World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Birthers, Deathers and the End of the World

I’m posting this on May 22nd 2011—which means the planet was not torn asunder by an  apocalyptic earthquake yesterday and the faithful have not been called up into heaven in The Rapture.

It seems Harold Camping, the president of the American Christian radio network, Family Radio, erred in proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS ALMOST HERE! HOLY GOD WILL BRING JUDGMENT DAY ON MAY 21, 2011.” As we all now know, God didn’t bring it, despite Family Radio’s confident declaration that “The Bible Guarantees It.”

Of course, Camping isn’t the first to wrongly foretell the Apocalypse (and he won’t be the last as we’ll see in December 2012); there have been countless dooms-days before this one. In 1954, a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin claimed she was in communication with aliens from a planet called Clarion. According to the extraterrestrials, a great flood would bring an end to our civilization on the morning of December 21st. But the Clarions also reassured Dorothy they would swoop down in a flying saucer at midnight on the 20th to rescue her and other “true believers.” Needless to say, the deluge did not appear—and neither did the flying saucer.

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Filed under: politics, pseudoscience, religion, skepticism

Canadian government muzzling federal scientists

The Ad Astra Science Fiction convention in Toronto might seem an odd setting for the panel discussion, “The Muzzling of Canadian Federal Scientists: Is 1984 Here?”. But, as moderator Pippa Wysong pointed out in her opening remarks, the muzzling of scientists would make a good plot line for a science fiction thriller.

Government control of federally-funded scientists is a growing concern among Canadian science journalists. In years past, the media typically would have unrestricted and immediate access to researchers. The panel, which included science journalists Wysong, Saul Chernos and Janet Pelley, and physicist David Stephenson, offered ample proof that the situation has changed in a disturbing way.

For example, Pelley described an incident at a water quality conference in 2009. Following a presentation on Bisphenol A, she asked the researchers for an interview. The scientists “laughed nervously”, told Pelley they couldn’t answer her questions, and pointed toward a “press-minder” standing nearby. Pelley asked the media officer for permission to interview the scientists but her request was denied. Instead, she was instructed to submit her request to the media office. Needless to say, Pelley didn’t get her interview that day.

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Filed under: media, politics

Just how much science does our science minister understand?

To many in the research community, last week’s federal budget cut to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Sciences is a sign that the Harper government is “skeptical of climate-change science and hostile to those who provide evidence that aggressive action must be taken to avert catastrophic global warming.” As a result of the cut, scientists have begun to shut down the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, located on Ellsmere Island some 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole, which served as a base for the collection of data on climate change.

Skeptical of climate-change science? The report reminded me of the flap from a year ago, when Gary Goodyear, our science minister, refused to reveal if he believed in evolution. His initial refusal, followed by a confusing and disingenuous “yes, I believe in evolution”, bolstered the suspicions of many that our science minister was a creationist and wasn’t quite on the same page as Darwin when it came to the origin of species.

You have to wonder what other scientific concepts–along with climate change and evolution–Goodyear doesn’t quite have a handle on. Germ theory, plate tectonics, gravity, atomic theory? Should we worry about future cuts to Canada’s space program because he’s pretty sure the Earth is flat?

Filed under: climate change, evolution, politics, science literacy, , , ,

Twitter and the Convergence of Evidence in Iran

A friend recently wrote on his blog about his concern for the many tweeters he was following in Iran in the wake of that country’s contested election. A reply was posted in response that included this statement: “Who is to say that half the people you are following are even real people–and not a 30-year-old jackass getting kicks out of how many people are following him?” Here’s my reply to that post:

It’s true you can’t be sure that any individual tweet is authentic. And we should be sceptical; we should always exercise media literacy, whether we’re reading tweets, the Huffington Post, a hard-copy of the New York Times, or we’re listening to CBC radio, or watching BBC World News. In fact, it is entirely reasonable to believe that some percentage of tweets are fake.

But, if your conjecture is that a significant number are fake and that they are painting a misleading picture, then at a certain point, the onus is on you to offer both an explanation of why this is happening and proof that it is. Not only that, but we also have to consider this.

If our knowledge of what’s going on in Iran were limited to Twitter alone, we would be right to be very sceptical of every and all tweets and the overall picture they are painting. But Twitter isn’t our sole source of information. There are reports coming to us from other sources, such as traditional news agencies (albeit restricted), individuals in contact with their friends and families in Iran, etc. There is also our general knowledge of the political situation in that country.

The consistency of these news reports, personal accounts, historical knowledge, and tweets is what is referred to in science as a “convergence of evidence.” And when independent lines of evidence converge on a single conclusion, that is strong evidence for the conclusion.

For e.g. we know Darwin was right–not because of any single piece of data–but because of the overwhelming convergence of evidence from many different sources: geology, paleontology, genetics, zoology, etc.

And, despite attempts to deny the fact of the Holocaust by disproving discrete or isolated claims about it, we know it happened because of the overwhelming convergence of evidence from written documents, eyewitness accounts, photographs, the camps themselves and inferential evidence. (For more on this, read Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s excellent Denying History.)

Not only that, but the internal consistency of large numbers of tweets makes them all the more convincing.

So, while we may not be able to say that any single tweet is authentic, as a whole they contribute to our understanding of what is going on halfway around the world. It is a compelling, disturbing situation that we should all be following, with every means possible.

Filed under: media, politics, science literacy, , ,

March 18, 2009: Canada’s Minister of Science accepts Darwin’s evolution. Or does he?

So, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, thinks his views on evolution are “irrelevant”. When asked in an interview whether he believed in Darwin’s big idea, the minister refused to answer, saying that his religious beliefs had nothing to do with government policy.

As a tax-paying voter, I think they are very relevant—particularly if, as many suspect, Goodyear is a creationist. If the minister believes that all the species on Earth were created by a divine being, whole and complete, and that they didn’t evolve from common ancestors, then he has made a choice based on his religious faith. He’s chosen an explanation that goes against the vast body of evidence accumulated in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. He is rejecting the foundation on which all of biology is constructed, an idea universally accepted by science because it has been proven at every step.

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Filed under: creationism, evolution, politics, religion, , , ,

October 9, 2008: Yes, John McCain, the world does need more $3M “Overhead Projectors”

During the October 7, 2008 U.S. Presidential Townhall Debate in Nashville, Senator John McCain claimed that Barack Obama “voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork-barrel earmark projects—including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?”

A $3 million “overhead projector”!? Okay, I’ve been following the U.S. election intently since the beginning of the year. But, as former Senior Producer at the McLaughlin Planetarium of the ROM in Toronto, it just got personal.

Where to begin? Well, for starters, the “overhead projector” is not that suitcase-sized light-box we’re all familiar with from grade school that our teachers used to project transparencies of graphs and maps onto a screen. The “overhead projector” McCain refers to is a planetarium star projector: the complex, highly-sophisticated optical instrument that projects images of stars, planets, the Milky Way, and the Sun on the dome-shaped screen of a planetarium, simulating the night sky.

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Filed under: planetarium, politics, science education, , ,

About me

CHRIS SASAKI
I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at www.chrissasaki.com, and follow me at www.twitter.com/chrissasaki.

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