Trying Some Stuff

I’d had the same theme for this blog for years, so I thought I’d mix it up.

Still working on this theme, which looks a little untidy in the header and for which I think the post titles are much too big relative to the body text, but I’ve used similar colours to the old theme to make it feel a little familiar.

The archives are missing as a menu but the categories are there, and the search is available.

While we’re talking meta stuff about the blog on the blog, I have a broken link checker running, and it tells me about new broken links just about every day. In most cases there’s not much I can do about it – it’s a link to an old page or news story and the page has just gone away. Short of deleting those old posts, which seems like deleting my own history, I think I just have to leave them there with the broken links.

Still writing here now and then, when I want to write something that fits this medium better than Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Any feedback on the theme very welcome, but I’m still tweaking it at the moment.


For Whom The Bell Tolls, or, Death and the Dutton

Pretty sure I’ve quoted this here before, because I think it’s so powerful, but it’s relatively short and it bears repeating:

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions John Donne

It first came back to me when I heard that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had contracted COVID-19. Dutton is a vicious and awful man, who has brutalised refugees for many years and continually seeks opportunities to brutalise them more and harder.

Unlike quite a few others, though, I didn’t wish that he’d die from the infection. There was an online debate about ‘civility’, but to me that isn’t the point: the point is Donne’s poem. Anyone’s – any human being’s, and arguably any animal’s, but that’s a more complex conversation for another day – death diminishes me.

If I’m to genuinely be a humanist, then Dutton being voted out of office and losing his power to harm is something devoutly to be wished, but his death is not something I can wish for.

The other context that made me think of Donne was the sentiment – probably only pronounced in black humor, though in many cases I don’t think so – that “don’t worry, this virus only kills the old and sick”.

That, too, devalues the lives of others and, I would argue, devalues our own lives by extension.

There are good and important arguments to be had around euthanasia but that’s also something for another day. When it’s a death from disease, what we ought to be doing is whatever we can to ensure that others live.

None of us is an island.


What’s It Like Inside Your Mind?

This article was shared on social media about two weeks ago and caused quite a stir:

Have to admit, I was surprised that people were surprised. One of the things Suzie and I have been doing for over 30 years now is comparing notes: “What’s it like inside your mind?”

Our minds are quite different. She really doesn’t have an internal monologue. I sort of do, but it’s much more of a cacophony of images and voices and sounds and songs than it is a monologue.

(If you follow me on Facebook you get some of the random things that float up in the middle of living life…)

Her mind was subjected to some trauma do to abuse in childhood that may have led it to adapt, at a very plastic time, in ways it wouldn’t ‘naturally’ have done, but we don’t have a ‘control’ mind to compare.

You’ll notice I’m saying ‘mind’, not ‘brain’. There’s a fair bit of both psychology and philosophy behind that distinction, but for the moment I’m just using it to emphasise that I’m talking about our own subjective experience of our own minds.

It’s often tempting to ascribe differences to gender, but in many ways we don’t fit the traditional gender stereotypes: she’s more logical and analytical, I’m more intuitive, she’s a problem-solver, I’m more nurturing.

I tend to be very self-conscious, and (I hope) that also means I’m aware of my impact on others, and how what I’m saying and doing is impacting on them. Suzie is less so, and therefore is authentically herself in any context.

I do quite a lot of 3D mental modeling and rotation when we’re doing things like assembling Ikea furniture or working out whether a fridge will go through a door. It’s hard to know whether those skills caused my study in physics or were caused by it – probably a little of each.

But, specifically around the issue of an inner monologue, she definitely still thinks things through, but either that happens in her subconscious/unconscious mind and is then simply presented to her conscious mind as a fait accompli, or else it happens in dialogue with other people.

Conversations with others are crucial to hone her thinking. I tend to much more work through things and turn them around in my mind, look at options and solutions, try to simplify and clarify ideas and so on.

I’m pleased that the original article above was posted, though: the more people in society are able to simply recognise and understand that projecting their own subjective experience of their own mind onto everyone else doesn’t get the job done, the better.


A Theism of Transcendence

I’m not really a theist in a sense most people would recognise. I think the universe’s existence and origin is well explained by natural science. I think human moral reasoning has the potential to be morally better than the dictates of any religion, and so on.

A conversation with a friend got onto these topics, and he made the point that a God can be dispensed of entirely with those views. Probably true, but my reply was as follows:

To me, God is there to be the transcendent, much more than to be a surrogate parent or president. A name for that which is beyond us… and perhaps a big part of the 21st century mallaise is that so few of us recognise that there is anything beyond us.

– me in a FB DM conversation

My friend is a pastor, and noted that this sounds like Paul Tillich, and I suspect it probably does: there’s nothing new under the sun. I haven’t read Tillich, though, this is just what I’ve arrived at for myself.

Maybe applying the name ‘God’ to this doesn’t work well: for so long it has been used as a claimed supernatural guarantor for ‘you should be like me and do what I say’. Perhaps using a different wording like ‘The Nameless’ or something works better.

But I think there’s some remaining value in the concept. Your mileage may vary.

Science Stuff

Novel Coronavirus Update

Stats and graphs are from:

The novel coronavirus statistics are still very worrying, with more than 31,000 cases now and more than 630 fatalities.

There is some reason for hope, though: have a look at the slope of each of these curves. The deaths curve seems to have gone from exponential to linear, and the slope of the infections curve has actually started to decrease.
The impact will still be immense, but this pandemic is not growing in an out-of-control exponential way.

Fatality rates for those infected are estimated (on a fairly small sample size) at about 2%, and as with most other flus, those already frail – old people, children, ill people – are over-represented in the fatalities. That rate may also fall as more medical resources are deployed more effectively.

Comparisons between the fatalities from this novel virus versus the ‘normal’ seasonal flu don’t work very well, because the infected populations and even exposed populations are vastly different at this point.


How Firm a Climate Foundation? – Taking One For The Team

Dr Paul Giem is a medical doctor who leads a discussion group at Loma Linda University in the US and publishes 90 minute videos on YouTube. Many of his presentations are about creationism, but he did one about climate change recently (late November 2019). It’s being posted around Seventh-day Adventist circles as though it were evidence, although I note that at the time of writing it has had only 155 views.

I decided to ‘take one for the team’ by watching it and fact-checking it. I tend to avoid 90-minute YouTube videos as a medium almost entirely.

Anyway, here’s the video:

I’m not really a fan of a picky, point-by-point approach, but it does worry me when the first graph used stops in 2010: prior to another decade of warming.

Doesn’t notice that one graph is in C and another in F and makes much of the ‘exaggeration’ on the Fahrenheit graph, despite the fact that the magnitude of the increase is very similar if the same endpoints and units are used. Ascribes this to ‘data adjustment’ and uses it to impugn the accuracy of the data.

Claims there was a ‘pause’ after the 1998 El Nino despite a clear rising trend in the averaged data.

First citation was to Roy Spencer, climate denier (although there is a discussion of Spencer’s own claims not to be…), second is to WattsUpWithThat climate denial blog, third is to Joanne Nova… He began by talking about going to the science and evidence, but the wells he’s choosing are all poisoned.

LOL – a piece from John McLean’s doctoral thesis at James Cook University is cited damning the HadCRUT data for a number of sins including… confusing Fahrenheit and Celsius! I went for a look, by the way: John McLean’s doctorate was supervised by… climate denier Professor Peter Ridd. The thesis (freely available on the JCU site) is a bitty mess, but it basically expresses astonishment that there are errors and issues in a massive data set. Lots of exclamation marks for a thesis. Bro, do you even data?

Twenty minutes in, and only the coffee is keeping me going.

At 22 minutes there is a graph, showing a strong Medieval Warm Period, supposedly from the first IPCC report, but the y-axis isn’t even labelled. Pretty sure it’s a fabrication, happy to be corrected. Nah, apparently real (when I fact-checked myself), but as part of a larger set of graphs showing variation on longer and shorter timescales. Not much ends up being made of it in this presentation.

Key point to make is that the Medieval Warm Period was most probably a local phenomenon in the North Atlantic, probably related to changes to ocean circulation currents, not a net warmer period for the whole globe. This is crucial in showing why the argument ‘the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than now’ is false, when the topic is global warming.

“But [their] emails!” gets a run as well, with ‘Mike’s nature trick’ making an appearance. Dammit, I forgot to make a ‘Denial Bingo’ card! How many of the traditional touchstones will be touched?

At 33 minutes Soon’s work on solar irradiance variation and Arctic air temperatures is considered. The fact that it’s Arctic-only, not global, work is not noted, and the CO2 trend line which maps the data well is discounted.

The other key point, of course, is that we don’t control the sun, and we do control greenhouse gas emissions. If the sun were causing some of the observed warming, that would be more reason to work harder at what we can control, not less.

At 35: “is global warming harmful?” With the Australian summer we’re in the middle of, this is just insulting. ( – not exactly one of my go-to sources for peer-reviewed science…)

Ooof – proposed geo-engineering. Sulphur dioxide for a lovely yellow sky? Solutions to us putting too much $&# in the air is to intentionally put even more $&# in the air? Yeah nah.

Not at the halfway point yet, but we’re apparently finished with the science and getting into the politics. Oh wait, there’s a graph from WattsUpWithThat claiming that the US has reduced its emissions by 30%. Nope: one sector only.

40 minutes, first mention of the Pope. Oof: “we breathe out carbon dioxide, so kill people to reduce emissions” (slight paraphrase).

46 minutes and we have Al Gore and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Allow me to repeat my regular mantra: “Al Gore is not climate change and climate change is not Al Gore. Al Gore could be a saint or a serial killer and it wouldn’t move the thermometer a millionth of a degree. Go to the data.” In this case, Gore’s comments are straight up lied about.

“Global cooling in the 1970s” – notes that it’s nonsense, but decides he was there and it was a real thing. Literal quote “You can’t get much more authoritative for that period in the literature than Walter Cronkite”. A reputable newsreader, no doubt, but not a scientist and not in the (scientific) literature. Cronkite reported some work by Herbert Lamb. Have a quick look at the Wikipedia article for a decent factual rundown on this claim:

‘Nother screenful of denialist blog pages.

Attempted critique of the Oreskes work finding that 97% of science papers which expressed a view on the causes of warming stated that human activities are a significant contributor, but it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the methodology. This is a robust finding, and newer studies have found much the same, or an even higher proportion. Among active, working climate scientists, this is not at all a controversial view.

Enforced Sunday worship gets another mention at the end, but no evidence that anyone is contemplating that was adduced anywhere in the presentation.

The presentation went for the first hour, and the remaining 30 minutes is for questions and comments. I never listen to talkback, so this bit requires even more coffee.

First question, paraphrased: “Peer reviewed journals will not even allow some papers to be published”. Um, yeah, that’s what peer review does! It is a check for quality, and makes sure that the evidence adduced and the methods used actually lead to the conclusions presented. If a paper fails peer review it is overwhelmingly because it is a bad paper, not because of bias. I mean, like any human system, peer review is subject to random errors, but there is not a systematic error where valid evidence for one ‘side’ of an issue is suppressed. That’s just conspiracy theory thinking, founded in a failure to understand how peer review actually works.

Giem’s response “we have proof that there was interference”… wanders to slide show, scans around but doesn’t find it.

LOL: 1:02 “just be aware that if you use it (the graph showing solar irradiance) you’re going to be piled on by people with other graphs that aren’t as good” – i.e., graphs that don’t show the desired answer, just the accurate answer! And this dude had the cojones to allude to ‘cheery-picking’ within the last couple of minutes!

The question, I think, is about the arctic data, vs the global data. Unsurprising for a number of reasons. The lower graph on the same slide shows a significant CO2 correlation as well.

In the end, much of the discussion is mutual agreement. No-one really challenges the claims made.

Pretty ignorant point about 1-year running averages versus longer-period running averages…

Question about longer-term climate variation, beyond the span of human civilisation. Giem hasn’t gone to long ice-core scales and so on because he’s a creationist and doesn’t accept that the planet has been around that long. Does bust out the ‘warming leads CO2‘ claim, though.

Explicit question on how AGW is ‘packaged and sold’ and how evolution is. Roy Spencer gets a shout-out in the response.

LOL – question arises about a claim from Soon that, despite increases in atmospheric CO2 the greenhouse effect has remained flat. Giem pauses for a moment and then says “Well, I think Soon sometimes overstates his data a little bit”. OK, so you already knew that when you cited Soon as an authority earlier in this presentation, right?

1:18, audience question “All the data are based on computer models…” Yeah nah. Most of the data are based on measurements. The models model multiple scenarios, and in general have under-estimated the level and rate of change. Giem doesn’t really address the question, and goes to personal (local) experience rather than to either data or modeling. When the questioner insists, Giem claims that the models over-estimated change. Simply not the case.

Question from an audience member about a graph no-one else present has seen. Question from an audience member about sea level rise. Giem ends up acknowledging that it’s happening, though he focuses on ice melt and ignores ocean thermal expansion. Does a decent job on the distinction between sea ice and land ice. Claims polar bear populations are increasing. A quick fact check shows that this is a common denialist meme, but also not supported by the best available evidence.

Question about ‘the Pope getting scientists together next May’. Anyone know anything about this?

In the end, of course, people will choose their sources and their biases, and if you want someone who you consider to be authoritative to bolster your existing view, this presentation might be for you. But Dr Giem says right at the start that you have to go to the peer reviewed evidence, then goes to un-peer reviewed denialist blogs and web sites for the great majority of everything he cites in the entire presentation.

Along the way he actually does acknowledge that the globe is warming and that human activities are significant contributors. Why, then, spend so much time trying to impugn the data that establish those two scientific findings?

There are legitimate debates about the best mix of approaches to reducing emissions and mitigating climate change, but this presentation doesn’t really get into that in a genuine way, instead heading off into conspiracy theories about socialists and Sunday Laws.

If you’re seeking a firm foundation in understanding what’s happening with Earth’s climate and what we should do about it, I’d advise looking elsewhere.


How Greenhouse Gases Work

I’ve wanted to make this video for a while: hope you find it interesting and useful.

I did make one mistake: water definitely has more options than just ‘waggling its legs’. 😉 The hydrogens can move toward and away from the oxygen, in or out of sync.


5.3 km = 51:48

So I had the bright idea of going for an early morning run on the beach this morning. Thought it would be lovely, and in some ways it was, but without daylight saving, even though I was up and out at 5:30 the sun was well and truly up.

Not sure whether the photo fully conveys it, but the sea was rough and the sky was hazy because there was a howling southerly gale.

That meant that running south down the beach meant running straight into the teeth of it (and then it’s less help than one might assume and hope on the way back). Also, the tide was coming in, not going out, so rather than the firm plane of sand I’d expected to be running on, it was near-quicksand.

It’s a dog beach we come to often, and we tend to think that it’s 2 km from the sand dredging jetty in the photo to the point that marks the end of the dog beach, and therefore our round trip is 4 km. My plan was to add an extra 700 m or so south at the end to make it just over 5.3 round trip. Pushed, fought, struggled – glasses gradually being obscured by salt spray – to the marker, only to discover it’s 1.5 km, not 2.0.

At this point, with the deep sand, my right achilles was on the verge of protected industrial action, so I decided to turn around, finish the beach section, and then finish the distance around the park. It did get a bit easier on the way north, but the sand was still treacherous.

More dogs than usual said “Hi”. Maybe the sweat smells good to them, maybe it was because I was alone and am usually in a group… or maybe they were just checking in whether I was in need of assistance!

The first two runs I’d forgotten to wear the Apple Watch with its built-in heart rate counter (a gift from a very kind friend), which was not clever, but this time I brought it. I think it confirmed that I’d been doing pretty much the right thing. I’d run for a bit, until I felt kind of wrecked, then slow to a fast walk for a bit, and alternate.

I found that, when I chose to stop running, my heart rate was usually at about 161-162 bpm. Since the danger zone is considered to be roughly 220 minus your age, that intuition was serving me pretty well in keeping me at a place where I was pushing the boundaries but not to the point of risk or harm.

After running on the beach in those conditions, I have to admit I paused the Strava for a moment to put shoes on (I’m no triathlete) and then run-walking in the park felt like… a run-walk in the park.

On the beach I’d been thinking the time would be over an hour with the tough going, but in the end it was less than 5 minutes longer than my first run, less than a week ago. Slight increase in fitness? A few more steps run to hit the target zone? Who knows: stay tuned for Marathon in a Month 4/8!


Quantum Supremacy and the Threat of AI Supremacy

OK, it’s not the zingiest title in the Hogwarts world… 😉

Google recently claimed (a claim disputed by others, including IBM) to have achieved ‘quantum supremacy’. This is a term, popularised by John Preskill, for the ability of a quantum computer to solve a computing problem that would be impossible for a conventional computer within its lifetime.

Google claimed that their ‘Sycamore’ quantum computer, with 54 ‘qubits’ (quantum bits) solved a problem in 3 minutes 20 seconds that would take a conventional computer 10,000 years.

The details are contested, but a working quantum computer (IBM also has one, which for some reason has 53 qubits) is a huge step forward.

Conventional computers use bits that can take values represented by 0 or 1. Like Schrodinger’s Cat, though, a qubit doesn’t have to choose until it’s ‘observed’. It allows quantum computers to ‘explore a problem space’ more efficiently. (This is a very lay explanation of quantum computing in a paragraph that has everyone who actually knows anything about it cringing!)

Dr Stuart Russell has recently published a book called ‘Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control’. The book is well worth reading, but the Probably Science podcast interviewed him a week or so ago, and that’s how I learned about the book and his arguments.

I tend to be an optimist in these kinds of issues, but Dr Russell poses a simple but hard question: “So, you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to create entities much smarter than you. How do you plan to keep control of the world once you succeed?

He has some great examples of the unintended consequences of even the dumb AI we currently have – helping corporations make profits while making society worse – but the extra ‘horsepower’ offered by quantum computing just makes his key question a lot more urgent.


Three Grounds

I’m not vegetarian, although I’m increasingly moving in that direction, trying to taper off the flesh and add more plants.

Both my daughters, Cassie and Alexandra, and their respective partners, Crank and Peter, are vegetarian, but all of us have our different reasons, and that’s what this post is about.

For Cassie and Crank, it’s primarily about the environmental impact of meat production: the rainforests cut down for beef grazing land, the methane produced by sheep and cattle, the runoff from piggeries and so on.

For Alexandra and Peter, it’s mostly about animal welfare: they love animals and don’t want to see them mistreated during production and killed for their flesh.

For me, some of those reasons also resonate strongly, but it’s also about health: about managing my weight and cholesterol and blood pressure.

On the one hand, all those are great reasons. On the other, the kinds of people who try to argue with vegetarians often miss the mark by arguing against a ground which is not the primary one for the person they’re arguing with.

Application of this concept to a wide range of other arguments in society is left as an exercise for the reader…


The Universe Pushes Back

I guess this is a response to the claim I sometimes read that “We choose our beliefs”. I think there’s some truth in that, but would supplement it: “We choose our beliefs… but the universe pushes back”.

What do I mean by that? Perhaps an analogy that I owe to Ernst von Glasersfeld will be helpful. He describes our experience of the universe as like being blind-folded in a pitch black forest and having to find our way out. We can’t see a thing, and some paths are blocked by tree trunks, deadfalls, cliffs, rivers and so on. We can feel a way out by touch, but it’s not the only possible way: there are others, perhaps many others. Some of them will be shorter and better than the one we found, so it’s worthwhile to keep exploring.

He suggests that we don’t have direct access to the universe itself to observe and measure it. Our access is always mediated by our assumptions and by the limitations of our senses. He’s an ‘instrumentalist’, in philosophical terms: our theories are not the truth about reality, they’re just useful for our purposes.

So a concept like the ‘quark’, which we can’t see directly but must infer from experiments, is not seen as ‘real’, but as a concept that is helpful for explaining the behaviour of subatomic particles. But something we can see, like light – the thing we use to see – is also understood as a concept, rather than reality itself.

Some people – who usually have some form of motivated reasoning going on, either in terms of selling something or persuading others to an ideology – tend to take that and say “No-one has direct access to reality, so anyone’s beliefs are as good as anyone else’s, and no-one can be told they’re wrong”. Doesn’t matter whether it’s anti-vax, climate change denial or recent creationism, these philosophical ideas tend to be abused to suggest there is no meaningful difference between different knowledge claims.

This is where the notion that “the universe pushes back” becomes important. Because it does. No matter what your beliefs, if you step off a tall building, you will plummet toward the ground. No belief system will change that. If you don’t get your kids vaccinated, and they’re exposed to the disease, they (very likely – it’s more probabilistic than gravity) will get the disease. If you pump vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere while cutting down forests, the global climate will warm.

When finding our way out of that forest, it’s pretty easy to slam into a tree really hard.

We can certainly have an argument about realism vs instrumentalism. I kinda doubt we’ll solve it, since philosophers have been debating it for decades. But either way, really: the universe pushes back.


I Am Large

Never fear, not another weight-loss post (which my Facebook friends have seen from me ad nauseum)! My title is drawn from a line I love:

Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Walt Whitman

People on Facebook and Twitter have mentioned occasionally (and, I suspect, thought more than occasionally) that I’m difficult to pin down. It’s not entirely clear what I believe on a whole range of issues.

Sometimes that is ‘read’ as being dishonest or strategic. I don’t think it is: if someone wishes to ask a straight question about what I believe, I’m always willing to give a straight answer. That answer itself might be ‘it’s complicated’… and might then spin out into something like a blog post. That’s because I’m very comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, so what I really think about something is often not easy to communicate in a sentence.

I guess the other thing is that I’m happy to talk to other people in their own register, not in mine. I recently wrote a piece, which will be published in Adventist Today in a month or so, about climate change. I clearly outlined the science, but also made the point that it is the most vulnerable people on Earth who will be most harmed. I quoted the book of Revelation, which says that at the Second Coming Christ will return to ‘destroy those who destroy the Earth’, and I quoted Matthew 25 where Jesus talks about what his followers have done for ‘the least of these’.

For myself, I don’t necessarily believe that there will be a Second Coming. It seems wildly improbable to me. But I’m not being dishonest, I don’t think, in speaking to Christians in the language of their own wisdom literature, to motivate them to act in a way that is simply humane and human. To clarify for them that, despite the ‘prosperity gospel’ and all the deeply evil shit some of their ‘leaders’ espouse, if you actually look at what Jesus (is reported to have) said in the Bible, it’s generally a decent guide to life.

One of my atheist friends immediately commented one of the less lovely things Jesus (is reported to have) said, about creating division between families, and used that to dismiss everything Jesus (is reported to have) said. I see that approach pretty often, but I don’t necessarily see it as a way of having a connected human conversation with people.

I try to apply the same approach to other belief systems, unless and until they’re harmful. Taking the vitamin and herbal supplements your naturopath prescribes is, to me, a silly way of creating very expensive urine (because with a balanced diet, most supplements go straight through us), but I’m happy to leave you to it… until s/he prescribes bicarb soda instead of chemo for your cancer (because s/he believes it’s fungal) and significantly shortens your life.

So yes, I’ll engage with Christians on their own terms – until they’re opposing same-sex marriage in Australia or working toward the death penalty for gay people in Uganda: then I’ll resist them as hard as I can.

I guess there’s the danger of seeming condescending with this approach: “Oh well, I have this ascended understanding, so I can talk to all these deluded people in their own language to try to enlighten them.”

I don’t think it’s that, though. I think it’s an attempt to make a genuinely human connection ‘across the aisle’ with everyone. To hold no person in contempt… but to support and advocate for ideas that lead to human flourishing, and challenge ideas that do harm.

So, if you’re confused by who I am and what I stand for (a) I hope this little chat has been helpful and (b) so am I, a lot of the time and (c) ask!


A Range of Possibilities

Returning to the creationism well one more time, and then I really will leave it alone and talk about something else for a while!

Human groups around the world have a wide range of different creation and origin stories for Earth and life. For the purposes of this, I’ll only talk about Christian creation stories. But I do encourage you to read widely and get a sense of the range. There’s an interesting list here:

Basically, the two (slightly different) creation stories in the first and chapters of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, have been interpreted in a range of ways. And each interpreter will loudly and repeatedly tell you that their particular interpretation is the simple, clear, plain and literal reading of the text, and all other interpretations are heretical or worse.

If we consider ‘young’ to mean something like ‘less than 20,000 years old’ and ‘old’ to mean something like ‘more than 10 million years old’ (because almost no-one believes that any of the things we’re about to talk about happened in the space between those periods. No-one things Earth is middle-aged, apparently. It’s a bimodal distribution.

So there is a range of possible views, within that scheme:

  1. Universe, Earth and life is young
  2. Universe is old, Earth and life is young
  3. Universe and Earth are old, life is young
  4. Universe, Earth and life is old

The interesting thing is that of these, only 4 does not require any kind of supernatural intervention – but 4 is still completely consistent with the possibility of supernatural intervention. That is to say, only 4 allows sufficient time for natural processes to create everything we see around us.

When I say ‘Earth’ above, it’s probably worth noting that that might mean ‘Earth and our Solar System’. The relevant texts in Genesis 1 talk about the creation of the Sun and Moon:

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

This occurs after the creation of plants, and some folks like to make a ‘gotcha’ of that, but I don’t have a lot of appetite for that kind of frame-shift argument.

A lot tends to hinge, in arguments between proponents of the various positions in the numbered list (1-4) above, on the few words I’ve bolded above in Verse 16: “he made the stars also”. If their positioning with the creation of the sun and moon means they were created at the same time, the universe must be young, and only position 1 is tenable. Many interpret it as a parenthetical comment that allows the possibility that God made the stars, but some considerable time earlier.

To some extent these are accommodations between science and religion, but they are also readings of an ancient text through modern eyes. Terry Pratchett captured it nicely “the stars began to come out, like pinholes in the curtain of night. Or like enormous exploding balls of gas, as some people would say. But some people will say anything.”

The distinction between Earth, solar system, galaxy and universe is not something that would have been a commonplace for people almost 3000 years ago: they’re not even necessary commonplaces for many people now.

I believe that conflict between science and religion is not inevitable, but that conflict between science and certain simplistic readings of religious texts is much more common. Once a religion has become organised, there is systematic pressure to preserve particular interpretations.

I do always find it interesting to observe the passionate arguments between people who believe very strongly that a particular text is sacred and infallible, but read it very slightly differently.


Science and Authority

Every couple of months this year I’ve written a short piece on the relationship between science and religious faith for a site called ‘Adventist Today’. (Searching my name in the search bar in the page will easily bring up all of the pieces published so far.)

The most recent has just appeared, so I thought I’d share it here, since it addresses similar concerns to some of of the recent posts here. I don’t think I’ve repeated myself too much…

Hope you find it interesting and useful. There’s a link at the bottom to the Adventist Today Facebook page where discussion usually ensues. (If your background is not Seventh-day Adventist some of the discussion may require a little interpretation…)


Climate Change

A short and simple explanation


Complexity – irreducible and otherwise

This is the final post in this short series. It is the 12th, and a dozen seems like a reasonable tally. The sequence, as a set, is meant to allow someone who encounters a particular claim or meme to quickly access a clear, accurate response, written for a smart non-specialist. It’s by no means sufficient in terms of evidence, but hopefully it frames up the issues in a way that is helpful when someone goes looking for further evidence.

While I’m talking in this ‘meta’ way, can I encourage everyone, including myself, to always seek ‘disconfirming evidence’ and ‘discrepant cases’? Confirmation bias is real, and oh so tempting: to seek the evidence that confirms us in our existing views, and discount any that challenges them. The only approach that works, though, for anyone who values a life founded in truth, is to be always looking for the evidence that makes us change our minds.

This final topic is related to the earlier one on probability, but the focus is slightly different.

Complexity science is a fascinating and genuine area of study… but also one that is susceptible to being used as a ‘handwave’ in ways that are not scientific. Much like Deepak Chopra and his self-help ilk talk about ‘quantum indeterminacy’ to support their woo, “It appears complex therefore science supports the explanation I support” is not really an argument.

There are a number of different ways to think about complexity, and no definition is particularly universal. There isn’t a real convention. After having spent a fair bit of time reading, the following is just my best understanding, which reflects a number of influential perspectives in the field, but remains controversial.

In brief, the distinction – and it’s a philosophical one – is between things that are complicated and things that are complex. Lots of things are complicated: the internet, as a network of wires and a web of communications protocols, is complicated. Cells are complicated. Economics is complicated. In this definition, though, things that are complicated are able to be reductively analysed by breaking them down into simpler bits. While the complication is insane, it’s possible to understand each of the cables in a server farmer and what it does… and many server farms build a network. It’s possible to look at a data packet and know whether it’s organised with the ftp or http protocol.

Complex systems, on the other hand, exhibit emergent behaviours that are not able to be explained in terms of reduction to simpler components. We could argue that human brains are complex in this sense, for example: self-consciousness is not easy to explain in terms of neurons and neurotransmitters and potentials and neuroplasticity.

The question of whether a particular system is complicated or complex in this sense is not simple to determine in any final sense. It may just be that we haven’t yet thrown sufficient computational resources or smart enough algorithms at our reductive analysis. If resources short of infinity could analyse a system, it can be argued that it is merely complicated, not complex… and the case needs to remain open for a lot of things.

That approach is different from the concept of ‘irreducible complexity’ that tends to be used by the Intelligent Design advocates. They tend to launch from comments such as the ones Darwin himself made in ‘Origin’, about how difficult it is to imagine a process by which the eye could evolve. Darwin does not despair of it, however, and plausible sequences have been outlined. Eyes tend not to fossilise, so hard evidence is challenging to find, but there are numerous kinds of different eyes, and it appears as though eyes may have evolved multiple different times independently.

The key issue in their approach is assuming that an eye is ‘irreducibly complex’ – that unless there is an eye in pretty much its current form, with eyelids, muscles to turn it, a lens, an iris, a retina and optic nerves, rods and cones for black-and-white and colour vision, it is not an eye at all, and conveys no survival advantage. But much simpler eyes exist, right down to simple light-sensitive spots, and convey survival advantages significant enough to lead to selection. The notion of irreducible complexity is built on the misconception that complex systems must spring into existence in pretty much their current form from essentially nothing. But refuting something evolution does not predict does not refute evolution.

They have moved on from the eye, and things like the flagella that bacteria use to propel themselves, to DNA and the processes of cell division and replication – the most fundamental processes of life itself.

They are right to say that these processes are complex in a way Darwin couldn’t have known or imagined 150 years ago, and indeed, we have learned much more in just the past few decades. It’s quite amazing that our DNA has multiple independent self-repair mechanisms: when things go wrong they are often corrected, or the process aborted. Cancer would be far more common if these processes were not in place. They’re nothing we can yet reliably build in to our code, let alone to our material machines.

While fully accepting the complexity of the cell – which is wondrous – the argument that it could not have evolved, because it needs to exist in pretty much its current form to work at all, recapitulates many of the arguments about the eye and the flagellum, and is wrong for the same reasons.

There are plausible, but still quite early, proposals for simpler RNA-only replicating sequences that may have pre-dated, and evolved to form, the current very complex systems.

Life is, indeed, complex. Whether irreducibly so is a philosophical question. But arguments from that complexity for a divine Creator – by fiat ex nihilo or by tinkering at the edges – are not strong arguments.

For ease of navigation I will include links to each of the other posts in this series at the bottom of each post.

Why I think it’s important to understand evolution
Cosmogenesis, abiogenesis and evolution
Evolution and entropy
Facts, Theories and Laws
Radiocarbon dating
Radiometric dating and deep time
Four Forces of the Universe
Probability and evolution
Species and ‘baramin’, macro- and micro-evolution
Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam
Transitional fossils


Transitional fossils

In a way, this is more of a philosophical post than a paleontological one. From slightly different perspectives, either there are many ‘transitional fossils’, or there is no such thing. And both those views are consistent with the fossil record!

I’ve certainly said “There’s no such thing as a transitional fossil” before. What did I mean by that? Well, no species of living thing is ever ‘on the way’ to a different species, ‘in transition’ from one thing to another. Each living thing – and each population of living things, which is the unit evolution works on – is simply living. Simply being as well adapted to its particular ecological niche as it can possibly be, in order to live, move, breed and pass on its genes.

So a fossil of a living thing is, in a very real sense, not ‘between’ two other species. It is simply itself.

At the same time, in retrospect, we can reconstruct the ‘tree of life’ – the sequence from simpler to more complex organisms over time. (It’s worth noting that, more recently, this reconstruction is a dynamic process that includes DNA evidence as well as the fossil record.) That sequence is not linear: it is branching, and has many, many dead ends. The fact that there are more complex organisms doesn’t mean the simpler ones go away: bacteria, viruses and archaea are still with us today.

So, in the sense that we can reconstruct the sequence, in a sense any fossil that is not the fossil of a present-day species can be thought of as a transitional fossil, since that species had both ancestor species and successor species.

What is usually thought of as a transitional fossil, of course, is something that has obvious features of both its ancestors and its successors. Archaeopteryx, for example, is a bird-like dinosaur with teeth and feathers. It seems likely now that it was more of a dead-end than a transitional species, but it is the kind of thing we think of. (It is also believed now that many more dinosaurs had feathers than first thought: they’re just less easily fossilised than bones.)

There are fossils of limbed species that we believe are ancestors of modern whales, and modern whales have vestigial hips that suggested their ancestors had limbs. We could even argue that whales are ‘transitional’ to future ocean-going species in which those vestiges have completely disappeared.

As usual with these little posts of mine, checking out the Wikipedia page on ‘transitional fossils’ will add a lot more detail and a lot of examples, and googling the term will… well, frankly, lead you to a lot of examples but also a lot of ill-informed claims that such things have never been observed.

For ease of navigation I will include links to each of the other posts in this series at the bottom of each post.

Why I think it’s important to understand evolution
Cosmogenesis, abiogenesis and evolution
Evolution and entropy
Facts, Theories and Laws
Radiocarbon dating
Radiometric dating and deep time
Four Forces of the Universe
Probability and evolution
Species and ‘baramin’, macro- and micro-evolution
Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam
Complexity – irreducible and otherwise


Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam

Recent discoveries in genetics have led to the publication of some interesting work that has suggested that all currently living human beings can be traced back to a single human female on the order of 120,000 to 150,000 years ago. In the 1980s this individual was dubbed ‘Mitochondrial Eve’. Similarly, all modern humans can have their ancestry traced back to a common male ancestor, dubbed ‘Y-chromosomal Adam’, who lived a similar time span, or perhaps 20-30,000 years longer, ago.

While this is not 6,000 years, or even the fewer-than-20,000 often accepted by creationists, misconceptions about these concepts led to considerable excitement in creationist circles. Many assumed that these two individuals were married to each other, and were the single married couple of humans from whom all modern human beings descended.

It mightn’t be 6,000, but it wasn’t millions, and with their related misconceptions about dating, the dates could be set aside. The key was the ability to link it to the Genesis story of a First Couple, and to claim that humans have not evolved, but have always and only descended from humans.

These are misconceptions, though, and the purpose of this post is to very briefly explain why. Obviously it’s a short and simple explanation: there are more detailed ones out there, and the Wikipedia explanations of both are good and detailed.

First, in both cases, saying that all of us can trace our lineage back to an individual does not mean that that individual was the only person alive at that time!

We all have a vast number of ancestors. There’s a conundrum here. I have two parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents and so on. It’s a sequence going up in powers of 2: I’m 20, my parents 21, grandparents 22, great-grandparents 23 and so on.

If we assume a human generation is about 20 years, that’s 5 generations a century, 50 a millennium. Perhaps 50 x 150 = 7,500 in 150,000 years. But the thing is, 27500 is 5.3 x 102257. There are only about 7.5 x 109 people on Earth right now, and that’s the most there’ve ever been: certainly not that other outlandish number.

The solution is that some of our ancestors were the same people. Quite a lot of them, as it happens. That is, given slightly older and younger child-bearing and other things, my 6-greats-grandfather on my father’s side might also be my 7-greats-grandfather on my mother’s side… or even take on more roles across generations.

And, of course, we don’t simply multiply the number of my ancestors by the number of people in the world to find out how many ancestors there were in the world, because some of my ancestors are also the ancestors of other people. Most trivially, my parents are also the parents of my siblings. My dad in particular is from large families going back generations, so some of my great-grandparents are ancestors of an enormous number of people, not just of me.

Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam are simply the two individuals – probably living in Africa, but almost certainly not close together, in either space or time – who in each case are the most recent ancestor shared by all modern living humans when traced back using particular genetic techniques. And they are probably not unique.There may be multiple people fulfilling that criterion, although conceptually only one individual can be the most recent.

It’s also important to note that, in both cases, these are theoretical concepts, not actual individual people with names and addresses who have been identified.

So, to take ‘Eve’ first, mitochondria are the little ‘energy factories’ in our cells. They have different DNA in them than the DNA in the remainder of our cells. (They may well have arisen as bacteria that were symbiotic with other cells and then were incorporated, but that’s a whole separate fascinating story.)

Mitochondrial DNA is matrilineal (passed down via our mothers), and we can look at shared characteristics and their changes over time to calculate a ‘clock’ back in time until we have a common female ancestor. This is what is meant by the time back to the ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ theoretical concept.

Being able to make this calculation is an important and very interesting development in our understanding of genetics, but it does not mean that there was only a single human woman, 120,000 to 150,000 years ago, who was mother to us all.

The story for ‘Adam’ is very similar, but Y chromosomes tend to be passed down patrilinearly, from fathers to sons. The tracking back is essentially by a similar process of genetic reconstruction.

Exciting, very interesting science… but, when properly understood, no particular comfort to those who want all human beings to have descended from a single divinely created couple in Eden.

For ease of navigation I will include links to each of the other posts in this series at the bottom of each post.

Why I think it’s important to understand evolution
Cosmogenesis, abiogenesis and evolution
Evolution and entropy
Facts, Theories and Laws
Radiocarbon dating
Radiometric dating and deep time
Four Forces of the Universe
Probability and evolution
Species and ‘baramin’, macro- and micro-evolution
Transitional fossils
Complexity – irreducible and otherwise


2019 Nobel Prize in Physics

Something a little different today. I thought I’d share a video, rather than a block of text. Depending on your interest level, there’s a sub-2 minute version and a roughly 13 minute version. If you watch the latter, you’ll see that one of the affordances of video over text is the ability to do hand-waves!

This doesn’t really fit within the current sequence on addressing objections to evolution… except that perhaps it kinda does…

If your interest level or tolerance for my waffling is a bit higher…

Thanks to Griffith University for use of the video suite: I’m sure science communication is part of my job, right?


Species and ‘baramin’, macro- and micro-evolution

In the face of the claim that all forms of life were recently divinely created in something much like their current form, there is abundant evidence of new species forming right now, all around us.

The definition of the term ‘species’ is a relatively complex, and somewhat contested, matter in biology. A quick rule of thumb is that members of different species can’t reproduce sexually with one another in a sustainable way. It’s probably not a full and accurate definition, but it works for most cases.

That last distinction, about sustainability, addresses situations like mules: the offspring of a horse and a donkey, which are different species, is bred by humans for our purposes but is itself barren and unable to reproduce. If humans stopped breeding mules, they’d die out in a generation (I guess aside from random liaisons between wild horses and donkeys).

We see new species of plants, birds, insects, fish, amphibians and other species with relatively short lifespans arise regularly: I won’t link here, but just google ‘observed speciation’ for plenty of examples.

(If I were a real biologist I’d spend more time on all the layers of kingdoms and genera and phyla and families and such, but I’m not, so I won’t: there are very good Wikipedia guides if you’re interested.)

The common creationist response is the one that was parodied with ‘crocoduck’ memes: “We have never seen a fish turn into a cat: the new species you talk about look exactly like the thing they evolved from”. This is related to the claim that there are no ‘intermediate species’ in the fossil record: what they are looking for is something that is very obviously partly one recognisable modern species and partly another.

When faced with evidence of the ways in which species adapt to their environment – including things like the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – the creationist response is often “Well yes, God designed in adaptability to help life survive, but that’s only micro-evolution within species. Macro-evolution that creates new species (that are visibly and noticeably different) doesn’t and can’t happen.”

One of the quasi-scriptural notions used to support this distinction between micro- and macro-evolution is ‘baramin’. It’s not a real Hebrew word, it’s a recently-coined (well, 1941) term that (ungrammatically) combines the Hebrew words ‘bara’ (created) and ‘min’ (kind).

The scriptural creation account includes these phrases:

Genesis 1: 11-12, 20-21, 24-25 (King James version)

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

The phrase ‘according to their kinds’ is interpreted to mean something roughly analogous to the notion of ‘visibly different organisms’. It doesn’t really translate neatly to any level of the biological taxonomy.

In biology, there is essentially no mechanism that would prevent successive small changes in a population accumulating to produce larger changes: for many micro-evolutions to add up to macro-evolutions. This requires many generations: more generations than occur within a human lifespan, even for small organisms with short lifespans.

That’s why evolutionary theory does not predict that we would see large visible changes from one kind of living being into another on the scale of human lives, and we don’t. The fact that we don’t does not refute evolutionary theory, because it is not a prediction that evolutionary theory makes.

The concept of transitional fossils is related, but it probably deserves its own post.

For ease of navigation I will include links to each of the other posts in this series at the bottom of each post.

Why I think it’s important to understand evolution
Cosmogenesis, abiogenesis and evolution
Evolution and entropy
Facts, Theories and Laws
Radiocarbon dating
Radiometric dating and deep time
Four Forces of the Universe
Probability and evolution
Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam
Transitional fossils
Complexity – irreducible and otherwise