faith, and the origin of species. The study shows an almost even split between those who believe in Young Earth Creation and those who do not, with the do not group being divided between proponents of theistic evolution and progressive creationism. Young Earth Creationists have their stronghold in the South, while theistic evolution is most common in the Midwest. Most clergy think that questions of faith and science are important, but, at the same time, a majority fear that disagreements are distracting from the greater Christian witness.

There is little there to shock, unless you realize one glaring omission: Catholics. While the survey of Protestant ministers actually excludes both Orthodox and Catholic leaders, the Orthodox have only about one million members in the United States, making their omission excusable (at least from a statistician’s point of view). Catholics, on the other hand, are no minority to be trifled at. As the largest single Christian denomination in the United States–one in four Americans belongs to the Roman Catholic Church–their absence from a survey about the origins of life suggests an array of possible biases, all of them disturbing. It is likely that, in lockstep with history, that Catholics are still being treated as second class Christians or (perhaps implicitly) not real Christians at all. It would not be the first time the self-proclaimed Protestant establishment drew a sharp line between Christianity and papism–even if it can no longer express the dichotomy in those terms in our politically correct age. Equally possible, Catholics may have been excluded because their presumed answers would have tipped the scale away from a picture of conflict between conservative and progressive thought on origins. The Roman Catholic Church never engaged in the kind of systematic anti-evolution campaigns that so many Protestants did at the turn of the twentieth century in response to Darwin. In fact, for more than sixty years the official Catholics position has been that there is no conflict between evolution and Christianity, leading to a de facto triumph of theistic evolution among leading Catholic divines. Admitting Catholics into the dialogue would throw off both the slim majority of Young Earth Creationists and the geography of creationism (with the South and Southwest being an area of significant Catholic presence).

Or maybe the Barna Group just never thought to include Catholics. But would that really be better?

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Some Standard Wisdom for Avoiding Epidemics

Sun
Continuing with the theme of amusing ourselves at the expense of the level of scientific and technical knowledge in 1880, the Christian Standard published extensive quotes from and commentary on an article by E. W. Cushing which first appeared in the International Review:

We are apparently on the climax—which arrives in 1882—of a cycle of epidemics, which coincides with the sun spots of some eleven years and a fraction. As he argues, it is a time of great disturbances in temperatures, etc….After a carefully prepared table of the great epidemics known in history, which are shown to correspond very clearly with the semi-changes, he concludes: “Now what can these general influences be, this general cause, this morbific influence of an unknown nature? Does the earth itself change periodically? No. Does the mass of air or water change? No. What can change them? The force, the heat, the energy which is derived directly from the sun. Does this change regularly, periodically, and at intervals corresponding with those of this pestilence? It certainly does; and all these strange natural phenomena which we have seen to have been observed in all ages as the forerunners or accompaniments of epidemics are now known to depend on, or at least to coincide with, the changes of solar energy corresponding with the sun spot cycle. Here is certainly the post hoc; shall we not admit the propter hoc?”

Depending on what the fraction is in “eleven years and a fraction,” I fear we may be due for another period of epidemic disease in 2013. Oh wait.

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The Question of Extraterrestrial Life (less than) Definitively Settled

I am inclined to think that there is no life on other planets. I have heard repeatedly the statements about the sheer size of the universe and the correlative theoretical quantity of planets, among which it is as near a statistical certainty as possible that many can support life and consequently that one does. Yet precisely this mathematical certainly disinclines me to believe that there is life beyond Earth. I am not saying that there isn’t or that it would bother me if there were; only that I am choose not to suppose that there is.

The reason is, therefore, clearly not rational. It is not, however, strictly speaking irrational, which would imply a failure to rationally derive an argument for a proposition. Instead, it is contrarational. Having divined and accepted the rational argument that there is life on other planets, I formulate my belief in conscious opposition to that. What justifies such a contrarational position? It is precisely that beauty, joy, sublimity (or some other vague and subjective term) exist in contrast to rationality.

Again, this is not to say that the rational cannot be beautiful or incite joy or embody the sublime. It merely acknowledges what has been a well recognized feature of art and literature and romance and life. The human spirit is enlivened more by the unpredictable, the unexplainable, and the impossible-but-actual than by the reasonable. Serendipity and providence. Mad, stupid, consumptive, doomed love. Fantasies and phantasmagoria and psychosis.

I believe in a beautiful God, one Who transcends and can therefore contradict reason. The notion that this foolish Deity could have created a cosmos which by its very nature speaks to the mathematical certainty of life on other planets and then refuse to populate any planet but this one fills me with an inexplicable joy in the mere possibility of it. I will rejoice in a God who creates and saves the inhabitants of other worlds as well, but until I know otherwise I prefer to be seized by the sublime belief in a universe that must and a God who flouts such necessity.

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Moore on Science

In his landmark book Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, Laurence Moore reflected on the tendency of the American media to periodically declare that occultism is on the rise. The charge of press sensationalism is not new–and not his point. Instead, looking back to the “occult” religious sects of the 19th century, he makes an intriguing point about the myth of secularization through science:

The American press likes to announce occult revivals in which Americans react against the world view of “modern science.” Yet the journalistic emphasis on ebb and flow seems much overdone. The truth is that we do not live in an uncomplicatedly secular age. The scientific revolution, wherever in time one wants to cut into it, has promoted in almost equal parts a respect for empiricism among experimental scientists and a more popular belief that experiment can push beyond the limits of ordinary sensory awareness…

[This way of thinking], rather than being rendered archaic by scientific and technical progress, has, like science fiction, often gained credibility among those who have welcomed that progress. The people who believe in ESP, after all, do not think of themselves as Criticizing science per se. In their minds, they are merely urging science to stretch beyond the materialistic assumptions that proscribe certain types of research.

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History for History’s Sake

In his 1969 article, “Second Thoughts on History at the Universities,” British historian Sir Geoffrey Elton made the following recommendation:

Teachers of history must set their faces against the necessarily ignorant demands of ‘society’…for immediate applicability. They need to recall that the ‘usefulness’ of historical studies lies hardly at all in the knowledge they purvey and in the understanding of specific present problems from their prehistory; it lies much more in the fact that they produce standards of judgment and powers of reasoning which they alone develop which arise from the very essence, and which are unusually clear-headed, balanced and compassionate.

Elton’s view is likely to win at least public support from many academic historians, as much as it is equally likely to elicit public scorn from just about everyone else, particularly those outside of the humanities (and of those particularly scientists for whom usefulness is assumed, in the discipline if not always in the particular research project). Yet, in truth most historians today go to great lengths to contort themselves and their work to conform to expectations of social relevance. Every new paper, every new book is subjected to one degree or another to questions not just of how it advances human knowledge but how it might benefit human society. Most defenses are theoretical and superficial, but that they must be made at all reveals something.

It would be easy, not to mention self-serving, for me to now turn and defend a universal application of Elton’s advice that history be pursued without regard for usefulness. After all, I have spent most of my admittedly short academic career studying the most utterly useless facts jotted into the marginalia of history. The more esoteric, the more alluring. But critics of the humanities in general and history in particular are largely correct. Rightly gone are the days when the government could and would subsidize the pursuit of knowledge of the sake of knowledge, particularly knowledge which has no clear future applicability. History is, in this respect, the worst academic offender.

Yet Elton is correct when his own language is allowed to limit the scope of his observation. The above are from reflections on “history at universities” and directed at “teachers of history.” As history continues to be rightly scrutinized for its social value, it is important not to transfer criticisms of professional historians onto the discipline as a whole. Historical thinking–rather than the academic fruits of the professionalized application of historical thought–is in fact a necessary tool. It has been rightly observed that all humans are historical thinkers, existing as much in their reflection on their individual (and on our collective social) past as they do in the present. The “standards of judgment” and “powers of reasoning” that characterize self-conscious historical thought are crucial tools in the continued functioning of our species. If we allow our critique of ivory tower academics to come to bear on the general curriculum–in universities, but also in high school or middle school as well–then we jeopardize the intellectual future of our children.

It is not uncommon now–and this is true both of where I went to school and of the university I work for now–that undergraduates can be expected to take more than twice as much science as history, regardless of their intended field. The deeply incorrect assumption here is that people on average will need more biology in their lives than, for example, American history, more familiarity with chem-lab safety protocol than the causes and consequences of the communist revolution in China. The devaluing in the public mind of history, abetted as it has been by the increasing specialization in the discipline (e.g. a professor I know who studies only the history of agricultural technology in the plantation South), is poised to create a generation of historically and culturally illiterate actors, agents in the making of our ongoing history.

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The Wisdom of Alexander von Humbodlt

Alexander von Humboldt was once among the most famous names in all America, a fact testified to by the dozens of cities, rivers, bays, and species that were named after him. An explorer, commentator, and philosopher, he is best remembered today, if he is remembered at all, as the father of the 19th century scientific movement that bears his name and stresses the interrelatedness of the various aspects of nature and of humanity and nature.

More interesting to me, however, are these comments he made about liberty in America. For as strong as America’s love was for Humboldt–and for a time Humboldt returned that affection, particularly through a personal friendship with Thomas Jefferson–Humboldt proved himself a willing and able critic of American hypocrisy. At a time when the American rhetoric about liberty was its most eloquent and its failure to live up to that rhetoric most obvious, Humboldt made this observation:

In the United States there has, it is true, arisen a great love for me, but the whole there presents to my mind the sad spectacle of liberty reduced to a mere mechanism in the element of utility, exercising little ennobling or elevating influence upon mind and soul, which, after all, should be the aim of political liberty. Hence indifference on the subject of slavery. But the United States are a Cartesian vortex, carrying everything with them, grading everything to the level of monotony.

Americans are less philosophical in their ideals and less overt in their failure to live up to them, but I suspect that Humboldt’s criticism remains largely accurate.

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The Wisdom of Niels Bohr

I recently came across this quote from Niels Bohr in an environmental history of the United States. It is apparently quite a famous quote, but, not being a scientists, it was entirely new to me. Here, succinctly, one of the greatest physicists in history accurately removes science from essentialist pursuits and relegates it to its proper, observational sphere:

It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature

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Cow News

If you thought the story, previously shared, of cows producing lactose-free milk was astonishing, just wait until you see what these magnificent creatures are doing now:

Would protection against the deadly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) make you willing to give up your vegan lifestyle? New research from Australia’s Melbourne University suggests that a type of treated cow’s milk could provide the world’s first HIV vaccine.

Working together with biotechnology company Immuron Ltd., the Australian research team vaccinated pregnant dairy cows with an HIV protein. This injection posed no risk to the cows, as they are unable to contract the disease, according to researchers. After giving birth, the first milk produced by the cows was found to contain HIV-disabling antibodies…

“We were able to harvest antibodies specific to the HIV surface protein from the milk,” said Dr. Marit Kramski, who is presenting her research as one of the winners of Fresh Science — a national program for early-career scientists. “We have tested these antibodies and found in our laboratory experiments that they bind to HIV and that this inhibits the virus from infecting and entering human cells,” she said.

Got milk?

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Lactose Free Cows?

New Zealand researchers have genetically engineered a cow whose milk, produced for the moment by artificially stimulated lactation, lacks β-lactoglobulin protein, one of the primary milk allergens affecting humans. Great news for people who are lactose intolerant!

Or not, since apparently it is presently illegal to market or even consume transgenic milk. There are perhaps more important reasons to take the linked story as less than the revolutionary news the headlines make it out to be. For example, the researches can’t explain the curious rise in casein proteins in the milk. They also are dismissing as irrelevant–though unconvincingly–the premature birth of their franken-cow and the significant absence of Daisy’s tail. (Perhaps Eeyore has it.)

If only there were a way for lactose intolerant people to survive, even thrive, without scientists amusing themselves by tinkering with the genetic makeup of cows. If only we could get baby cows the old fashioned way, the way God intended. Using smart phones.

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