Tag Archives: Phil Plait

Is Fox Mulder’s Life Work About To Get Vindicated?

Jason Kottke:

Here’s a curious press release from NASA:

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

I did a little research on the news conference participants and found:

1. Pamela Conrad (a geobiologist) was the primary author of a 2009 paper on geology and life on Mars

2. Felisa Wolfe-Simon (an oceanographer) has written extensively on photosynthesis using arsenic recently (she worked on the team mentioned in this article)

3. Steven Benner (a biologist) is on the “Titan Team” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; they’re looking at Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) as an early-Earth-like chemical environment. This is likely related to the Cassini mission.

4. James Elser (an ecologist) is involved with a NASA-funded astrobiology program called Follow the Elements, which emphasizes looking at the chemistry of environments where life evolves (and not just looking at water or carbon or oxygen).

So, if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I’d say that they’ve discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis (by following the elements). Or something like that.

Vlad Savov at Engadget:

So NASA seems to have made some hot new astrobiology discovery, but just like the tech companies we’re more used to dealing with, it’s holding the saucy details under embargo until 2PM on Thursday. That’s when it’s got a press conference scheduled to discuss its findings, which we’re only told “will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” It’s unlikely, therefore, that little green (or brown, or red, or blue) men have been captured somewhere on the dark side of the moon, but there’ll definitely be some impactful news coming within only a couple of days. NASA promises a live online stream of the event, which we’ll naturally be glued to come Thursday.

Alessondra Springmann at PCWorld:

What does that mean? Judging by the researchinterests of the scientistsinvolved in the upcoming announcement, our guess is that this astrobiological discovery will have something to do with water, evolutionary biology, and aquatic bacteria.

We’ll be covering the press conference and the discovery that’ll be announced on Thursday after 11AM PST (2PM EST), so keep an eye on GeekTech, or watch the press conference on NASA’s site. NASA will also show a video broadcast of the press conference to journalists at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Until then, what do you think this discovery will be? Has extraterrestrial bacterial been discovered preserved in a meteorite? Have we seen evidence of life on a ocean-covered exoplanet?

Alasdair Wilkins at IO9:

Considering NASA’s claim that this will impact our search for alien life, I’d have to figure this has something to do with expanding the definition of “life as we know it”, suggesting more elements than we previously thought possible can be used as the raw materials for life. All this, of course, is just speculation – we’ll be listening in to the press conference on Thursday and have the news for you as it breaks.

Mike Wall at Space.com

Max Read at Gawker:

Of course, the announcement could be something totally different! Or, it could be that NASA has been contacted by a warlike race of space aliens and a certain-to-fail mission carried out by a ragtag bunch of scientists is our only hope of survival.

Phil Plait at Discover Magazine:

So what’s the press conference about? I don’t know, to be honest, beyond what’s in the announcement. The scientists on the panel are interesting, including noted astrobiologists and geologists who work on solar system objects like Mars and Titan. So this is most likely going to be something about conditions on another moon or planet conducive for life.

Of course, the speculation is that NASA will announce the discovery for life. Maybe. I can’t rule that out, but it seems really unlikely; I don’t think they would announce it in this way. It would’ve been under tighter wraps, or one thing. It’s more likely they’ve found a new way life can exist and that evidence for these conditions exists on other worlds. But without more info, I won’t speculate any farther than that.

As for the public reaction, well, we’ve seen this type of thing before. Just last June, JPL had a press release about a surprising lack of acetylene in Titan’s atmosphere, with the title “What Is Consuming Hydrogen & Acetylene on Titan?” That sparked vast speculation, and even though the press release was clear enough it was misleadingly reported as NASA finding signs of life on Titan. It got so silly that I wound up writing a post about it, and a NASA scientist went so far as to write an article to clear up the rumors of life on Titan.

I can’t really blame NASA, the press outlets, or the public about this. When scientists have newsworthy findings that are published in a journal, there may be a press conference about them. But some journals have embargoes; they don’t want the news released until the issue is published. Fair enough. So NASA schedules a press conference for the time the issue publishes, and sends out a notice to the press about it. I got just such an email for this one, for example. They have to say something in the email so the press can decide whether to cover it or not, and NASA doesn’t want give too much away. So they give some minimal line about findings that’ll have an impact on the search for life, and those of us who’ve dealt with it before know what that means.

But the public is naturally more inclined to interpret that line as NASA having found life, or at least solid evidence of it. That’s not surprising at all. But it can lead to “news letdown”, where the reality is something less than the speculation. And that leads to news fatigue, which is worse. If people keep expecting really exciting news and don’t get it, well, there you go.

I don’t want to blame anyone, but I do sometimes wish the press folks at NASA were more aware of what kind of cascade a line like that provokes (like the one from a few weeks ago which said it was about “an exceptional object in our cosmic neighborhood” but it turned out to be a supernova/black hole 50 million light years away). When announcements like these go public, it’s bound to be disappointing when the actual news gets out and it’s not a black hole right next door or actual life on Mars. And that’s too bad, because the news is usually pretty interesting and scientifically exciting. As soon as I got this latest announcement, my first flood of thoughts literally were: “Sounds like cool news/I bet there will be tons of over-the-top speculation/I hope people aren’t disappointed when the real news comes out/I wonder if I’ll have to make a post a couple of days before to cool off rumors?”

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It Is Far Away, It Is Hot, And It Is Not Named Mel Gibson

Phil Plait at Discover:

Astronomers have confirmed that an object in an image from 2008 — thought at the time to possibly be a direct image of a planet orbiting another star — is in fact a planet.

I’ll explain in a sec, but I want people to understand that this discovery is being touted as the first direct image of a planet around another star. It isn’t. Nor is it the first direct image of a planet orbiting a sun-like star. What this is is the first direct image of a planet orbiting a sun-like star taken using a ground-based telescope. While that may sound overly picky, it’s actually a significant achievement, and worth noting.

Rebecca Boyle at Popular Science:

“Our new observations rule out this chance alignment possibility, and thus confirms that the planet and the star are related to each other,” says David Lafrenière of the University of Montreal and Center for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec.

The team also took the planet’s spectrum, measuring its temperature and composition. Now that they know it really does orbit this star, Lafrenière retroactively claims firstie on an exoplanet spectrum.

Other famous exoplanet photos have shown us blocked-out stars with fuzzy dots at their sides. This one shows the blazing star, too, putting in context that this is really a solar system.

The planet is also special because it challenges planetary scientists’ best planet-formation theories. It’s far from its star, about 300 times farther than Jupiter is from the sun. It would take the planet roughly 1,000 years to complete one orbit.

The unlikely locale of this alien world could be telling us that nature has more than one way of making planets,” says Ray Jayawardhana of the University of Toronto, who co-authored a paper on the findings, recently accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal. “Or, it could be hinting at a violent youth when close encounters between newborn planets hurl some siblings out to the hinterlands.”

Denise Chow at SPACE.com:

The host star, which has an estimated mass of about 85 percent that of our sun, is located approximately 500 light-years away in a group of young stars called the Upper Scorpius Association that formed about 5 million years ago.

The planet has an estimated temperature of over 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,500 degrees Celsius). This makes the planet much hotter than Jupiter, which has an atmospheric cloud-top temperature of approximately minus 166 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 110 degrees Celsius).

The relatively young age of the system — our solar system is 4.6 billion years old — explains the high temperature of the planet, according to the researchers. [The Strangest Alien Planets]

The contraction of the planet under its own gravity during its formation quickly raised its temperature to thousands of degrees. But, once this contraction phase is over, the planet will slowly cool down by radiating infrared light. Within billions of years, the planet will eventually reach a temperature that is much more similar to that of Jupiter.

Robert Quigley at Geekosystem:

Why did the confirmation process take two years? Astronomers had to account for the possibility that the planet wasn’t actually orbiting 1RSX J160929.1-210524, but that it merely appeared to be doing so by chance. Space.com quotes the astronomer who led the research team involved as saying, “Our new observations rule out this chance alignment possibility, and thus confirms that the planet and the star are related to each other.”

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:

According to Radar Online, Mel Gibson, anti-Semitic star of What Women Want, yelled racist garbage at the embattled mother of his child. Anyway, speaking of radar, guess what scientists located via telescope today? Alien planet! Alien planet, everyone!

According to Space.com, designated non–Mel Gibson Internet safe haven, “[a] planet outside of our solar system, said to be the first ever directly photographed by telescopes on Earth, has been officially confirmed to be orbiting a sun-like star, according to follow-up observations.” The planet is around 2,700 degrees Farenheit, approximately the temperature in New York this past Monday. The Huffington Post reports that the planet is orbiting the star 1RXS 1609 and is part of a star cluster known as the Upper Scorpius Association. Now that you are more familiar with our new alien friend, let’s pick a name. We’ll humbly put forth the following for the consideration of the scientific community: Harold, Maisie, Mad Max, Jupiter II: 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Christ, and Planet Hollywood.

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So Not Only Are There Definitely Aliens, But They Are Stealing Our TVs

Chris McKay:

Recent results from the Cassini mission suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are depleted at the surface of Titan. Both results are still preliminary and the hydrogen loss in particular is the result of a computer calculation, and not a direct measurement. However the findings are interesting for astrobiology. Heather Smith and I, in a paper published 5 years ago (McKay and Smith, 2005) suggested that methane-based (rather than water-based) life – ie, organisms called methanogens — on Titan could consume hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane. The key conclusion of that paper (last line of the abstract) was “The results of the recent Huygens probe could indicate the presence of such life by anomalous depletions of acetylene and ethane as well as hydrogen at the surface.”

Now there seems to be evidence for all three of these on Titan. Clark et al. (2010, in press in JGR) are reporting depletions of acetylene at the surface. And it has been long appreciated that there is not as much ethane as expected on the surface of Titan. And now Strobel (2010, in press in Icarus) predicts a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface.

This is a still a long way from “evidence of life”. However, it is extremely interesting.

Andrew Moseman at Discover:

If there were life on the Saturnian moon of Titan, the thinking goes, it would have to inhabit pools of methane or ethane at a cool -300 degrees Fahrenheit, and without the aid of water. While scientists don’t know just what that life would look like, they can predict what effects such tiny microbes would have on Titan’s atmosphere. That’s why researchers from the Cassini mission are excited now: They’ve found signatures that match those expectations. It’s far from proof of life on Titan, but it leaves the door wide open to the possibility.In 2005, NASA’s Chris McKay put forth a possible scenario for life there: Critters could breathe the hydrogen gas that’s abundant on Titan, and consume a hydrocarbon called acetylene for energy. The first of two studies out recently, published in the journal Icarus, found that something—maybe life, but maybe something else—is using up the hydrogen that descends from Titan’s atmosphere to its surface:

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” says Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who authored a paper published in the journal Icarus [Popular Science].

Erring on the side of caution, the scientists suggest that life is but one explanation for this chemical oddity. Perhaps some unknown mineral on Titan acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction of hydrogen and carbon to form methane, and that’s what accounts for the vanishing hydrogen. (Normally, the two wouldn’t combine fast enough under the cold conditions on Titan to account for the anomaly.) That would be pretty cool, though not as much of a jolt as Titanic life.

Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today:

Two papers released last week detailing oddities found on Titan have blown the top off the ‘jumping to conclusions’ meter, and following media reports of NASA finding alien life on Saturn‘s hazy moon, scientists are now trying to put a little reality back into the news. “Everyone: Calm down!” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco on Twitter over the weekend. “It is by NO means certain that microbes are eating hydrogen on Titan. Non-bio explanations are still possible.” Porco also put out a statement on Monday saying such reports were “the unfortunate result of a knee-jerk rush to sensationalize an exciting but rather complex, nuanced and emotionally-charged issue.”

Astrobiologist Chris McKay told Universe Today that life on Titan is “certainly the most exciting, but it’s not the simplest explanation for all the data we’re seeing.”

McKay suggests everyone needs to take the Occam’s Razor approach, where the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected.

The two papers suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are being depleted at the surface of Titan. The first paper by Darrell Strobel shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan’s atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. This is a disparity between the hydrogen densities that flow down to the surface at a rate of about 10,000 trillion trillion hydrogen molecules per second, but none showing up at the surface.

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” Strobel said. “I didn’t expect this result, because molecular hydrogen is extremely chemically inert in the atmosphere, very light and buoyant. It should ‘float’ to the top of the atmosphere and escape.”

The other paper (link not yet available) led by Roger Clark, a Cassini team scientist, maps hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface and finds a surprising lack of acetylene. Models of Titan’s upper atmosphere suggest a high level of acetylene in Titan’s lakes, as high as 1 percent by volume. But this study, using the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) aboard Cassini, found very little acetylene on Titan’s surface.

Of course, one explanation for both discoveries is that something on Titan is consuming the hydrogen and acetylene.

Even though both findings are important, McKay feels the crux of any possible life on Titan hinges on verifying Strobel’s discovery about the lack of hydrogen.

“To me, the whole thing hovers on this determination of whether there is this flux of hydrogen is real,” McKay said via phone. “The acetylene has been missing and the ethane has been missing, but that certainly doesn’t generate a lot of excitement, because how much is supposed to be there depends on how much is being made. There are a lot of uncertainties.”

Phil Plait at Discover:

Titan is a monster, the second biggest moon in the solar system at 5150 km (3200 miles) in diameter. If it weren’t orbiting Saturn, it would probably be considered a planet in its own right: it’s bigger than Mercury and Pluto. It has a thick atmosphere, made up of nitrogen, methane, and other molecules. It’s very cold, but it’s known that lakes, probably of liquid methane, exist on the surface.

Five years ago, McKay and other scientists pointed out that if methane-based life existed on Titan, it might be detectable through a surface depletion of ethane, hydrogen, and acetylene. New observations show that this is the case; there are lower amounts of these substances than the chemistry of Titan would indicate.

As McKay points out, “This is a still a long way from ‘evidence of life’. However, it is extremely interesting.”

Those are the basics. Go read McKay’s article for details. The point he makes is that the results are preliminary, may yet turn out to be wrong, if they’re right may have non-biological explanations, and we should not conclude biology is involved until we get a lot more evidence.

As far as the media goes, headlines get eyeballs and sell advertisements, of course. But in cases where the news is like this, news outlets should be particularly careful how they phrase things. They know how the public will react to certain phrases, and the phrase “evidence of life” is substantially less accurate and more likely to incite chatter than “evidence for possible life” — and the Telegraph’s technically accurate but seriously misleading “evidence ‘that alien life exists on Saturn’s moon’” is just asking for trouble.

The point is, when it comes to media outlets and big news like this, the phrase going through your head should be a variant of an old one, updated for this modern age:

“Don’t trust, and verify”.

John Matson at Scientific American

Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing:

This is the kind of research that easily sets hearts aflutter and space nerds to making high-pitched happy squealing sounds, so let’s knock out one basic thing right off the bat: Nobody has discovered alien life. We have not found E.T. This is only a test of the emergency high-pitched happy squealing system.

That said, it probably wouldn’t be remiss to clap your hands delightedly, like a little girl. As I said, nobody has found alien life, but they did find the sort of evidence that might suggest alien life is down there on the surface of Titan, waiting to be found. It’s a little like walking up to a house and finding the front door open, and, inside, a T.V. stand that’s missing a T.V. It’s reasonable to assume the house might have been burglarized, but there are also other plausible explanations and you don’t have enough evidence to know one way or the other.

Rod Dreher

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Close Encounters Of The Russian Kind

Jazz Shaw at Moderate Voice:

Over the skies of Norway, something was happening besides the President’s arrival to pick up his Nobel prize. A truly strange light show took place which absolutely does not look like any permutation of the Northern Lights that I’ve ever seen. It went on for at least ten minutes, twisting in outward moving spirals with some sort of strange blue-green beam coming out of the center. I have to agree with Allahpundit… in terms of “freaky” this may be the “freaky deakyest” to come round in my lifetime.

Allah Pundit:

That blue spiral seems awfully tight for a missile gone awry, but Pop Sci’s also leaning towards that explanation and notes that a similar spiral was seen over China earlier this year. Hmmmm. Other possibilities: (1) test run for a new Norwegian death ray; (2) divine sign heralding the Messiah’s arrival in Oslo; (3) mini-black hole caused by Hadron collider misfire; (4) aliens, aliens, aliens. All theories welcome!

Phil Plait at Discover:

My first reaction when I saw that was, “What the FRAK is THAT?!” My second thought was, “Photoshop”. But then I saw lots of pictures of this on a bunch of different Norwegian media, so I don’t think it’s a digital hoax. Then videos started surfacing, like this one, which clearly show the spiral spinning. It’s not just a static picture, whatever this thing was; it was really in the sky.

However, after a moment, I realized this must be a rocket, most likely spiraling out of control. I don’t understand all the details — I don’t have all the info yet — but a rocket fits what we’re seeing here. First, this was seen all over Norway, so it must have been at a high altitude to be so visible. Second, the blue spiral angling down to the right is clearly due to perspective. A rocket spiraling around, and coming up from the lower right, would appear to make tight spirals when it was far away and bigger ones as it got closer.

Third, you can actually see the bright white spiral spinning in the videos. That threw me for a second, to be honest, but after a moment I figured that it makes sense if the rocket is headed more or less straight toward the camera. Whatever it is being lit up (exhaust, or a leaking payload?) would appear to expand in a spiral like water from a spinning sprinklerhead. The spiral itself is not spinning any more than water from the sprinkler is; that’s an illusion of motion.

Fourth, after a few moments, a black disk appears to expand in the center of the white spiral, as seen in this picture (it’s a little fuzzy; you can see the person taking it must have used a long exposure because foreground lights are jittery, but you get the idea). That’s exactly what I would expect if whatever is being ejected by the rocket ran out; the arms of the spiral would expand away from the center, leaving black emptiness in the middle.

So that’s my hypothesis. A rocket got out of control, perhaps losing a stabilizer, and started to spiral. The two spirals, different in shape, size, and color, indicate something happened in the middle of all this (the rocket second stage fired while still spinning, or something else started leaking out), changing the rocket’s direction. Then, when the fuel or whatever ran out, the white spiral began to disappear from the inside out as the material expanded in space.

Jillian Rayfield at TPM:

Turns out they’re not “out there” after all. Those UFO sighting in Norway this morning weren’t actually UFOs — just a Russian missile test gone wrong.

The Russian Defense Ministry admitted today that its Bulava intercontinental missile failed a test launch, following reports of unusual lights in Norway that caused an influx of UFO sightings.

Russia’s submarine-based Bulava (Mace), which is designed to carry multiple warheads up to 5,000 miles, failed its 13th test launch, something Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Institute of Military and Political Analysis in Moscow, called “a catastrophe.”

“Billions of dollars have been flushed down the drain,” he reportedly said.

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The Evolution Of A Blogginghead; Or The Ballad Of Jim And Jerry

Evolution

Earlier, we updated “B-head On The G-head” to include Jim Manzi’s post at Sully’s place on Jerry Coyne’s critique of Bob Wright’s book, “The Evolution of God.” Excerpts don’t do the debate justice, but that’s what we do here, so…

Jerry Coyne in TNR:

While many religious people have been persuaded by Darwin’s overwhelming evidence, there still remains a need to find greater meaning behind it all–to see our world as part of an unfolding and divinely scripted plan. As the theologian John Haught notes, “For the universe to transform our hearts as well as our minds it must allow itself to be read–in one way or another–as having a purpose. To say that the universe has a purpose means quite simply that it is in the process of realizing something that is undeniably good, and that this good is also in some sense imperishable.”

And so the faithful–the ones who care about science at all–have tweaked the theory of evolution to bring it into line with their needs, to make it more congenial. Although life may indeed have evolved, they say, the process was really masterminded by God, whose ultimate goal was to evolve a species, our species, that is able to apprehend and therefore to admire its creator. This progressivist and purpose-driven view of evolution, rejected by most scientists, has been embraced by Haught and other theologians, by religious biologists such as Francis Collins, and, unsurprisingly, by the Catholic church itself.

Yet the notion of guided evolution leaves a problem. What good is a God-evolved species if it must inhabit a world as messy, contingent, and stricken with unpredictable horrors as the process of evolution itself? Is there any way that we can affirm, however dimly, that the world is getting better? And if so, might this, too, have something to do with God? The journalist Robert Wright has devoted much of his career to speculating about these questions, seeking divine purpose behind what he sees as social and biological “laws.” His thesis, in The Evolution of God, is that theologies have changed over time to accommodate the increased interactions among cultures that come with a more complex world, and that this theological change has made the world a more moral place. This is a historical claim about morality’s progress. But atop this claim Wright makes a really remarkable claim, a metaphysical one, that this whole process is driven by God, who is pulling society toward moral perfection. What’s more, he says that this conclusion is not religious but scientific–that it is based on “facts on the ground” that should be obvious to any observer. In what he sees as the relentlessly progressive evolution of religion, Wright seems to find an argument for the existence of God.

Jim Manzi at Sully’s place:

Coyne is an eminent evolutionary biologist, but here makes an enormous claim about the philosophical implications of science: that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe. I think this claim is, in fact, a gigantic leap of faith unsupported by any scientific findings.

[…]

It is obvious from the factory analogy that evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. Physical genomes are composed of parts, which in turn are assembled from other subsidiary components according to physical laws. We could, in theory, push this construction process back through components and sub-components all the way to the smallest sub-atomic particles currently known, but we would still have to address the problem of original creation. Even if we argue that, as per the GA which spontaneously generates the initial population, that prior physical processes created matter, we are still left with the more profound question of the origin of the rules of the physical process themselves.

This, of course, is a very old question that far pre-dates modern science. A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect. If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress. No matter how far science advances, an explanation of ultimate origins seems always to remain a non-scientific question.

Now consider the relationship of the second observation to the problem of final cause. The factory GA, as we saw, had a goal. Evolution in nature is more complicated — but the complications don’t mean that the process is goalless, just that determining this goal would be so incomprehensibly hard that in practice it falls into the realm of philosophy rather than science. Science can not tell us whether or not evolution through natural selection has some final cause or not; if we believe, for some non-scientific reason, that evolution has a goal, then science can not, as of now, tell what that goal might be.

[…]

The theory of evolution, then, has not eliminated the problems of ultimate origins and ultimate purpose with respect to the development of organisms; it has ignored them. These problems are defined as non-scientific questions, not because we don’t care about the answers, but because attempting to solve them would impede practical progress. Accepting evolution, therefore, requires neither the denial of a Creator nor the loss of the idea of ultimate purpose. It resolves neither issue for us one way or the other. The field of philosophical speculation that does not contradict any valid scientific findings is much wider open to Wright than Coyne is willing to accept.

Patrick Appel has the readers’ reaction at the Dish

Manzi responds to them:

I did not claim any evidence for “a writer”, simply that the existence of evolution through natural selection does demonstrate that there is no writer (to use your metaphor).   I think that the idea that “the ‘purpose’ of evolution (i.e., reproductive fitness) is simply a logical consequence of its existence in the first place” misses the whole point of my post.  In any relevant evolutionary context, including both what we see in the world around us and the factory GA example from my post, reproductive fitness is determined by an environment external to the organism.  Why does this environment exist as it does?  Why do the rules of the particular genetic process (e.g., crossover probabilities, etc.) exist as they do?  And so forth.  To say that “it is a logical consequence of its existence” is to avoid any such questions.

Edward Feser:

One reason so many commentators on the so-called “religion vs. science” debate don’t see the Aristotelian implications of the modern scientific ideas to which they appeal is that they simply don’t understand what Aristotelians mean by “final causality” in the first place, and in general — as I never tire of complaining — are beholden to a fossilized set of “Enlightenment”-era clichés and caricatures of what Aristotelians and Scholastics really thought. Not understanding classical philosophy (whether Aristotelian, Platonist, Thomist, or whatever) they naturally also do not understand the theology it inspired. Hence they take William Paley and his successors – rather than an Augustine, an Aquinas, or even a Leibniz – as their guides to what the divine nature must be like, if there is a God. Hence, rather than directing their arguments against the (classical philosophy-informed) classical theism that has historically defined Christian orthodoxy, they target a (currently popular but historically aberrant) anthropomorphic conception of God. Perhaps Coyne, Dawkins, et al. draw some blood when this conception is their target; and then again, perhaps not. Either way, their arguments are utterly irrelevant to the question of the existence of the God of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – and thus of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Santi Tafarella

Coyne responds to Manzi:

Yep, I agree that evolution doesn’t disprove a creator or purpose.  You can have a deistic creator who set things in motion and went to lunch, and you can have a purpose that is “making everything look as if it evolved by natural means.”  Beyond that, Houston, we have problems.

In  the end, Manzi fails to tell us why we should even see “ultimate origin” and “ultimate purpose” as problems, at least, as problems whose solution is God.  What is the “purpose” of a snowflake? Its marvelous “designed” appearance is the ineluctable result of natural processes acting on matter.  There is no mind, no God, behind its appearance.  The products of natural selection and evolution are like snowflakes.  There is not one speck of evidence contradicting the idea that Homo sapiens, like all species, is the result of physical processes (transmuted into biological processes) acting on matter. As to where that matter came from, well, we don’t yet know, but we might someday. Manzi, on the other hand, will never know — not as long as he forsakes science for theology.  And perhaps, if he thinks about it, he will realize that science can indeed address — and refute– some religious theories about creation and purpose.

Manzi responds to Coyne:

Coyne, in his reply to me, says this about it:

“Wrong!  What I have said — repeatedly — is that there is no evidence for a divine plan for the universe.”Well, here is the first paragraph of Coyne’s review, which I quoted in my post [Bold added]:

“Over its history, science has delivered two crippling blows to humanity’s self-image. The first was Galileo’s announcement, in 1632, that our Earth was just another planet and not, as Scripture implied, the center of the universe. The second—and more severe—landed in 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, demolishing, in 545 pages of closely reasoned prose, the comforting notion that we are unique among all species—the supreme object of God’s creation, and the only creature whose earthly travails could be cashed in for a comfortable afterlife.”He doesn’t say that there is no evidence for it, but that Darwin demolished this notion.

Coyne, in his reply, makes a lot of the fact that he doesn’t dismiss the idea of a “deistic creator that set things in motion and went to lunch”, but that certain conceptions of God are ruled out by science.  What is ruled out exactly?  It’s important here to distinguish between mechanism and purpose.  In his original essay, Coyne claims that “Charles Darwin…demolished…the comforting notion that we are unique among species – the supreme object of God’s creation”, so presumably without regard to the mechanism of just setting things in motion versus intervening frequently, Coyne believes that there can be no divine plan that makes us unique.

The key issue in our disagreement, it seems to me, is therefore not whether or not a purported God is deistic or interventionist, but rather whether evolution through natural selection precludes a purpose for the universe that privileges humans.  Coyne accepts that a position of “it’s all an incredibly ingenious façade designed by an omnipotent God to fool us” is always logically possible, but sees this as a sterile point of view.  I agree.  What we are disputing, then, could be said more practically as: Do the findings of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology uniquely preclude, using the normal English meaning of words, the idea of a divine plan that privileges humans in the way we mean in normal speech as religious?

Matt Steinglass on Manzi’s response to Coyne:

I can sort of see why Jim Manzi would feel that Jerry Coyne’s response to him is intemperate, but I’m not sure how I can explain to Jim Manzi why his post really does seem extremely tedious to someone who accepts, not just the validity of the theory of evolution, but that people ought to approach the world by privileging evidence and Occam’s Razor. Essentially, Manzi has invented a new comforting notion for those who wish to believe that the universe is programmed by an intentional God. Maybe, he imagines, the universe is not a clock, as the folks who tried to rescue theism in the 18th and 19th centuries imagined, but a biological computer, like the ones that use DNA to solve problems. Those kinds of computers solve problems by setting some criteria for a solution and then running through zillions of combinations very rapidly, selecting out the more promising lines of inquiry and killing off the ones that begin to fail, until they arrive at a combination that meets the criteria established at the beginning.

[…]

The point is this: until the 19th century, the argument for God was that beings as complex and sophisticated as hummingbirds or humans could not possible have come into existence randomly; something had to have shaped them. Darwin showed that wasn’t true. Life evolves into existence constantly all around us without a creator. Once you get there, the only remaining reasons to believe in the existence of a creator are aesthetic ones, not centered on humans. The idea that humans are “unique among all species, the supreme object of God’s creation,” isn’t impossible. It’s just infinitely unlikely. I don’t see why Manzi keeps failing to get the point.

Manzi on Steinglass at The American Scene:

But a crucial point of my post is that Darwin showed no such thing. Evolution, contrary to frequent claims in the public square, does not act randomly. I won’t repeat my entire original post here, but if Matt rejects my argument for why this is not so, I think he needs to point out the flaw in my logic.

Again, to be clear, I am not claiming that somehow the theological argument from design is correct, only that evolution does not act randomly.

Noah Millman at The Scene:

I’m not 100% clear on whether Jim is making a factual or a hermeneutical claim. He presses several times on the question of randomness. “Random” is, indeed, a funny word. (Personal anecdotal aside: my first task at my first job on Wall Street was to organize regular lunches with the staff for the CEO. “The company’s now too big for me to really get to know everyone personally through normal business interactions,” he said, “so I want to meet on a monthly basis with random groups of staff to stay in touch with everyone and with all the different parts of the firm.” I asked if, rather that “random,” didn’t he really mean “mixed” groups of staff. That won me a gold star. Took a few more years to realize that, on Wall Street, you’re not competing for gold stars – you’re competing for money.) But I think the way he is using it nothing – with the possible exception of events on the quantum level – is truly random. That’s not the way we use the word normally, and I wonder whether Jim’s argument could be reduced to the statement “nothing is actually random if you believe God is behind everything.”

In any event, mutations are, in the sense that we normally use the word, random. In fact, I think they are random at least to some extent in the way that Jim means it – that is to say, they are caused by quantum mechanical events that are in principle unpredictable (because the underlying reality is actual uncertain rather than merely unknowable) rather than merely practically unpredictable (because so complex and chaotic as to be beyond human powers of calculation, even with the application of all currently engineerable technology).

Some people have also tried to make that claim that the selection process itself may be guided – that, basically, some overseeing intelligence could be determining who survives and prospers and who dies without reproducing, and thereby guiding evolution. I don’t think Jim is making that claim, but I don’t see how, in principle, it’s any different from the claim that some overarching intelligence is guiding the process of mutation. In either case, if there’s a factual claim here – that something other than chance is guiding either the mutations or the selection – that claim can, in principle, be tested. To take an overly simple example: suppose one believed that the overarching intelligence had set up the universe as a genetic algorithm to produce blue algae. You would expect some evidence of that preference – say, that mutations in green algae to produce blue offspring were more common than the other way around. In the absence of any such evidence, you’d say that, in fact, the overarching intelligence (if any) doesn’t appear to prefer either color of algae. In other words, if random mutation plus natural selection accounts for the facts, there’s scientific reason (Occam’s Razor and all that) to reject any other force in operation. And, in that case, Jim is reduced to saying that what appears to be random – and what is indistinguishable scientifically from randomness – is, in fact, caused by an overarching intelligence. This is akin to the claim that, if it were not for God, the strong and weak nuclear forces would not function, and therefore the universe would have no structure whatsoever. You can perfectly well believe that, but it’s not the kind of claim that will generate much interesting discussion.

That ends “The Ballad Of Jim and Jerry” for now. Onto “Evolution of A Blogginghead” or what happens when Science Saturday people quit.

The first controversial Bloggingheads, between Ronald Numbers and Paul Nelson

The second controversial Bloggingheads, between John McWhorter and Michael Behe

Sean Carroll:

Unfortunately, I won’t be appearing on Bloggingheads.tv any more. And it is unfortunate — I had some great times there, and there’s an enormous amount to like about the site. So I thought I should explain my reasons.

A few weeks ago we were a bit startled to find a “Science Saturday” episode of BH.tv featuring Paul Nelson, an honest-to-God young-Earth creationist. Not really what most of us like to think of as “science.” So there were emails back and forth trying to figure out what went on. David Killoren, who is the person in charge of the Science Saturday dialogues, is an extremely reasonable guy; we had slightly different perspectives on the matter, but in the end he appreciated the discomfort of the scientists, and we agreed to classify that dialogue as a “failed experiment,” not something that would be a regular feature.

So last week we were startled once again, this time by the sight of a dialogue between John McWhorter and Michael Behe. Behe, some of you undoubtedly know, is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and chief promulgator of the idea of “irreducible complexity.” The idea is that you can just look at something and know it was “designed,” because changing any bit of it would render the thing useless — so it couldn’t have arisen via a series of incremental steps that were all individually beneficial to the purpose of the object. The classic example was a mousetrap — until someone shows how a mousetrap is, in fact, reducibly complex. Then you change your choice of classic example. Behe had his butt handed to him during his testimony at the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial over teaching intelligent design in schools; but embarrassment is not an arrow in the ID quiver, and he hasn’t been keeping quiet since then.

[…]

What I objected to about the creationists was that they were not worthy opponents with whom I disagree; they’re just crackpots. Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas. If I’m going to spend an hour of my life listening to two people have a discussion with each other, I want some confidence that they’re both serious people. Likewise, if I’m going to spend my own time and lend my own credibility to such an enterprise, I want to believe that serious discussions between respectable interlocutors are what the site is all about.

Here’s the distinction I want to draw, which might admittedly be a very fine line. If someone wants to talk about ID as a socio/religio/political phenomenon worth of study by anthropologists and sociologists, that’s fine. (Presumably the right people to have that discussion are anthropologists or sociologists or historians/philosophers of science, not biochemists who have wandered into looney land.) If someone wants to talk to someone who believes in ID about something that person has respectable thoughts about, that would also be fine with me. If you want to talk to a theologian about theology, or a politician about politics, or an artist about art, the fact that such a person has ID sympathies doesn’t bother me in the least.

But if you present a discussion about the scientific merits of ID, with someone who actually believes that such merits exist — then you are wasting my time and giving up on the goal of having a worthwhile intellectual discussion. Which is fine, if that’s what you want to do. But it’s not an endeavor with which I want to be associated. At the end of our conversations, I understood that my opinions about these matters were very different from those of the powers that be at BH.tv.

Bob Wright responds in the comments:

Sean, in your account of the phone conversation with me and Carl Zimmer and some BhTV staffers yesterday, I wish you’d included some key points I tried to drive home.

Here’s what I remember telling you and Carl yesterday:
1) Both of the diavlogs in question had been arranged without my knowledge.
2) I would certainly not have approved both of them, and probably not either of them, had I known about them.
3) The Behe diavlog, in particular, was blatantly at odds with guidelines I’d laid down to my staff more than a year ago in discussing the prospect of Behe appearing. Namely: Behe should only appear in conversation with someone who is truly expert in the relevant biological areas, and since most such matchups would yield a conversation unintelligible to a lay audience, it was hard to imagine a Behe pairing that would make sense.
4) Since these two diavlogs were arranged, I have told the staffers who arranged them that in the future they should make sure to clear diavlogs of this sort with me before arranging them.

It’s true that I didn’t give you the pledge that apparently would have kept you appearing on BhTV: No more creationists or Intelligent Design folks ever on Bloggingheads. I said that, for example, I could imagine myself interrogating ID people about their theological motivation. And I said I’d welcome a Behe-Richard Dawkins debate, since Dawkins is a rare combination of expertise and accessibility. But I also said that offhand I couldn’t imagine any other Behe pairing that would work for me (though there may be possibilities I’m overlooking).

The key thing that I tried to underscore repeatedly in our phone conversation yesterday is this: The two diavlogs in question were not reflective of BhTV editorial policy, and steps have been taken to tighten the implementation of that policy so that future content will be more reflective of it. Sean, I wish that in your post you’d conveyed this to your readers, though I realize that you had a lot of other things you wanted to say.

Carl Zimmer at Discover:

My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.

This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.

I’ve written this post mainly just to put my decision in words. It may matter to very few people, and if most readers of the Loom have skipped this post to await some juicy science, I understand entirely. But the arc of this two-year experiment has got me thinking a bit about where the public discussion of science is going these days.

Bob Wright responds in comments

John Horgan:

I have enormous respect for Carl and Sean. They are extremely smart, knowledgeable, gracious men, and they upgraded the level of discourse on BHTV. I’ll be sad to see them go. But I’m staying, and I disagree, strongly, with their stance that some topics (with one exception, noted below) should be shunned on principle.

Bob Wright and I disagree, strongly, on a lot of things, as anyone who watched our recent chat about his new book knows. But I’m glad that Bob has refused to exclude, a priori, certain topics, attitudes, people from BHTV. The basic premise of BHTV, as I see it, is that dialogue and debate are intrinsically good, leading to enlightenment and progress in human affairs and all sorts of other good stuff—even though of course it doesn’t always work out that way in practice.

My placement above of things like psychoanalysis and multiverse theories alongside astrology and homeopathy was my passive-aggressive way of making the point that it ain’t always easy to draw the line between real and pseudo-science. Some titans of science have espoused wacky beliefs. Linus Pauling insisted that vitamin C could cure cancer. Fred Hoyle suspected the flu virus comes from outer space. Freeman Dyson believes in ESP and thinks global warming may be good for us. Sean Carroll thinks multiverse theories deserve serious attention.

Bloggingheads features conservatives with extremely hawkish views, which I think are potentially far more dangerous than creationism or astrology or multiverses. Should they be excluded? No! My attitude is, Let’s talk about it! I’d like to find out why you hold these views, and to tell you why you’re wrong. Maybe you’ll persuade me you’re right, although I doubt it, but at least we may achieve some mutual understanding, which can’t be bad.

John Horgan and Bob Wright at Bloggingheads on the affair

John Coyne on the controversy, here and here. He links to Phil Plait at Discovery:

Bloggingheads had full-blown creationists being interviewed, making all the same long-debunked claims while the other person talking basically supported them. And BloggingHeads called that science.

So Bzzzzzzzt! I’m done with them. I was on BloggingHeads (with Carl) a few months ago, and I won’t ever do it again either. If they want to cast creationism as science, they might as well say Holocaust denial is real history, 9/11 truthers are engineers, and Birthers are patriots. They can do that, but it’s a crock.

Folks, the debate is over, and has been for decades: creationism is wrong, and provably so. And it’s certainly not science. Portraying it as such is either breathtaking ignorance, or a lie. Sorry, BHTV, but creationism is the shark, and you’re Fonzie.

Greg Fish:

Wright needs to think about what kind of reputation he wants his site to have in the popular science world. He could allow it to become an irrelevant laughingstock that once used to host scientists, skeptics and scientific discussions of serious merit, or he could admit a mistake and allow creationists and their fawning followers to stew in their own self-congratulatory pseudoscientific muck. It’s his call.

P.Z. Myers at Scienceblogs:

Several of the commenters on Phil’s site do not think it is a good idea, because lunacy like creationism ought to be confronted whenever we can do so. I agree! The problem with bloggingheads wasn’t simply that creationists were given a venue — it was that creationists were given a venue without voices opposing their ideas. It was setting up crackpots with softball interviews that made them look reasonable, because their peculiar ideas were never confronted. That’s what has to be rejected, not the idea of arguing with bad ideas (although Sean Carroll makes a good case that some ideas are so bad they don’t even deserve debate), but a site that promised discussion yet became open mic night for loons.

Greg Laden at Scienceblogs:

One possible conclusion that could come of all this is the following: Bloggingheads.tv is practically a mouthpiece for creationism. Yes it is true that the creationists only get on Blogginheads once every year or so, but that would be like NOVA producing one or two pro-creationist one hour long specials every decade. Unacceptable and outrageous. Robert Wright and his whole team need to be driving into the swamp.

Another possible conclusion is that Blogginheads.tv is run like a half baked lemonade stand, and thus does not serve well in protecting the high standards of decision making and management that the rest of the blogosphere adheres to. They need to be punished for their inefficacious behavior. Drive them at least in the general direction of the swamp and they will surely blunder into the mire on their own. But if new management or editorial practices are demonstrated, make nice and start once again using Bloggingheads.tv as a mouthpiece for rationality and science.

Yet another possible conclusion is that the creationists have done an admirable job at getting Carl Zimmer, Sean Carrol, Phil Plait, and PZ Myers, four of the most widely heard and widely loved (or hated, depending) voices of science and of anti-creationism, to commit to never using this popular venue. Now, if the creationists can do this with, say, Public TV and some of the major news outlets, they have it made. It won’t be long after that they will be able to drive all of us into the swamp.

Coyne:

So much for the virtues of accommodationism. If you pretend that religion has something to say about science, or if you present these two magisteria as coequals, those who have genuine respect for science — and integrity — are going to flee faster than rats on a sinking ship.

EARLIER: B-head on the G-head

UPDATE: Jim Manzi at The American Scene

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