Tuesday, August 30, 2005

More ID journalism

Not all journalism about ID is anti-ID - in fact, this posting from earlier this month draws together some of the developments.

Here is an interesting article relating ID to sport - which shows a far better understanding of ID than either religious or science correspondents seem to display.

UPDATE: See also this article, in the Des Moines Register, which ranks alongside this older one from the Washington Post about Phil Johnson in terms of the quality and care of its writing.

Uganda and AIDS prevention

It's unusual for me to find myself more closely aligned with the US than the UN, but this story led to that response.

At issue is the Ugandan AIDS prevention policy. Under it, infection rates have decreased from around 15% to 5% - which for sub-Saharan Africa is good. It is based on three strands, which are memorably abbreviated ABC - "Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms".

According to the BBC report on the internet, Stephen Lewis the UN Special Envoy said:
Over the last eight to 10 months, there's been a very significant decline in the use of condoms, significantly orchestrated by the policies of government.

At the moment, the government of Uganda appears to be under the influence of the American policy through the presidential initiative of emphasising abstinence far and away over condoms
As it was presented by the UN, a proven, successful policy was failing for reasons to do with the religious right in the US.

In actual fact, the truth is that the price of condoms has tripled due to high demand - a Ugandan health minister reports that 145 million condoms have been procured in the last few months.

What wasn't reported on the internet report, but did make it to the World Service report this morning were comments from Mr Lewis along the following lines: "How can a young bride expect that her husband will remain faithful? How can sexually active teenagers suddenly start practising abstinence." It was these remarks that rattled my cage.

In answer to these questions, how do you avoid getting shot when playing Russian roulette? I would have thought the answer is: stop playing. If people understand that being sexually active with multiple partners runs the risk of HIV infection, surely this ought to be a discouragement from being sexually active with multiple partners. Of course condoms reduce the chance of transmission of STD's - but you can eliminate the chance if you don't sleep with different partners. You don't have to have sex. Condoms aren't a foolproof way of stopping the spread of HIV. Abstinence and being faithful are.

And why should the young wife expect her husband to remain faithful? Well, isn't that a normal assumption made by married couples? Surely the question ought to be the other way around. What is happening in their society that the young wife has the expectation that her husband won't be faithful? And how would greater availability of condoms protect her? Presumably within a marriage relationship, the expectation will be that sex without contraceptive protection would be the norm at some stage. So how is a greater emphasis on condoms going to help her? On the contrary, a greater focus on faithfulness would be much more important to her.

And why should teenagers be expected to abstain from sex? Well, surely if a teenager sees that sex isn't simply a guilt free high, but it has consequences - both in terms of the risk of unwanted/unaffordable children, and in terms of spread of sexually transmitted disease, some of which are incurable - then this ought to change their behaviour.

The greater problem is the liberal western approach, of denying individual responsibility and expecting continual easy gratification, and a society that is continually prepared to pick up the tab - which seemed to underlie Mr Lewis's comments. That's what's destroying society in Britain and the US, and with their affluence frankly no amount of moral crusading is likely to make a difference. At least the Ugandan policy has the potential to change societal attitudes there.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Signing for singing

There is a newish phenomenon that can be seen in some churches. We saw it first in a church we went to in Brazil, and we've seen it now at a large Anglican church in Lancashire. During the singing, one person (or two or more people) stands in front of the congregation, signing the words of the song for the benefit of any deaf people who might read sign language, in a kind of semi-expressive dance.

Now, I'm all for equality of access. We need to do what we can to ensure that what happens in church - and what happens in any other communal setting - is as accessible to as many people as possible. To that end, I try and ensure that language I use communicates as simply as possible; I provide fill-in sheets to help children understand what I am saying; I prefer the use of modern language songs and versions of the Bible so that non-English speakers - or people who aren't familiar with 17th Century English, for that matter - aren't discriminated against.

But this signing seems to have little to do with accessibility, for two obvious reasons. Firstly, they don't bother signing the sermon, or the reading - both of which should be more fundamental aspects of a church service than the singing, to both deaf and non-deaf alike. Secondly, at least in the case of the church in Lancashire, the words were being projected for everybody anyway.

It seems to me that this had more to do with a) having a low-key form of expressive dance at the front of the church b) having some people who would not be disappointed with having more attention directed at them (during the communion, at least one of the "signers" were wandering around the platform, not quite managing to stay out of the way).

This signing sounds like a great, inclusive idea. It's just that when you think about it, you end up wondering whether it actually achieves anything at all. It would be really interesting to know from a deaf person whether signing during the songs is something that they actually find at all edifying.

Friday, August 26, 2005

"Don't tar us with that brush!"

Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of "The Privileged Planet" considered in other posts on this blog, has attracted the attention of other faculty members who are opposed to Intelligent Design theory.
"We certainly don't want to give the impression to the public that intelligent design is what we do," said Mr. Avalos, who is an associate professor of religious studies.

But rather than engaging with the book - examining its propositions, refuting its arguments, proposing alternative explanations of phenomena - the statement simply returns to the position that ID is not science by definition.
Methodological naturalism, the view that natural phenomena can be explained without reference to supernatural beings or events, is the foundation of the natural sciences.
As I've said before, this would come as news to most of the people who established the natural sciences - a list which includes Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Maxwell. Actually it is one philosophical framework for natural science - but not the only one. However, it's nice to see that they are at least recognising that belief in methodological naturalism is the distinguishing mark of a worldview that can't accept ID.
Whether one believes in a creator or not, views regarding a supernatural creator are, by their very nature, claims of religious faith, and not within the scope or abilities of science.
If views regarding a supernatural creator are claims of religious faith, "whether one believes in a creator or not", then ruling out the relevance of a creator to the pursuit of science is also obviously a claim of religious faith. The philosophical basis for rejecting the existence of an intelligent external agency can be no more sound than a basis for requiring it - and (given the argument of "Privileged Planet") won't even have the advantage of accounting for the evidence.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

"... and I don't like Star Wars"

(... in the words of Freddie Mercury)

That's not quite true - but I'm some way from thinking that Star Wars is the definitive movie series of all time, as some people seem too - apparently, Wikipedia has articles on just about every character from the film series. Here is one on Jabba the Hutt.

Around the time that I was at university, I was a member of the British Science Fiction Association. You may be surprised to know that this had little to do with things like Star Wars. Stuff like this was referred to as "skiffy" - a contraction of the media term "sci fi" - as distinguished from good science fiction, which should properly be referred to as "SF". This may sound snobbish, but there is a real distinction in quality of writing, and appeal, between the two. For one thing, a recognition of fundamental science - like the fact that sound doesn't travel in space.

So, anyway, Star Wars is kind of fun. I haven't seen Episode 3, but I understand that the portrayal of the temptation to evil is very powerfully done. I have no doubt that there are elements of "universal heroism" and "universal villainism" about Luke and Darth Vader respectively. I like the characters, and the whole thing is pretty burned into the collective psyche of the developed world. But ...

@ There are the usual cliches - in addition to sound travelling through space, you have aerodynamic spaceships that seem to turn in space by banking (you need to be generating lift for this to work, which means there needs to be air), hyperspace and so on.
@ Large numbers of different intelligent species are presented, who all seem to have the same moral sense as humans, but no suggestion as to the likelihood of them actually evolving.
@ Military force seems to rely on large numbers of effectively inept human or human-like soldiers who couldn't hit the side of a barn at 50 metres.
@ Energy seems to be generated from nowhere by everything. I mean, what powers the robots? What powers the weapons?
@ It seems pretty unlikely that a spaceship will ever be built the size of a "destroyer", let alone a "deathstar". What's the point? And if you were to build something that size, it seems pretty implausible that it would have just one vent, accessible down a long passageway, which would have an opening that would allow you to destroy it. Any empire risk analysis would have identified and removed that long before the rebels managed to download the blueprint of the station.
@ The pantheistic idea of "the force", known only to a handful of the star travelling people, is silly. To identify yourself as "jedi" on census forms is even sillier.

Anyway, there we go. Will anybody rise to defend the series against the forces of grouchiness? The worrying thing is that, given how much my son likes young Anakin, I suspect in a few years' time it will be him. Now there's a strong idea for a movie for you ....

Sunday, August 21, 2005

On coming home

We have friends who lived in Washington DC for three years or so. We managed to travel out to spend time with them three times whilst they were there - the first time when our youngest was a matter of months old. We travelled for about 16 hours (we went the long way to save money!), and then had the odd experience of arriving "home" - both outbound and return. For me, although it may sound trivial, that means being able to take my shoes off and have a mug of tea with normal milk - the sort you put on cereal, rather than creamer or stuff from a little plastic jigger.

This sensation of arriving somewhere that is "home" is probably akin to the "joy" that C.S.Lewis talks about in "Surprised by Joy". It's certainly related to the "Well, I'm back" that Samwise Gamgee says at the end of "The Lord of the Rings".

I get a similar sensation from being at the Carey Family Conference - although I normally have to keep shoes on outside our room! When we are there, we are amongst people who we are relaxed with - people we enjoy spending time with - people who know us. There's a sense in which the "Family" in the title is the whole group, rather than the people you go with. Of course some people you spend more time with than others, but basically it is a week spent with family - there is a very real sense of the "brothers and sisters" that the Bible talks about. It isn't a closed group, either - each year, the circle of people that we are close to seems to grow by a few more people.

However, Carey only lasts one week per year. Then it's back to the "real" world - of frustrating employers, bits of paper that ought to have been dealt with a month ago, needing to get the school uniforms sorted out and so on.

From a Christian perspective, the good news is that it is correct to put "real" in quote marks above. All the things we are involved in everyday aren't "real" - they are the shadowlands; they are fading; they are momentary. Heaven is somewhere that one day, we'll arrive at and it will be "home" - and we'll never have to leave - and all our family will be there. One of my favourite Christian songs at the moment is "There is a Day" by Phatfish - unfortunately, only barely suitable for congregational singing, but it moves me to tears almost every time I hear it. Here's a link to where you can see the lyrics - but I'd recommend you buy a CD with it on. I think also the first place that I came across these thoughts about heaven were in "The Sacred Romance".


Alan and family are in the process of leaving home. I enjoyed this short post.

Unfortunate choice of phrases

On Radio 4 "The World Tonight" - talking about World Youth Day:

"The idea that young Catholics want condoms is a fallacy."

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Ozzes and libs

When I was 18, I worked on a summer camp in the US (as I have intimated before - a "little camp in Pinola, MS"). The camp director recruited a range of people from Europe to work as counsellors and kitchen staff, alongside US children about to go to university. But that's not important right now. What interested me was the fact that, when I was asked my weight, and replied using the conventional English units (I think I was around 9 stone at the time - that's 128 pounds) I was considered unbelievably quaint by the US staff ("Stones? What kind of measurement is that?"). For those reading this who don't know, 1 stone is 14 pounds. I know, I know - don't even go there.

So what? Well, I am pretty au fait with a range of units. I am as happy in litres of milk as pints of milk. I buy meat and vegetables in kilos, not pounds and ounces. I buy petrol and diesel in litres. I can work interchangeably in Celsius and Fahrenheit from 0 degrees C to about 30 degrees C (that's 32 degrees F to 85 degrees F). But I can only tell you the birth weights of each of my three children in pounds and ounces - not in kilogrammes, which was the actual unit of measurement used, and what was written down in their health records. Why is that?

I suspect it's because, whereas most units relate to something you are getting "now", the birthweight of a child will always be compared to something that has happened some time ago - whether it is the baby of a mum in the NCT group that was born last week, or the weights of grandma's children. As long as birthweights are being related to something historical - which will be forever - I suspect they will have to use "legacy units". We got the impression that the medical staff really took seriously their obligation to deliver this in metric units, but were also incredibly conscious of the fact that these units meant nothing to anybody.

Another unit like this is "miles per gallon" - built-in computers on cars continue to make this available in the UK, despite the fact that you haven't been able to buy a gallon of petrol for years. But the proportion of people for whom the metric "litres per 100 km" means anything must be vanishingly small.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Commentary relating to Sternberg ...

... who, for those people who might read this but not some of the other ID sites I read, was the editor of the journal "Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington", that published Stephen Meyer's article "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories".

Following this publication, there were persistent rumours that Sternberg had been treated in an intimidatory way by his colleagues - rumours that were played down by Panda's Thumb. However, Sternberg requested an investigation by the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC).

David Klinghoffer, in the National Review, has written a report on the preliminary findings of the OSC. There is also a report in the Washington Times. See also comments on Telic Thoughts, and here.

Sternberg's own account of the facts from his perspective can be found here.

What makes somebody a universal villain?

Following the post below, I have discovered that the comments in Colbert's book about the "classic Dark Lord" are also interesting. The proposal is that narratives are compelling because they reflect what is (in Christian terms) the great Narrative - the Gospel in the broadest sense of its overall picture of the nature of the universe.

Colbert picks up ideas in The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, by John Clute and John Grant. These are the characteristics of a "Dark Lord":

@ A Dark Lord 'has often been already defeated but not destroyed aeons before'.
@ He 'aspires to be the Prince of this world.'
@ He is an 'abstract force', less flesh and blood than supernatural energy.
@ He represents 'thinning' [he has already caused damage]
@ He is ... a symbol of 'debasement', a moral collapse, often as a result of a questionable bargain, such as the one struck by the many Death Eaters who sought to gain power through their alliance with Voldemort.
@ He 'inflicts damage out of envy'

If it is easy to see how Jesus fits the "universal hero" image given below, it is also very easy to see how Satan fits the "Dark Lord" image here.

I suppose it is arguable the other way round - the gospel accounts are compelling because they fit these universal narrative themes. I still think that there must be a good thesis lurking here somewhere.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Down the corrie wall ...

Thanks for the photo, Chris ... Posted by Picasa

How to be a hero ...

One of the seminar tracks at the Carey Family Conference was "How to be a hero, for ordinary people". The idea behind this was that, even though we aren't all called to lead international reform movements, surely we could live a life of faith (like the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11) in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

One of the seminars was on work. It looked at how Joseph lived a life of faith, in all sorts of adverse circumstances. How he was looking for the fulfilment of God's promises. How he did his job as he was supposed to. How he accepted the circumstances in which he found himself. How he refused to separate his faith in God from the rest of his life.

I had to go back to work today after my summer annual holiday. My employer is doing the normal thing of messing around with when I actually need to be there. I'm conscious of the fact that my job doesn't exactly have a lasting significance in world terms, and I end up wasting a lot of time. A large part of me resents the fact that I have to spend so much time there, and away from my family. I find it tempting to do what I can to use the system to get what I can from my employer - and I am conscious of the fact that they are doing the same to me. It's really tough to live in the heroic way that the presenter suggested.

The presenter was me.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Village of the Twins and probability bounds

In the Telegraph Magazine, dated 23rd July 2005, by Peter Foster (I searched their website, but I couldn't find an internet reference), there was an article about a village in India which has seen an explosion in the birth of identical twins. The rate of identical twin birth there is ten times the global average - since 1967, 34 sets of identical twins have been born in a village of 900 people.
The molecular biologists think it might be a miracle twinning gene, the social scientists suggest the common practice of inter-marrying might be the cause. Others say there is something strange in the water, while the rest are content to ascribe it to a 'blessing from God' or, for the Hindus, perhaps a gift from Lord Ram, who had twin boys.

What interested me about this was the level of improbability. After all, the world is very big - there are doubtless much larger communities which have no identical twins in - does this lie within statistically reasonable bounds?

So I sat down with a pen and paper (to revise the probability theory) and a spreadsheet (to do the calculations!). If the probability of identical twins arising from a pregnancy are 1 in 300, and there have been 850 births in the village (for the sake of argument) we can determine the probability of exactly a specific number of twins being born - and hence by addition, the probability of this number of identical twins or less being born. The probabilities of 0 sets of twins through to 7 sets of twins being born are as follows: 0.0585; 0.17; 0.24; 0.22; 0.16; 0.09; 0.04; 0.02. The most likely outcome is two sets of identical twins. The probability of there being less than 10 sets of identical twins is 0.9993.

So for there to be 10 sets of identical twins in a population of 900 is not that improbable, really. Seven in every 10000 communities of this size will have this number of identical twins.

However, there is less than one in 1013 chance - the limit of my computer's accuracy, calculating in a simplistic way - of there being more than 22 sets of twins. If there are about 7x109 people in the world, there is less than a one in a million chance that a group of 900 people anywhere in the world will have 22 sets of twins. For each additional pair of identical twins, the probability drops by an order of magnitude. We are nowhere near the 10-150 universal improbability bound - and yet scientists are (rightly!) confident that there is a phenomenon here that requires explaining.

An inference is taking place here, based on low probability. Nobody has any doubt that this is a reasonable mathematical and scientific process. It is reasonable for the same process to be carried out for other specified events of low probability.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Amazing holiday facts - you can swim in it

Living in the South of England, one kind of gets used to the idea that if one swims in any body of water that isn't full of chlorine, one will probably get a dreadful disease. I manage to raise eyebrows by going swimming in the sea when I get the chance. The only time I've been in an environment in which swimming in natural fresh water was encouraged was at Strong River Camp, where I was a helper ("Freezing in the rapids and baking in the sun") - but I didn't really have the nerve there, either, confining myself to the swimming pool.

We stayed with friends in Lancaster following the Carey Conference, and they talked about going for a walk in Borrowdale, and possibly swimming in the river. So we duly took our swimming stuff, and went for the walk.

It was quite a drive from where we were staying, though the day was so pleasant that it was worth getting into the Lake District - days like that are few and far between - the typical postcard from the Lake District reminds you that rain and sheep are characteristic of all four seasons. And there were places to swim. The really keen went swimming in both places - I only went in the first, and spent an hour at the second reorganising the riverbed with children. The water was cold - numbingly cold to start with, though it wasn't unbearable. The cataracts provided natural hydrotherapy. One daring hiker in another party jumped four metres from a rock ledge into a pool that he didn't know much about other than that he couldn't see the bottom - please don't try this at home!

There are definite disadvantages to swimming "as nature intended". The rocks are slippery and hard to stand on, and stick out in unexpected places. You end up with mud and grass in your shoes at the end of the day. It's a bit of a hike to get to the pool. But it made a change to do something unregulated, with the only cost being the fuel to get us there.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Amazing holiday facts - children can climb mountains

The Carey Family Conference (more another time, I hope) runs from Monday evening through to Saturday morning, but the "pre-conference" runs from the previous Saturday evening. This opens up further opportunities for ministry and fellowship on the Sunday and Monday. As a further explanatory note, my brother-and-sister-in-law are full-time Christian workers in Brazil, and being a keen walker, my brother-in-law won't pass up an opportunity to get into the mountains of Snowdonia.

So, being as how CFC is a mere two hours from Snowdonia, last year he took the opportunity to lead a group up Snowdon, which included me and my two older children (7 and 9 at the time) - our first time - up the PYG track and down the Miners', for those to whom it means anything.

Liz hadn't been up Snowdon for a long time, so was hoping to go with the two older ones again this year. However, the BIL decided that it was worth going for a different peak, and selected Y Garn (have another look at the map, if it helps - to be honest, I just followed the person in front ...). Hopefully that would mean we wouldn't be late for dinner this time on Monday evening! Liz was a little disappointed not to renew her acquaintance with Snowdon, but we decided to all go - conscious of the fact that it might mean carrying the four-year-old, from whom even a walk down the road normally elicits a request for a "carry".

And we did it! We were five of a party of about 19, several of whom were a Danish family. I don't know what they made of it - 900 m up a mountain when the greatest elevation in Denmark is about 170! It was cloudy - we got up to the lake under the mountain and couldn't see the peak (which probably helped - I think it would have been intimidating) - but decided to go for that rather than for a walk around the lake. The youngest got a bit teary on the way up - not particularly fatigued - we were all well-stoked by Mars Bars - but apparently uncertainty about doing something new and occasional fright at rather intimidating slopes. But she made it, with hardly any carrying. There is a photo of us on the peak below. (Well, them, anyway - I took it). There were some spectacular cloud effects - peaks rolling in and out of sight; cwm faces full of cloud; and so on.

The descent was probably the hardest work for me. We had a descent down a corrie wall, which had been stepped, but some of the steps exceeded the jumping ability of a four year old. So I had to make the descent myself, then turn round and lift the youngest one down. She was very patient - as were those people following us.

Inevitably, the children all recovered far more quickly than the adults did ....

A valley in Snowdonia. Posted by Picasa

The party on the summit. Posted by Picasa

Pictures from Y Garn in Wales. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

I'm back!

More to come about holiday activities at a later stage, but it looks as though comments by GWB have pretty much set the ID world alight whilst I have been away! Just quickly, though ....

From the Washington Post
Bush's comments were "irresponsible," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He said the president, by suggesting that students hear two viewpoints, "doesn't understand that one is a religious viewpoint and one is a scientific viewpoint." Lynn said Bush showed a "low level of understanding of science."

In what sense is the assertion that there is no God - or no need for a God - which is what underlies the basis of evolution as a theory and is explicitly the motivation for many leading evolutionists - not a religious viewpoint?