NOT a new life form.

Did you read about this? A NASA agency has coaxed some bacteria to evolve the ability to replace, in SOME part of their cell-cycles, Phosphorus with Arsenic. Yes, Arsenic, that element that’s poisonous.

Oh, boy, did the science journalists go haywire: A new life form discovered! No, it wasn’t.

Go here to read a proper review of the paper. No, a new life form on Earth wasn’t discovered. Not even all the cell cycles where Phosphorus is used were altered to replace P with As.

xkcd’s take on this brings out the frustration that people whose research is misrepresented this way must feel:

[arsenic]

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Remember what I said about gullibility? It looks like science reporters are just as inclined to overstatement bordering on misrepresentation, and this isn’t limited only to the religiously inclined, like so:

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Consider Humanism

The American Humanist Association is running its largest ever awareness campaign, and Richard Dawkins is one of the ambassadors. There are videos and some printable ads. Some of the print ads seem more relevant to me, to my immediate social context, than others.

The ones on War and Peace, Intelligence, Fear, Hatred, Genocide, Violence, and Slavery seem to me to have no relevance (I shan’t say ‘no use’) in the Indian context. The rest, though, ring worrisomely true.

We could use an infusion of Humanist views on Punishment in this society. Even Gandhi for example, saw no problem with declaring that natural disasters were punishment for the immorality of the people. Gandhi stuck to that view of the Bengal famine of the 1930s, in the face of criticism from people like Tagore. This is only truer today, and true of many more people, in ways that reveal stupidity, ignorance, and bigotry.

Here’s another: the Supreme Court has decriminalised Homosexuality, but that is a far cry away from this society imbibing Humanist views on homosexuality. With the political Right of India becoming ever more like the rabid fundamentalist Right of the bible-belt in America, the acceptance of homosexuality in society couldn’t happen too soon.

Perhaps what we need even more, and urgently, is for Humanist views on gender-equality to sweep through this society. My views on this, I have made clear in the past. I also hardly need expatiate on this point – I don’t expect many people who are reading this to hold a different view on this matter. No nation or population that relegates half its citizenry to second-class citizenship can ever hope to prosper. I’d even say that no definition of ‘prosperity’ can ignore that half the population is stuck inside four walls with no access to fresh air and sunlight, to say nothing of the arts, literature, music, or science.

Here’s hoping…

[End. Fini. Kaputski. Consider Humanism]

Atheism Day at JNCASR

Yesterday was Diwali, and I discovered that a surprisingly large section of the JNC population seems to revel in standing in front of some idol or the other while somebody lights a fire to something or the other and chants in pig-Latin. A bunch of us at the engineering unit think this is all just plain silly. It was even suggested to me that some atheist version of this idol-worship be given its own day; some time in January was suggested. I was told I would be appointed the priest.

I am all for an atheism day. I think it’s a perfectly good idea. I am actually all for atheism years, decades and centuries.  I am, after all, the guy who made attempts, however impotent, to start some sort of Atheism Society at IITM.

I don’t, however, intend to stand in front of a poster of Richard Dawkins and chant something in, for lack of anything better, English. Or to garland some idol with slippers, a la a former CM of Tamil Nadu. This is not because I have a problem ‘disrespecting’ idols or pissing people off, but because it would be pointless – idols don’t care, and there are far simpler ways of mocking, ridiculing, annoying or irritating people. I don’t need props to do it.

Here’s a sample of what I thought should go in the ‘invitation’ for this Atheism day. This will get modified, and hopefully get better, as time goes along. For once, I mean and hope for this to come across as deliberate and thoughtful, and not as arrogant or vindictive:

An Invitation

Profess your atheism. Celebrate Atheism Day. February 11, 2011.

The 42nd day of 2011 seems to us to be as good a day as any other to profess, possibly in unison, our non-belief. Tell a friend why you don’t believe in an overlord pulling strings from the clouds. Do at least one good thing, this day. Something as simple as a kind word to a colleague you never got along with. Or perhaps you think some person or organisation is doing honourable work that should be supported. Perhaps we could list a few people or organisations who deserve all the help we can give them in their efforts to make somebody’s life better.

The remainder of the plan, happily, is to go about our days entirely as usual. We could meet for dinner in the mess hall, served – as usual – between 7:15 and 9:00 pm.

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Hat tips, credits: Anubhab Roy, Navaneeth.

The righteous rationalist and why we should be wary…

or, you know, NOT.

I read this SciAm article last night criticising Sam Harris for his book and his position that science can be used to decide issues of morality. Now, whether or not I agree with Sam Harris’ views about science and morality (and I do, in principle), the article in question here is just plain illogical.

Here’s the author’s reasoning: The Tuskeegee experiment was run by scientists. So was the project to inject Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis. There are also other failures of medical ethics that one can find in recent history. Hence proved that science cannot be a moral guidepost.

That’s the entirety of the article. Even by the author’s own assessment.

I’ll assume that we all agree that what happened in Tuskeegee and Guatemala is morally reprehensible. We know this, right? How? A naive answer is that the simplest medical ethics textbook will say so. Which, to me, isn’t that bad an answer.

We know that these acts lead to the suffering of people who had no say in the matter. Which is obviously wrong. Which, unless I’m mistaken, is what Sam Harris says as well – human suffering is morally wrong; anything that minimises human suffering is morally right. (To which I should add, if Harris hasn’t done it himself: the individual cannot be sacrificed for the collective, without the individual’s consent.)

This train of thought has had no input from outside medicine (or science, or logic, if you want) and the strongest critics of the ethical lapses in Tuskeegee or Guatemala have been medical ethicists. Which, to me, is the difference between calling Tuskeegee the fault of medicine, or science, and calling the institutionalised rape of children in the catholic church the fault of christianity. The catholic church, and its entire hierarchy including the vatican, have actively tried to cover up instances of child rape, even getting victims to sign non-disclosure agreements.

I’m guessing that Sam Harris, in an attempt to explain how to quantify human happiness, must have gestured towards neuroscience as a possible answer. This brings out the “neuroscience isn’t perfect; you can’t explain so many things with neuroscience” line. For crying out loud, would somebody point the author to Asimov’s essay?

There’s also the canard about arrogance and how scientists should be less arrogant than to claim that science can decide questions of morality. Saying I know something doesn’t make me arrogant. Especially not if I’m prepared to accept, upon being shown otherwise, that I don’t. I see absolutely nothing in way of proof from this article.

At one point, the article says:

But those who fervently believe their own rhetoric about saving humanity may be even more dangerous.

You only have to compare Joseph Ratzinger with Sam Harris to realise that there isn’t even a comparison to make.

Cold is not cold, cold is heat. Hence god.

Consti sent me this video some time ago of (NOT) Albert Einstein arguing with his professor about the existence of god. This story isn’t novel at all; people here have known the same argument attributed to Abdul Kalam. And while I wouldn’t be too surprised if Abdul Kalam came up with inanity like this, I’m tempted to think Einstein was more intelligent than this, even at ten.

Let’s forget for the moment, then, that Einstein repeatedly denounced people who called him religious, and repeatedly avowed his non-belief. Let’s also forget that this stupidity is so common that it’s been catalogued, and that the argument is lame enough for there to be a Jack Chick tract that tells the story of the calm student who takes apart the evil professor’s arguments. Here’s the video, and a summary:

Prof: If god exists, he is evil because he created evil

Student: God didn’t create evil, evil is the absence of love for god.

There. I’ve done the argument more justice than it deserves. Here, first, is a fairly respectful rebuttal (from Camels with Hammers):

[/cartoon]

My reply won’t be nearly as respectful. The distillation of stupidity that is attributed to Abdul Kalam has this gem of an argument in this:

Student: Sir, my point is your philosophical premise is flawed. Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can’t even explain a thought.. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one.To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it […] Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher? […] The link between man & god is faith. That is all that keeps things moving & alive.

i) The ‘science cannot explain everything’ refrain is idiotic. And that’s without even mentioning that ‘God did it’ is not an explanation. To quote Asimov, ‘if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.’ So yes, we understand electricity and magnetism, can explain both quite well, and can even explain thought, even if only at a rudimentary level. Also the understanding of death modern medicine has is vastly better than the rubbish that’s been attributed to Kalam.

ii) Evolution by natural selection is about as solid as science gets. Saying ‘I can’t see monkeys evolving into human beings’ is, apart from being technically wrong – monkeys and humans evolved from common ancestors, and monkeys today are evolving into monkeys, not humans, also silly. One might as well say ‘I’ve been looking at this baby all day, and it hasn’t grown into a forty year old man. I refuse to accept that babies can grow into adults.’ (This bit of wisdom is from Stephen Colbert, not surprisingly!). The only explanation for this argument being made at all is that the dumbass making it knows nothing about logic, to say nothing of evolution.

Now, there’s also the crap about ‘god cannot be measured’, and what not. Except, this genius somehow knows all this. How? Divine inspiration? I’m supposed to believe that this god that can’t be seen or felt somehow revealed its identity to the idiot who made up this argument? Yeah, right.

And if you’re still wondering whether the fact that cold and darkness are just the absence of heat and light should make any difference to an argument for a divine being, consider this: there are pleasant odours, and there is no odour at all, and I just farted.

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Update: Nair said it seemed as though I was pulling my punches. I’ve made some changes to the body of the post. It’s hopefully better, now!

He surely knows… or perhaps He does not!

There was this talk by Jairam Ramesh, the Union Minister for Environment and Forests, at JNCASR today. I’ll write about the talk and the questions and answers at the end in a day or two; I had a fascinating discussion with Roddam Narasimha, this professor of mine – who knows just about everything – about the talk, and something Jairam Ramesh said came up in the discussion.

Jairam Ramesh quoted Alberuni’s comment about Indians that (this was a thousand years ago, mind; it seems like we haven’t changed one bit), presented with a choice between two things, Indians choose both. The minister used this to point out that the dithering usually involved in saying no to haphazard industrial development even when we know it will cause environmental destruction is symptomatic of this.

RN agrees that this is true, but says that this isn’t always a bad thing. He says, and I agree, that this is perhaps the most fundamental difference between Indian and western philosophy – we are all right with saying ‘maybe this. maybe that. maybe both, or neither’.

Here’s a for-instance: the creation stories of the world are usually full of unseemly certainties – god created man and earth and all the shit within and without starting on a Monday, working through the week, and resting on Sunday. What the Rig Veda (which is the text that deals with creation) says is delightfully skeptical. Amartya Sen quotes this stanza in The Argumentative Indian.

iyam visrstir yata ababhuva;
yadi va dadhe yadi va na:
yo asyadhyaksah parame vioman,
so anga veda, yadi va na veda.
[/end stanza]

That translates (roughly) to: “Where did this universe come from? Did He create it, or did he not? Only he who is the master of all this knows; Or perhaps he doesn’t.”

To be sure, there are other places in the vedas and other texts where the creation story is told in more descriptive – and more ‘certain’ – terms: there was an egg that gave rise to Brahma, who went crazy and pooped all over. Or something. Also, that stanza seems to presume a creator, and that ‘he’ is male, and that ‘he’ is the master; the nice thing about the stanza, though, is that it leaves the options open, and leaves the ‘creator’ a completely impotent being.

I can very easily imagine somebody from that tradition, on being told that Adam was created on Saturday, 30th of September, 4004 BC and that the woman was created from the man’s rib, and that God rested the next day, would do exactly what I would do today – point, and laugh.

[End. Fini. Kaputski.]

Let religion be a private and personal affair.

There is an article by Vir Sanghvi on the editorial page of today’s Indian Express (or the New Indian Express, or the Sunday Express, or whatever they call themselves. I couldn’t find the article online except at Vir Sanghvi’s own site), that calls for religion to be left a private and personal affair. Why this article caught my attention is because I had almost exactly the same discussion with Srikanth at the lab last night. In any case, the article appears in a column that’s called Parallax View.

That last bit is quite unnecessarily, really – nothing in the article is even remotely revolutionary. Don’t get me wrong – the article is eminently sensible. It’s just not something that you or I couldn’t think of, or haven’t thought of. Srikanth would say, for example, that sex and religion are fundamentally private matters and are best left that way. Sanghvi comments that it is perhaps surprising that Hinduism and Judaism, the two oldest religions in the world are also the least aggressive when it comes to converting people. In fact, Hinduism and Judaism seem to actively shun converts.

Having said this, Vir Sanghvi talks about Hinduism’s catholicity (not to be confused with the Catholicism of the Roman Church, mind; we don’t rape children) and why this is a better model for a religion than the monotheistic dogmas of Islam and Christianity. He’s talking of Hinduism’s acceptance of other religions and faiths, or of no faith at all. That last point is where I particularly become interested. Hinduism has a tradition of calling religious dissenters – atheists and agnostics – ‘Hindus’. Now, whether or not this is necessary in the modern context, it would’ve been a fantastic thing to have in a religion in anything but the post-colonial age.

So, while I am in no sense a ‘Hindu’ today – I don’t worship any of the half a billion gods, I enjoy beef, and the only reason you’ll see me anywhere near a white thread is if I’m buying masala vadai from the corner shop – I would’ve been one a thousand years ago, and wouldn’t have been ostracized for saying I don’t believe in a god.

Which is more than I can say for the radical Islam of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan Pakistan, or the slightly less radical Christianity of America’s bible belt or of the Catholic Church, (especially under that evil motherfucker).