Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Irrational fear 2: Nuclear power

Last time I wrote about pesticides and how we are worried to death about 0.01% of the pesticides that we ingest (the synthetic ones) instead of the 99% which seem to be as bad if not worse. Another area which I think is often associated with irrational fear is nuclear power. The word "nuclear" seems to elicit a knee-jerk kind of reaction in many people. Take for instance Nuclear Magnetic Resonance imaging (NMR for short), a very powerful and quite safe diagnostic method. People were very reluctant to use this method, seemingly only because it had "Nuclear" in the name. In part because of this fear they have now changed the name to Magnetic Resonace Imaging (MRI for short), and the technology has been a major boost to diagnostics as well as to research.

The following arguments are to a large extent a reflection on Richard Muller's (see picture below) paper with the title "The witch of Yucca Mountain". I can warmly recommend the article but if you want the same information in video format you can go here and forward to 47min and listen to the rest of the lecture (it is very entertaining).

It is no secret that we are facing an energy crisis. I am personally not convinced that CO2 emissions is an important contributing factor when it comes to Global warming, however, the fact of the matter is that our fossil fuels will eventually be used up and when there is none left we will need a different source of energy. Fission of uranium and plutonium is not an endless source of energy, however, it would provide us with energy for quite a while. Yet many countries do not want to build these Nuclear power plants, largely because of what I think is irrational fear…

Before I encountered Muller I associated nuclear power plant accidents with Chernobyl (see picture). However, Chernobyl was not a typical nuclear power plant. Its design was the worst imaginable and as Muller explains in his lecture such a design is completely prohibited today. The worst case scenario for a modern nuclear power plant is the nuclear meltdown. For a meltdown to occur, it is required that 4 different independent security systems which are inspected regularly, break down simultaneously which is not at all likely. If however, the highly unlikely worst case scenario would occur, and the radioactive material would penetrate meters of steel and concrete and go into the ground and the gases escape we would still not have anywhere near the same levels of radioactivity that were present after Chernobyl because the radioactivity leaks out into the ground instead of being blown up into the sky. I can understand that people want Nuclear Powerplants to be safe, however, there seems to be some sort of obsession here. People seem not to worry about other types of dangers. What if a chemical plant blew up? What is the worst case scenario there? Or what about the laboratories where they deal with the Ebola virus, what would happen if all their security systems broke down?

There is also a major concern about nuclear waste. The plutonium waste coming from a nuclear power plant has a half life of about 24.000 years meaning that after 96.000 years 1/16 of the radioactive waste will still remain. The question which does not yet have an answer is, where are we going to store this waste? In United States, Yucca Mountain, a place with very few earthquakes, was chosen as an ideal storage site. If the unthinkable would happen at Yucca Mountain, and all the radioactive waste would leak out, it would still be in small non-water soluble glass-pellets, so it would not mix with the ground water. Furthermore, even if Yucca Mountain was filled to its capacity limit and all the radioactive waste leaked out into the ground water and then out of the pellets in which it is cotained (this scenario has already passed into science fiction), the water would still not reach even a fraction of the radioactivity levels present in the Los Angeles drinking water! The drinking water that the citizens of Los Angeles are drinking is from the Colorado river which flows through many valleys with Granite. Granite contains some fraction of percentage of uranium which is slowly dissolved in the drinking water, thus making it radioactive. Because there is no agreement on where to store the waste today, today the radioactive material is simply sitting in a building next to the nuclear plant, not an ideal storage site.

To sum up, instead of storing the nuclear waste in the safest imaginable location where it has virtually no chance of leaking out, and even if it would leak out it would not be a major disaster, it is stored in buildings next to the power plants, which is a much less safe location, all because of the irrational fear among the public.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Irrational fear 1: Pesticides

About three months ago I wrote a post on natural foods and the highly exaggerated danger associated with pesticides. I cited research done by Bruce Ames (see picture), Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Berkeley. In this very interesting interview, Bruce Ames gives his view on organic foods. In the following excerpt from this interview Ames explains that the reason why he is against spending more resources on natural foods is not that it contains more carcinogens but rather that the production and in consequence also the products is more expensive. More expensive fruits and vegetables means less consumption which will result in more cancers:

Ames: Yes. I'm much more interested in preventing cancer. Then we have to get out to the public what's important. If you tell them about trivia all the time, they get completely confused, and it's counterproductive. I just think all this business of organic food is nonsense basically. We should be eating more fruits and vegetables, so the main way to do that is to make them cheaper. Anything that makes fruits and vegetables more expensive may increase cancer.

When I cite this information people often ask where Bruce Ames gets his money from. Is he really trustworthy? This is a fair question when you take into account the fact that the food industry is a big industry, and if organic foods would suddenly become the public choice it would certainly be rather detrimental to many companies. What many people seem to forget though is that producers of organic foods also have money waiting for them, should they manage to sway the public opinion. Unless it is suggested that organic food producers have a superior morality, immune to economic incentives, this is not a valid argument, after all the economic incentive is there for both sides. Maybe those the people who tell us that organic is the way to go do so because they would get rich if people followed their advice?

I feel quite confident that Bruce Ames is not bought by the food industry. Why? Partially, I believe Ames is a good guy because of what my intuition tells me. When I read the interview (referenced above) with this scientist he just doesn't strike me as a man who has sold his soul to the devil, quite the contrary in fact. However, the main reason why I don't think Ames is bought by the food industry is that he is also the man who first proved that many synthetic pesticides are carcinogenic. For quite a while he was a hero to all the natural food proponents.

Bruce Ames showed that indeed many man made chemicals are carcinogenic, but what reason do we have to assume that natural pesticides aren't also carcinogenic? Ames did not make this assumption and when he tested natural pesticides, which are created by the plants themselves as a protection, he found that pretty much the same proportion of natural pesticides was carcinogenic. Furthermore, Ames discovered that plants which are not treated with synthetic pesticides (i.e. natural foods) contain more potent carcinogens than plants which have been treated with pesticides. (Things can be more or less carcinogenic; for example, even though mushrooms contain 50% carcinogens they are very weak and therefore doesn't do a lot of damage whereas coffee contains much stronger carcinogens.) Read my previous post if you want to understand why. Add to this that 99.9% of the pesticides that we ingest are natural pesticides and you will understand why this post is about irrational fear.

Here we are worrying about 0.1% of the pesticides we ingest which according to the data are, if anything, less mutagenic than the other 99.9%. That is what I would call irrational fear…

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 5 – The roots of religion

Ok Richard, now you have spent four chapters arguing that religious faith is irrational and based on invalid argumentation. Say that we believe this, what is the alternative? How can it be that something as irrational and destructive as religion has been apart of every culture since the birth of humankind? Doesn't that suggest that there is something to it? What is your alternative? Why do you think religion is so widespread? These are the questions that Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, take on in the fifth chapter. Dawkins writes:

The fact that religion is ubiquitous probably means that it has worked to the benefit of something, but it may not be us or our genes. It may be to the benefit of only the religious ideas themselves, to the extent that they behave in a somewhat gene-like way, as replicators.

Allotetraploid recently posted a video in which Daniel Dennett (see picture) dealt with this issue. He used the analogy of the common cold. It too has existed in all cultures at all times, since the birth of the human race (and even before that), but we do not say that, "the common cold must be good for something" just because it is so common. You might complain that the common cold is a disease whereas religion is more like a choice, and I would think that is a valid argument if the meme theory is wrong. However, if there is something to memes, then it is definitely a valid argument.

My point here is simply that because something has been shared in a lot of different cultures and for many millennia, it doesn't follow that it is necessarily a good thing. Some people seem to think that just because astrology has been around for so long there must be something to it, but if you look at the evidence this is not case. Religion may exist just because it is beneficial to itself, just like the common cold is good for the bacteria causing the common cold. Plausible as this may be, Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion advocates a different position, namely that religion is a by-product of another mechanism which is beneficial. Dawkins writes:

Perhaps the feature we are interested in (religion in this case) doesn't have a direct survival value of its own, but is a by-product of something else that does. I find it helpful to introduce the by-product idea with an analogy from my own field of animal behaviour.

In the following paragraph Dawkins introduces the analogy of a moth which, as we all know, is extremely attracted to light. Either they fly into your light bulb a thousand times in a night, making is virtually impossible to sleep, or they come diving into your campfire like a genuine kamikaze pilot. What could possible be the point of this behavior (read here for an answer)? I was told another similar analogy by Mike Majerus in Cambridge. Apparently one of his Australian friends had a garden in which he had lit up a small path using lights imbedded in stones. At dusk, a bunch of clever frogs would appear on these paths standing next to the lights which lit up the path. Insects, because they are also (like Moths) attracted to light would fly towards light and there the waiting frogs would spurt out their tongue and capture a nice meal. Yet the frogs' intellectual capacity did have a limit. One day when the owner of this house accidentally dropped a ping pong ball on the path he saw to his surprise how one frog's tongue fired out, grabbed the ball, and swiftly drove it right down the stomach. The frog seemed happy enough and would gladly eat more ping pong balls, all of which would sooner or later come out the other end (somewhat messed up). These frogs could not distinguish between ping poll balls and insects. It is as if they have a mechanism in their head telling them "swallow anything mobile in proximity to the lights". Had it not been for us humans throwing ping pong balls around, this adaptation would have been highly successful (perhaps it is anyways)…

Is religion the equivalence of eating ping pong balls? Richard Dawkins seems to think so and I think it is also a plausible explanation. He writes:

My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths, it can go wrong.

So perhaps children who are taught by elders that God exists, that you better pray to God, and that you better go to church if you don't want to fry in hell, will accept this simply because they are told so by people who are supposed to know a lot about the world. This would explain the extremely high correlation between the religion of parents and their children, as well as the fact that virtually all religious conversions are to religions which are present in the culture in which the converter lives (there are not many people who move from say Iran to Sweden and suddenly convert to Hindu).

But wait! This only explains how religion can be passed on. How did it come about in the first place? Richard Dawkins, in order to explain this, suggests that it might have to do with our "Hyperactive agent detection device":

Justin Barrett coined the acronym HADD, for hyperactive agent detection device. We hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent. I catch myself momentarily harbouring savage resentment against some blameless inanimate such as my bicycle chain.

I don't think I risk any overstatement when I say that people blame "things" for all kinds of stuff. My mother often calls me when she needs help with her computer and she is always certain that she did indeed not do anything to mess up the system, that option is unthinkable. No, the system messed it self up, intentionally… Well, maybe that is why we have religion. Who are we to blame when it rains on our wedding day?, who are we to blame when the alarm clock stops working the day when you were going to that really important meeting?, and who are we to blame when a tsunami has swept away your entire family? Surely there must be an agent who influences these events? I think that we probably have a mechanism in us which biases us towards such explanations. Hence religion.

Ps: For some "good news" see the Guardian article "Atheists top book charts by deconstructing God"

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Equal opportunity design

Intelligent design proponents tell us that evolution lacks evidence and that the alternative, a creator God who designed all creatures as we see them today, is equally likely. Their favorite analogy is the clockmaker analogy which basically says that our intuition tells us that everything complex have a designer, therefore humans must have a designer. A little sidetrack: even though our intuition often leads us in the right direction it can sometimes be quite wrong to. Read here.

I have already dealt with the essentials of Intelligent design, and why I think that it is wrong in a previous post. Here I want to focus on a consequence of the intelligent design argument that only became apparent to me after reading an article in the latest issue of my favorite magazine "Skeptic". The article is called "Who designed that?" and is written by Tom McIver. The problem that ID proponents face is the following.

In order to avoid being deemed a religion, intelligent design cannot say that any particular God is the designer, after all there is no rational argument why it should be Yahweh or Allah rather than any other God who designed us and our planet. Now, ID proponents are eager to take their theory into the classrooms to be taught in the biology lessons as an alternative theory to the theory of evolution. In practice, what they really want (in the US at least) is to read from the Bible during biology sessions, and that is where the problem is. Since any designer God is equally unlikely, any religion could claim their time in the classroom and their chance to convert today's students. In essence, Christianity would have to be taught side by side with Islam, Gnosticism, and even the silly religion of Scientology (man I lost my respect for Tom Cruise and John Travolta when I learned that they belonged to this church). In their morning biology session students would be taught about how God created plants and then came the light (have you noticed the severe conflict with science in this?), and then later on came Adam, and from his rib came Eve. In their afternoon biology session the same student would be taught the following.

"The Gnostics taught that God was a mad scientist named Yaldabaoth who had been created by accident and built the earth as a prison for pre-existent human souls. He cloned Adam, raped Eve and kicked them both out of paradise when Christ came in the form of a serpent to liberate them" (excerpt from "Skeptic magazine" number 2, 2007, p.60).

The next fifty biology sessions would be spent going through everyone of these, all equally plausible, alternatives to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, this would be a preposterous scenario. Evolution does have loads of supporting evidence. If you don't believe me, read about an experiment here or about AIDS here. Intelligent design, on the other hand, merely bring up another problem, namely who designed the designer?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 4, Why there is almost certainly no God

I am not the only blogger who is discussing The God Delusion. If you want a view that is really different from mine you can go to the Apologetics homepage where you will find comprehensive criticism of Richard Dawkins latest book. Deepak Chopra whom I recently criticized for his abuse of quantum physics also taken the challenge of trying to break the arguments put forth in The God Delusion. Needless to say I don't think that the Apologetics or Chopra are able to break the very strong message in the God delusion, but that should be up to you readers to decide.

After having met the many arguments or proofs for God, one by one, in chapter four Richard Dawkins goes on to describe not only why we do not need a God to describe our world but also why such a God in fact is quite implausible.

He starts out by explaining why the alternative to a creator God, Charles Darwin's (see picture) Theory of Evolution, is not, as many people tend to think, the same as blind chance. It is really quite wearisome to hear people say "so you think we just popped into existence" when you say you believe in evolution, but I have already written about this issue in my blog post Evolution is NOT blind chance. Dawkins also points out that to call upon a creator in order to explain complexities which we have not yet understood does not solve nothing, all it does is to invent another complexity that needs to be explained. I would like the ID proponents to suggest an empirical test, similar to the one below, which if it succeeded would support their "theory" and if it failed would falsify it. Dawkins writes:

"Darwin himself said as much: 'If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.' Darwin could find no such case, and nor has anybody since Darwin's time, despite strenuous, indeed desperate, efforts. Many candidates for this holy grail of creationism have been proposed. None has stood up to analysis"

Another common tactic used by religious people is "The worship of gaps". Whenever there is something science cannot explain such as for instance language, certain religious people take this as proof of God's existence. After all, if science doesn't have the explanation, then it has to God right, right?

"The logic turns out to be no more convincing than this: 'I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed."

But what about the Universe and what about us humans? Why should there be a Universe? Why should we exist? Surely someone must have wanted us to exist? No not of necessity. Though I am still merely an amateur astronomer (I am trying to help that by following a lecture series by Professor Alex Filippenko available at Berkeley's webcast), I know that there are theories out there which could potentially elucidate why our Universe looks the way it does. There are also good attempts to explain how the first cells arose. These theories I admit can sound a bit far fetched an even unlikely. However, it seems that we are also relatively lonely in our Universe and so the unlikely event of a cell (see below) forming spontaneously from various organic constituents only had to happen once for us to exist. If you throw a dice billions and billions of times you are likely to at least once get say 10 sixes in a row even though the probability of this series is as low as 0.00000002.

We humans are also ill equipped to accept hard nosed scientific theories instead of explanations that invoke an agent such as God. Humans have a natural tendency to see agents everywhere. Dawkins writes:

"Maybe the psychological reason for this amazing blindness has something to do with the fact that many people have not had their consciousness raised, as biologists have, by natural selection and its power to tame improbability. J. Anderson Thomson, from his perspective as an evolutionary psychiatrist, points me to an additional reason, the psychological bias that we all have towards personifying inanimate objects as agents. As Thomson says, we are more inclined to mistake a shadow for a burglar than a burglar for a shadow. A false positive might be a waste of time. A false negative could be fatal. In a letter to me, he suggested that, in our ancestral past, our greatest challenge in our environment came from each other. 'The legacy of that is the default assumption, often fear, of human intention. We have a great deal of difficulty seeing anything other than human causation.' We naturally generalized that to divine intention."

In summary, chapter four in The God Delusion, bring up a few quite important points. It is shown that a creator God is really an inadequate answer since it merely brings up another problem namely who created the creator, or who designed the designer? The best theory we have to explain our own existence without invoking an agent is the beautiful and simple Theory of Evolution.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 3 – Arguments for God’s existence

In the third chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins meets all the most famous arguments that theologians through time have put forth to validate their belief in God. On the first few pages Dawkins goes through Thomas Aquinas (see picture) five proofs of God. The first three are essentially the same and all says that something cannot be created from nothing, ergo God. The response here is simply that God is also something and therefore, according to the logics, cannot come from nothing so this is not really a solution. Dawkins also finds space to cite what I think was a funny little paradox that Karen Owens once posted.

Can omniscient God, who Knows the future, find The omnipotence to Change His future mind?

An omniscient God must know what will happen in the future, including what he will, himself, do. If the entire future is already spelled out, then it should be pretty hard to change your mind right? Aquinas also gave the argument from degree which is not really an argument and then he posed an argument from design which I have already dealt with in a previous post.

A little sidetrack… In the most recent number of my favorite magazine "The Skeptic", there was an article about ID in which an aspect that I have not previously thought about was brought up. Christian proponents of the ID theory in are in a sense shooting themselves in the foot. Since they have not and of course cannot name their own God as the designer God, there is an opening for all religions to claim their place in the classroom, and they have. There is nothing the Christians can do to hinder this. If they say that, no it can only be Yahweh, then ID is no longer a "scientific theory" (as if it ever was), and as long as there is just a anonymous designer it might as well be Zeus or Odin…

Next there is the argument which was put forth by St Anselm of Canterbury, which I have discussed a little bit on Z's blog. Translated into playground language it is as follows. Dawkins writes:

'Bet you I can prove God exists.'

'Bet you can't.'

'Right then, imagine the most perfect perfect perfect thing possible.'

'Okay, now what?'

'Now, is that perfect perfect perfect thing real? Does it exist?'

'No, it's only in my mind.'

'But if it was real it would be even more perfect, because a really really perfect thing would have to be better than a silly old imaginary thing. So I've proved that God exists. Nur Nurny Nur Nur. All atheists are fools.'

I will admit that I did not myself find the fallacy in this argument. I thought it sounded wrong from the beginning, but it is hard to point out the exact fallacy (Bertrand Russell thought so too). The fallacy of this argument lies in the fact that something is not "better" because it exists. Imagine your dream house. Now is that house a better house if it exists? What a meaningless question right? "Betterness" is not a dimension that can be applied to this distinction between mental and real things.

Personal experience is often used as a proof of God. This reminds me of once when I got a tape from a religious woman who was probably trying to save my soul. On the tape there was a number of interview with people who had "found God". Most of them could recall a particular episode in their life when God first spoke to them and I think there was no doubt in their mind about God's existence. Such "I spoke to God" arguments I don't find very convincing. Maybe they are making it up, maybe they are hallucinating or maybe they are just interpreting inner speech which we all have as the voice of God. It also seems strange that people from different religions always have revelations about their own God. If there was only one true God, one would that people from different cultures would experience the same God…

Perhaps more convincing are the so called miracles where many people have seen something seemingly supernatural. For example, the miracle of the sun in which the sun reportedly fell towards the earth, was observed by fifty to a hundred thousand people in Portugal and was also covered in the newspapers. It is admittedly hard to explain how such a mass delusion could possibly occur. One person may be crazy and perhaps two persons can by chance get a similar illusion simultaneously, but thousands? Just doesn't seem so likely… However, it seems even more unlikely that the rest of the world would fail to notice that the sun was heading towards earth. Furthermore, I would suppose that if the sun would suddenly start to move in an unexpected way it should have some noticeable astronomical consequences, none were observed.

Many more arguments are discussed and eventually dismissed in chapter to of the God delusion, but I will limit myself to the ones I have presented here because I fear that people will get bored. If someone feels I have excluded an argument that proves that God exists then feel free to post that argument as a comment…