Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Model Darwin Day Proclamation for the City of Atlanta

This is a draft proposed proclamation for Darwin Day 2013 that will be presented for adoption by Mayor's Office of the City of Atlanta sometime in the next few weeks. I offer it here for comment and with the hope that it might serve as a model for similar proclamations.

The idea for a proclamation originated with Atlanta Science Tavern plans to commemorate Charles's birthday with a public celebration, the first that I know of here. Visiting the International Darwin Day Foundation website in order to register our event with their worldwide list, I saw that a proclamation might be a good way for us to extend our outreach and our impact. I decided that the maximum effect here would be achieved by a proclamation that emphasized the numerous profound, enduring benefits that have been realized as a result of Darwin's pioneering theory.

Updates will follow as the process of transforming this proposal into a real proclamation takes place. In its final form, if adopted, it will be presented with a list of supporting institutions and individuals from the Atlanta area. Please let me know if you would like to be included. Other feedback is welcome as well.

Draft Proposed Proclamation

City of Atlanta, Georgia

Office of the Mayor

Kasim Reed

WHEREAS, Atlanta is a great science city and the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, first proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859, stands as one of the great theories in the history of science; and

WHEREAS, Charles Darwin was born 203 years ago on February 12 in the year 1809, sharing that birth date with our great president Abraham Lincoln; and

WHEREAS, Atlanta’s teachers and educators at all levels of instruction rely on Darwin’s theory to communicate to their students the wondrous relatedness of all living things; and

WHEREAS, Atlanta’s internationally-recognized colleges and universities are guided by Darwin’s theory in their search for a better understanding of the origins of our own species and of others; and

WHEREAS, Atlanta’s world-class biotechnology industry employs Darwin’s theory to develop cutting-edge products and services that contribute to our local economy and benefit society as a whole; and

WHEREAS, Atlanta’s medical institutions and research centers turn to Darwin’s theory to help them determine how diseases arise and how they can be effectively prevented and treated in order to reduce human suffering and extend human life; and

WHEREAS, Atlanta’s first city-wide Science Festival, scheduled for March 22-29, 2014, will feature many of the accomplishments made possible by Darwin’s theory; and

WHEREAS, the Atlanta Science Tavern, Atlanta’s premier grassroots science forum, will be celebrating the occasion of Darwin’s birth with its first annual Darwin Day Dinner Symposium.

Therefore, I, Kasim Reed, Mayor of the City of Atlanta, do hereby declare that Tuesday, February 12, 2013 is


in the City of Atlanta, in recognition of how this great man’s theory has been so successfully used by Atlanta’s teachers and scholars, researchers and healers to advance our understanding of the biological world and to improve the quality of life for people here and elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Guessing about Curiosity's Discovery - Viking Redeemed

Sample Analysis at Mars for Curiosity (SAM)
Sample Analysis at Mars for Curiosity
Whatever the big Mars news NASA is sitting on is, it seems be related to measurements made by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is tasked to search for compounds containing carbon. According to NASA's description, "because these compounds are essential to life as we know it, their relative abundances will be an essential piece of information for evaluating whether Mars could have supported life in the past or present."

This would suggest that NASA is prepared to report the presence of organic compounds in the samples scooped up from "a patch of dusty sand called Rocknest." The implication here being that active biological processes may be at work in what is an arbitrary and, from all appearances, not particularly hospitable piece of Martian real estate.

Five Bites Into Mars at Rocknest
Not only would this be a momentous finding, but it would also redeem the "discovery" made by the Viking landers in 1976. Those pioneering Mars probes detected much the same thing. Their conclusion was initially celebrated, later dismissed and only resurrected as a possible valid result in the last half-dozen years.

So the question for me is why has Greg Webster, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesman - although it appears he has been dispatched from NASA's Department of Expectation Reduction - said that the findings would be "interesting" rather than "earthshaking"? My guess is two-fold.

Having been already burned by the early indication of the detection of methane, which turned out to likely be a stowaway gas brought along from Cape Canaveral, NASA wants to hedge its bets. Although the sample gathering apparatus aboard Curiosity had been deliberately purged of Earthly contaminants by an initial dry run using Martian soil, it's sort of remarkable that a first sample should yield such dramatic results.

The startling possibility here is that not only is life present on Mars, but that it is pretty much everywhere. A theme from the song "New York, New York" comes to mind: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. That's life.

Carl Sagan with Viking model
But I think that the primary challenge for NASA, and one reason for the backpedalling, is that, as with the Viking results, many people, including the public at large, are not going to find indirect evidence of life there that persuasive. They aren't expecting to see little green men, but they are expecting to see little green microbes.

Fittingly, it was Carl Sagan, a prime mover behind Viking, who reminded us that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But he left us on our own to figure out what exactly qualifies as extraordinary evidence.

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Guessing about Curiosity's Discovery - Viking Redeemed by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Killer Arguments versus the Scientific Consensus

As Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern and a full-time science advocate of sorts, I frequently find myself wrestling with the question of how to communicate what is meant by the scientific consensus and why it should be trusted, especially in regard to the formulation of public policy.

State of Fear book cover
Often the issue comes up in a discussion in which one of he participants appeals to a single book or a limited set of studies as the definitive position to take on a complex and controversial science-related topic. The arguments appear compelling, and the supporting research seems well documented. Doesn't this place the burden on opponents, even if they subscribe to a view consistent with accepted scientific opinion, to read and critique these "killer" arguments?

This situation presented itself again recently as a result of a comment thread having to do with global warming on a Facebook group called "Rationals". One participant, who strongly doubted the reality of climate change, cited Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear as the basis for her thinking. She also offered some intuitive, commonsense arguments against the claims made by climate scientists.

What follows, with some minor edits, is my response to her.

IPCC Fourth Assessment Report
If any document should be required reading for this discussion, I would suggest "Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2007" (link). You may prefer the single chapter called "Summary for Policymakers".

Why do I suggest it instead of, say, Michael Crichton's State of Fear? It's not because I have read Crichton's book - I haven't - or because I dispute his sources - I don't. It's because I could spend my life reading the variety of positions that various individuals and organizations hold concerning climate change. Even though I am relatively scientifically astute, I just don't have the expertise or the time to navigate all the competing claims.

The demand that one must read Crichton's book to engage in this debate "scientifically" is easily countered: require that anyone holding an a view opposing your own read all your authors of choice. If this isn't a recipe for deadlock, I don't know what is.

So the question for me isn't whether Crichton is right or wrong. It is how does a discerning and intelligent lay person go about adopting a position on a controversial scientific topic, like climate change and its causes, which have significant public policy implications.

This is not an unfamiliar challenge. A public controversy swirls around the safety and effectiveness of childhood vaccines, and there are endless papers by "anti-vaccers" such Andrew Wakefield and his supporters that are pointed to as required reading. Likewise with the teaching of the theory of evolution by natural selection in public schools. Here the "must read" opposing point of view includes all the Intelligent Design tracts issued by the creationist-leaning Discovery Institute.

(I would note that these debates are rife with their own intuitive justifications, not unlike the one leveled at climate change scientists having to do with our "obvious" incapacity to model climate patterns over a period of decades. For anti-vaccination, the intuition is that vaccines containing mercury are "obviously" toxic. For the Intelligent Design community, commonsense supposedly tells us that certain biological processes are "obviously" too complex to have originated through natural processes.)

The answer to the question, from both a practical and an intellectual perspective, is that with such scientific controversies we seek to determine, to the best of our ability, whether there is a consensus in the scientific community.

For climate change and its causes the existence of such a consensus is indisputable. The vast majority of the thousands of researchers engaged in climate research agree with the findings of the IPCC. The same kind of consensus holds among experts in vaccine safety and evolutionary biology relative to challenges made by anti-vaccers and Intelligent Design proponents, respectively.

Does this mean that the scientific consensus about climate change is necessarily correct? No, it doesn't. Since all scientific claims are provisional, the ones made about climate change are subject to revision. But the fact of the matter is that policy making can't wait for "final" answers in urgent circumstances. We have to respond to threats, and we have to go with our best understanding of the situation, which, to a large extent, is another name for the scientific consensus.

Does this mean that contrarians and outliers are all kooks and nuts? Not at all. There is a small but concerted scientific opposition to climate change, but it appears as though that their ranks are dwindling. (See this recent New York Times op-ed for an example). It does mean that the burden of proof has shifted dramatically to the opponents of accepted climate change science.

Finally, the question of the trustworthiness of the climate research community in general and the IPCC in particular has to be addressed. The thousands of scientists engaged in these studies represent dozens of countries and hundreds of research institutions. It's not clear what their objective would be in deliberately distorting the evidence and analysis underlying conclusions relative to anthropogenic climate change, but it would require a conspiracy of gargantuan proportions.

Having been a scientist at one time myself, I find the suggestion that these dedicated men and women are engaging in "group think" hardly convincing. Scientists revel in proving one another wrong. Although I do admit the gatekeepers of peer-reviewed journals might reflexively look askance at an outlying submission these days, I do believe that well-founded opposing points of view have seen the publication light of day. Scientists as a whole are a smart, honest and self-reflective lot when it comes to their work.

Of course the process of developing this climate change consensus has seen its own share of errors and even acts of malfeasance. What human endeavor on this scale hasn't? The good news is that the scientific process is self-correcting. This is why rational people find the process so trustworthy. It is skeptical of its own conclusions and committed - come hell or high water - to finding the best available explanations consistent with the evidence at hand.

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Killer Arguments versus the Scientific Consensus by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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Friday, July 6, 2012

Checking the Higgs Arithmetic

Although the Higgs boson is of incredible theoretical importance and is responsible for giving known elementary particles their mass, it’s getting far too much credit when it comes to the origins of most of the mass present in ordinary matter.

The proton as a relativistic quark-gluon soup.
(Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)
On the subatomic scale, masses of particles are measured in units of MeV (millions of electron volts). The familiar proton weighs in at about 938 MeV. According to the Standard Model, its primary components are 2 up quarks, each with a mass of about 3 MeV, and a single down quark, tipping the scales at about 5 MeV. All totalled, the mass of the 3 quarks in the proton account for around 11 out of 938 MeV of its mass, or on the order of only 1%.

Where does all the rest of the mass of the proton come from? It comes from the energy of motion of the three quarks whirling around in their proton enclosure at near the speed of light and from the energy of the gluon field that keeps these quarks tightly bound together. These forms of energy, as Einstein told us, are equivalent to mass.

So remember, although the Higgs may have gotten the mass party started, other forms of energy, mostly gluons it turns out, are the other 99%.

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Checking the Higgs Arithmetic by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at

Monday, April 30, 2012

Open Mindedness and the Teaching of Science in Public Schools

This essay began as my contribution to a discussion on the Atlanta Science Tavern message board having to do with the topic of a recently announced meetup, The Christian Right's Assault on Public Education and the Science Curriculum, featuring Katherine Stewart, author of the book, The Good News Club. One of our members Deb spoke out about what she felt was the threat posed by the kind of close mindedness which would prevent including creationism, for example, in the public science classroom. What follows is an edited version of my response to her.

I wanted to add to this lively exchange by trying to focus the discussion to see if we can make some headway with the issue at hand - or at least what I believe to be the issue at hand - and that is the proper way to go about formulating the science curriculum for public primary and secondary schools.

Let’s begin by turning our attention to Deb’s concern about the price we pay by closing our minds to alternative points of view in science and elsewhere. In some respects I couldn’t agree more, open mindedness is a personal virtue, one that I aspire to in my own life. I hope that I can live up to Deb’s expectations for me!

Of course, our striving for open mindedness has to be tempered with what I would call discernment. Each day we have to entertain a myriad of choices, but ultimately we have to make final decisions, sometimes critical ones having to do with our own welfare or that of other people. Good judgement is the balancing act we perform that results from maintaining an open mind while relying on significant lessons we have learned about what sources of information and advice we can trust as we go about selecting between alternative courses of action.

In addition, I would agree with Deb that it is incumbent upon us to inculcate open mindedness in our children, and I do believe that the schools, both public and private, have an important role to play in this process. That said, schools are also a way for us confer upon our children the hard-won rewards of our experience, not only as individuals, but as a culture and as a civilization. To lay before them a set of options without offering them the benefit of our collective knowledge would be a disservice, perhaps even a crime.

Nowhere is this obligation clearer than in the K-12 science curriculum. That is because, unlike other other fields of human endeavor, after centuries of struggle, the scientific enterprise has answered fundamental questions about the nature of the world beyond any reasonable doubt. The confidence of these positions is embodied in what is called the scientific consensus. While acknowledging that scientific “truths” such as these are always provisional, we understand them to be of a different quality than competing opinions and so raise the bar as to what will be the foundational knowledge that we choose to transmit to young and growing minds.

To understand this better, I think that it is useful for us to consider another element of the science curriculum and that is the germ theory of disease. I ask that the participants in this discussion to test the validity of their approaches by considering how well they fare in this analogous context.

Louis Pasteur photographed
by Pierre Lamy Petit
The germ theory of disease, the idea that disease originates, at least in large part, as the result of infection by microbes was, like Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, a triumph of 19th century science. This is not to say that it reached its current form then. Viruses were unknown to Louis Pasteur. Likewise, the injuries that can result from chronic exposure to, say, low-level radiation or pesticide residues were unanticipated by Pasteur. No doubt, much of the harm that befalls us is self-inflicted, indicative of bad “lifestyle choices” having to do with diet, for example or the use of addictive drugs and has nothing to do with germs.

Nonetheless, the germ theory has become enshrined as part of the scientific canon and recognized as the undisputed scientific consensus. More than a theoretical notion, Pasteur’s and Robert Koch's legacy has been the foundation for the development of medical therapies - everything from the practice of asepsis in hospitals, to childhood vaccinations to antibiotic drugs - that have saved hundreds of millions of lives.

Quartz (Rob Lavinsky / 
Be that as it may, a controversy still swirls around the germ theory of disease, not in the scientific community, but in a variety of sectors of the public mind. Some of these challenges have to do with an understanding of the very origin of disease itself, with the blame laid not with bacteria and viruses but with such things as an imbalance of energy fields in our bodies or the misconfiguration of our spines. More commonly the controversies have to do with what constitutes effective treatment of disease, with homeopathy and crystal healing being offered notably as competing "alternative" therapies. There is even significant opposition from some quarters to vaccination as a safe and effective public health measure.

I want to emphasize that the question I am posing is not whether there is some documented basis to these competing claims - I am confident that the list of citations is endless - but whether they should be introduced into the public school curriculum to balance the teaching of the germ theory of disease.

Two-year old Rahima Banu of Bangladesh,
the last person infected with
naturally occurring Variola major, in 1975
Would we be derelict not to include our classroom discussions the presentation of homeopathy, crystal healing, chiropractic as effective alternatives to the treatment of human ailments, on a par with antibiotics and accepted surgical practice? Are we obligated to teach this controversy? Should we instruct our children in elementary school that they should be suspicious of the vaccinations that their family doctors give them, telling them that there are some people who say vaccines are not only ineffective but even dangerous?

Furthermore should the science curriculum in this regard be expanded to include a discussion of the “ultimate” cause of disease, causes that in some immaterial sense precede its origins in entirely natural processes?

Should students in a high school  biology class learn that disease might find metaphysical roots in the karmic balancing of accounts from our past-life transgressions? Should they be taught that cancer, for example, could be construed as the fruit our original sin and proof of our fundamentally corrupt nature? There are not an inconsiderable number of people, if the popularity of Oprah's book selections is any indication, who believe that the ailments that beset us, including those that torment the tiniest infants, emanate from our failure to maintain a positive attitude about ourselves and about the world around us. Should these points of view be included in our biology textbooks?

So, in closing this addition to the discussion, I ask for you to put the particulars of evolution debate aside and consider the analogous question about teaching a different scientific theory - with an open mind of course. I look forward to hearing whether you see the parallels as being applicable to the original debate and how concerns about “teaching the controversy” might apply here.

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Open Mindedness and the Teaching of Science in Public Schools by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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