Science does not require faith

It requires assumptions:

Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.

~Sean Carroll, via The A-Unicornist.

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Secular Coalition for America and the organization of Maine nontheists

The Secular Coalition for America has announced that it is seeking to establish chapters across all 50 states:

The Secular Coalition for America is excited to announce the initial organizing efforts for a chapter in Louisiana this month. The state chapter will lobby state lawmakers in favor of a strong separation of religion and government.

The initial organizing call for the Secular Coalition for Louisiana will be held on September 12th at 3:00PM ET / 2:00PM CT. The SCA encourages interested participants to call in. Participation is open to anyone who supports a strong separation of religion and government and wants to get involved, irrespective of personal religious beliefs.

Other state chapters being organized later this month include Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Since June, the SCA successfully held initial organizing calls for new chapters in 27 states. Participants will be trained in lobbying state lawmakers, and the chapter will be provided with a website and other materials.

The big effort here, as far as I can tell, is going to be to dampen the negative effects religion has in politics. Namely, the goals will be to kill stealth creationist bills, promote science education, and maybe even support pro-science candidates. Along with this will come to the promotion of Gnu Atheist values.*

I’m excited about this; I’ve already contacted the former Executive Director of the SCA, Sean Faircloth. He is a former Maine legislator and currently heads up strategy and policy for the Richard Dawkins foundation. I’m not 100% of his involvement with the group at this point, but I do know he is being interviewed for an article that will appear in the Maine Sunday Telegram in a couple of days. (I was also interviewed for the piece.) I hope he can help get me started with all this or at least point me in the right direction. Maine atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers need to be organized.

The current “organization” for Maine atheists and others currently amounts to an Atheists of Maine Facebook page I run with two other people. As far as I can tell, it is the largest collection of atheists in the state, so if you haven’t liked it yet, you should. I plan on utilizing it to do what I can to help establish an SCA chapter in Maine.

That darned science

The scale of the Universe versus the complexity of life

I have often found myself contemplating which is more amazing, the sheer scale of the Universe or the complexity of life? It isn’t easy to find an answer, but I’ll do my best to very briefly explain my thinking on this.

Despite my field being biology, and despite finding nothing more amazing on Earth than the evolution and subsequent complexity of life, I have to fall on the side of the size of the Universe. I think I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but I’ve given it some thought. Here is why I think what I do.

It isn’t possible for an individual to know everything about a single field. I’ve had incredible biology professors who have told me that they are lucky to understand 1/3 of what they read in scientific journal articles concerning biology. This is because in order to become an expert on anything, it requires one to focus on a relatively small subset of facts within a field. Just look at how biology breaks down: microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, physiology, embryology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and so on. This sort of division is going to be true of just about any field. (I can’t think of any exceptions.) How can we expect anyone to understand it all? We simply cannot. But that isn’t to say we can’t understand it all as a species. In principle, we can understand everything that has to do with biology. We can break it down and analyze each bit, no matter how esoteric and specific. That doesn’t mean we necessarily ever will, but there is nothing preventing us from doing so. We have the ability, when we pool all our resources and minds, to understand everything there is to understand about life and its evolution.

I don’t think we can say that same thing about the sheer scale of the Universe. For the sake of argument, I will limit myself to the observable Universe. But right there. Look at what I just did. Without fear of losing any ground in my argument, I limited my scope. Yet my whole point is scope. That’s just how huge the Universe is. And how can anyone truly appreciate that? No human is going to travel any distance from Earth that is notable on the scale of the Universe. Even our space probes that are now on their way to interstellar space have done so little; being impressed by that distance would be like being impressed that an atom moved a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of its radius to the right. I would say to now imagine that analogy increased trillions upon trillions upon trillions upon…of times, but of course you can’t. No one can. We don’t have any way, in our small lives, to really comprehend something like that. The Universe is enormous. Just enormous.

We can pool our minds together as a species and come to a great understanding of all that surrounds us. All our physicists and astronomers and cosmologists can give us a tremendous understanding, via science, of how it all works. They can even describe, with numbers on paper, how large the observable Universe is. They can show us incredible pictures of thousands of galaxies (in just a small sliver of the sky), each with billions of stars and billions of planets. And it really all is wonderful. But no matter how many brilliant minds we put to the task, we can never appreciate the sheer scale of what is. It is, in every meaning of the word, beyond us.

Attack of the DNA robots

Whereas bombing raids in the early and mid part of the 20th century involved hardly any direction, any bombing that we do today is going to be highly precise. This so-called smart bombing has constituted one of the great military advances over the past several decades. It’s efficient, cost-effective, and saves civilian lives. Now keep that in mind as I move into the non-military world of fighting cancer.

In one form or another researchers have been working to create DNA carrying/laden devices for years now. The application potential is huge, but the area that has received some of the greatest focus has been cancer research. The drugs and treatments we have now are inexact and not always effective. Aside from often killing healthy cells, thus leading to weight and hair loss, general illness, and other negative side-effects, they don’t always kill every cancer cell. Even surgery can be a bad thing at times. Consider for a moment what tumors need. More than perhaps anything is a blood supply. (The same goes for your regular cells; your skin cells are too far from a blood source, hence why they are little more than dead keratin.) In order to get their supply of blood, tumors must induce angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels. They do this by releasing certain stimulators. They also release inhibitors, but not enough to overwhelm the stimulators. However, these inhibitors have no problem traveling through the blood stream. The result is often the suppression of secondary tumors, especially if they are nearby. So when a surgeon removes a primary tumor, those other, previously restricted secondary tumors will have a chance to grow. And that is no good, of course. In short, the more exact we can get in destroying cancerous cells, the better off we will be.

Enter DNA nanobots.

I like to think of these as smart bombs of cancer cells. They are bits and pieces of DNA naturally self-assembled into a particular shape (the barrel in the background) that is prepared to deliver a payload. That payload (the purple/pink stuff) is attached to specific strands (the yellow/green stuff) inside the DNA barrel structure. This is all held together by strands of DNA which are programmed to recognize specific molecules on the target cells (in this case, cancer cells). When the DNA attaches to these molecules, it changes shape and opens up the barrel. The payload is then free to enter into the target cell, inducing apoptosis (cellular suicide). Experiments have shown that these DNA robots are able to avoid healthy cells during this process.

There are, of course, limitations to this technology. Take malaria, for instance. It would be difficult to target most strains (such as P. vivax and P. falciparum) because they get inside hemoglobin rather than attach to the outside of anything. That makes them effectively invisible to both our immune system and these nanobots. Strategies for fighting that disease will tend towards the sort of medications we’re using now combined with bed nets and efforts to destroy mosquito habitats.

Still, this is exciting. I say that about most cancer-related advances, but I don’t feel I’m ever overdoing it. Every little bit of progress is crucial, even the bits that don’t pan out. I have hopes for this one, though. Even if it doesn’t end up being pragmatic in application, it still has the potential to 1) increase our understanding of cancer and 2) be used in so many other ways. Three cheers for science.

Sources: Here and here.

With what does science deal?

Why, reality, of course.

If that seems like a simple answer, it’s because the answer is simple. We could break everything down, get more particular, explore general concepts, use specific examples, etc. That would give us a better understanding of how science works, but the answer to the question of with what it is science deals is the same: reality. Unfortunately, not everyone understands this:

Science is great for material things, but by definition it doesn’t deal with immaterial things.

This comes from our friend Neil. I usually reserve him for use in my “Punching Bags” series, but I’m actually still trawling his comment section to find more unique bloggers (not to mention bloggers who actually dare to defend their positions). As a result, I’m not particularly reading his writing – in fact, I’m not going to bother reading the rest of his post – but the above comment did catch my eye. It represents a weak mind.

Making the point that science only deals with material things, not immaterial things, is like saying science only deals with material things, not unicorns. It’s a meaningless statement. Unless, that is, Neil has provided evidence for the immaterial. But wait! Then he would have to use the material world and thus science. Since, by definition, he cannot use these things to study the immaterial (or unicorns), his views are fundamentally anti-science. In fact, the same goes for absolutely anyone who believes in the supernatural. It’s just kooky thinking.

The data so far

via xkcd.