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Stiff Upper Lip (or Lack Thereof)

And now for something completely different…

I actually find many (though not all) of the GEICO commercials pretty clever. I think my favorite is the “Drill Sergeant Therapist.” It reflects what I often wish I could tell my students. Things like, “get over yourself,” and “suck it up” rattle around in my brain when someone comes in with the same lame excuse for why their performance is subpar and why I should give them a break anyway.

Don’t get me wrong—when there is a genuine issue, I’m the very picture of compassion and empathy. Jesus does not bruise the tender reed or quench the smoldering wick, and we are to do likewise. It is the 21 and 22 year olds with the maturity of a junior high student that make me long for the times when you could speak your mind. I have found ways to communicate with them at least some of their shortcomings. They don’t always like it, but usually by the time I’m finished with them, they at least acknowledge my point, and a few are actually grateful, which keeps the hope alive.

Still, extraditions from ‘MambyPambyLand” are all too few and too late these days.


A Fowl Issue

Pardon the pun, but those that know me, know I can’t resist. Pray for me.

Seriously, do pray for me. Today’s post will probably get people on both sides of this one mad at me.

You may notice that on the right, part way down the page is a list of several news stories that Google selects as being relevant to this blog. Today, one is a NY Times article about a homosexual group upset with the restaurant chain Chick-Fil-A because one restaurant donated food to a pro-marriage Christian conference. To give full disclosure, the article does extensively cover the private corporation’s strong pro-Christian corporate philosophy and support of pro-family and Christian groups, which has raised previous controversies. But the flashpoint this time is a food donation by a single restaurant.

My point today has nothing to do with the morality of homosexuality or heterosexuality. I’m looking at the bigger picture here of freedom. As a business, just like a citizen, Chick-Fil-A has the right to support the causes they want or care about. Whether it is privately or publicly run is irrelevant. Non-governmental entities {should} have the freedom to support who and what they want with their treasure.

Likewise, consumers have the complete freedom to support or reject corporate choices with where they spend their dollars. They have the freedom to attempt to civilly persuade others regarding such issues, as do the companies. That is what makes the marketplace of ideas so dynamic—it is a marketplace of good and ideas, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch the complex interplay among them.

Therefore, if you don’t like Chick-Fil-A’s policies and where they donate their money, then don’t buy their goods. If you like their goods, you have two choices—decide which motivation is stronger (ideas or goods) and live with it, or start/support a competing business that champions your values. It’s pretty simple, and not worth a lawsuit.

For those Christians reading this (most of the audience probably) who are upset with the attacks on Chick-Fil-A, take it easy. Christians have been mobilized for well over two decades to boycott, petition and otherwise complain when other businesses have supported events and groups with whom we disagree. We can’t rally against a business we don’t like and then complain when someone rallies against one we do like. That’s hypocrisy. We vote with our dollars just as anyone can. That is again the beauty of the marketplace.

Whatever your cause, persuade and convince, in grace and humility, and with conviction, and do your best to live at peace with all. That is the true spirit of tolerance.


Gaskell vs. UK #4: Martin Gaskell on “The Gaskell Affair” (Guest Blog)

{Note by RJW:  I am delighted to have my first guest post by none other than Martin Gaskell. It seems appropriate with the time spent by this blog on the case to give Martin himself a chance to offer some commentary. I am grateful for his willingness to share his thoughts here.}

Now that the Gaskell v. University of Kentucky religious discrimination lawsuit over the 2007 search for a director of the MacAdam Observatory of the University of Kentucky (see posts 1, 2, and 3) has been amicably resolved to the satisfaction of both parties, I am free to talk about the case and related topics. There have been many blogs and tens of thousands of online comments about this. Addressing every point raised would be an overwhelming task, so here I just want to address what seems to be the biggest and most critical misunderstanding: my views on biological evolution.

I don’t give lectures on biological evolution
On January 21, the DailyTech blog said, “Martin Gaskell … has a keen interest in music. But reports of his keen interest in disproving evolution were grossly exaggerated.” I would put it even more strongly than that:  I don’t even have any interest in evolution! In fact, I don’t have any interest in biology at all (or chemistry either—sorry Robb!). {No problem, MartinRJW}.  If you look at a list of my publications, you simply won’t find any papers on biology (In the interests of full disclosure, however, I do have to admit that you will find a passing reference to some biological processes in this paper). Since I have no interest in biology I do not go around the country giving talks on evolution. The University of Kentucky (UK) statements about this have been misleading. For example, on January 11, their official spokesman, Jay Blanton, stated, “Dr. Gaskell’s public comments on biological evolution were well-known to the university community at the time of his interviews for the position. He had lectured on the topic at UK several years ago.” In fact, I have never given a lecture on the topic of biological evolution anywhere. The only public lecture I had given at the University of Kentucky (a lecture on astronomy and the Bible) had been 13 years earlier.  Not only have I never given any talks on biology, I’ve never been asked to give one, and I would decline if asked. Why would anyone want an astronomer to give a lecture on biology? If some group wants a lecture on biology and the Bible they will ask a Christian biologist.

I do have a standard talk I have given from time to time with the title “Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation.” My lecture notes for this are available online. Unfortunately many people have been commenting on the case without actually reading what is in the lecture and what my views are. If you are interested in Gaskell v. University of Kentucky, do please read all of my notes in order to see what I actually say and to get everything in context. If you do this you should realize that biology gets minimal mention. There are just under 10,000 words in the lecture notes, and less than 200 of these have been evoked to try to argue to I am “anti-evolution”. That’s only 2% of the notes.

I don’t think that there are “major flaws” in evolutionary theory
Let’s look at the two most discussed passages in my lecture notes. The first is:

It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations.

This has been misquoted as me saying that there are “major flaws” in evolutionary theory.  The phrase I actually use, “significant problems”, is quite different from “major flaws”. In science, a “problem” is something to be solved. We scientists like problems!  As Robb said in a previous post, when a teacher assigns the problems at the end of a chapter this does not mean that the chapter is wrong! I had inserted my parenthetical remark about the existence of problems in evolutionary theory being “a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job” to try to make it clear what I meant by problems:  I meant the things that biologists and geologists get paid to work on. I have often served on panels for agencies such as NASA or the National Science Foundation to advise these agencies which research they should support. I’ve never seen a proposal for research in an area in which it was claimed that there are no problems or the problems were insignificant. Such research just wouldn’t get supported. Proposers go out of their way to demonstrate why their interests help solve significant problems.

In nearly every field, problems are bigger than they are made out to be in introductory courses. This should cause no surprise; it is not something unique to evolutionary theory. It is important to let students and the public know that there is uncertainty in science.

Rather than having my astronomer’s view on whether there are problems in evolutionary theory, let’s see what Dr. James Krupa, Associate Professor of Biology at UK, said when asked under oath about my statement above. Dr. Krupa works in the UK ecology and evolutionary biology group.

Q. Are there problems in evolutionary theory that remain to be resolved?
A. All science is continuing to answer more questions. That will happen in any branch of science forever. So when one -- if one claims that all issues in nature are now answered by evolutionary theory, we're still answering.
Q. So there are still problems to be solved in evolutionary theory?
A. Yes.

Notice that he says “all science” and “any branch of science”. He’s quite confident in saying that there are questions to answer in fields in which he does not work.

Let’s look at the other passage brought up as evidence for my supposed “anti-evolution” views:

… it should be realized that, despite some popular claims to the contrary, science has no satisfactory explanation of the origins of life yet. Note that the question of the origin of life is a separate problem from the question of the validity of some theories of evolution.

Anyone thinking that science already has a satisfactory explanation of the origins of life merely needs to look at the Wikipedia article on abiogenesis. (Wikipedia does not, of course, always give a reliable perspective on issues but it does at least provide a readily accessible place to start reading.)  Dr. Krupa was also asked about the passage just quoted. He replied “that is correct” and “research on origins of life is a separate research area from evolution … so that is correct.”

Another thing that has been brought up from my lecture notes is that I refer to books written by members of what is called the “Intelligent Design” movement (note the capitals). Here is what I say in my notes:

A discussion of the current controversies over evolutionary theory and how Christians view these controversies, is beyond the scope of this handout, but the now extensive literature discussing and reviewing books such as those of Phillip E. Johnson (“Darwin on Trial”) and of biochemist Michael J. Behe (“Darwin's Black Box”) will give you some of the flavor of the diversity of opinion of Christian biologists (and geologists).

The problem is that a number of people are focusing on what I refer to, rather than how I refer to them. The “how” is important. The thing to note here is that I refer to the literature discussing and reviewing the books. That is quite different from endorsing everything in a book. I am frequently asked questions about things in my field by fellow researchers. I will commonly give an answer such as “that was shown by Joe Doe in 1982”. That does not mean that I am endorsing everything Joe Doe says in his 1982 paper.

My views on biological evolution
My own views on the evidence for evolution should be obvious from my lecture notes. I state clearly that

The evidence is very good (and gets stronger every year) that all life on earth descended (i.e., evolved from) from a common origin.

Dr. Krupa was asked about the statement.

Q. And is it correct to say that the evidence is very good and gets stronger every year that all life on earth descended; i.e., evolved from a common origin?
A. All evidence right now indicates common origin.

I also very clearly state my own personal opinion of evolutionary theory:

I personally have no theological problem with the idea of God doing things in the ways described in modern theories of evolution.

Here is what Dr. Krupa said when asked about this:

Q. What do you think of this remark where he says, "This is probably a good place to state that I personally have no theological problem with the idea of God doing things in the ways described in modern theories of evolution"?
A. That is the views [sic] of those that consider themselves a theistic evolution [sic], and that's fine by me.
Q. And is that different from creationism?
A. It is different, yes. So all the denominations, Christian denominations in this country who accept evolution would classify themselves as theistic evolution [sic]. So they can accept the science of evolution and they can believe in God.
Q. So in this remark you would have no problems with Dr. Gaskell?
A. I have no problems with this comment.

Notice two things here. First, notice what Dr. Krupa says about my position of “theistic evolution”. He says, “that’s fine by me.” Then notice that states that it is different from creationism. (i.e., he is confirming that my viewpoint is not that of a creationist)

The chairman of the UK department of biology said I was not anti-evolution and did not identify any biological conclusions that he disputed, nor any deficiencies in my understanding of the scientific method.
The chairman of the UK biology department, biochemist Dr. Sheldon Steiner, reinforced this when he was asked under oath:

Q.  Dr. Steiner, at the time that you read this [the lecture notes], I believe you said that you didn’t think that Dr. Gaskell was antievolution; is that correct?
A.  That’s correct.

Furthermore Dr. Steiner was asked “And what scientific biological conclusions, if any, does Dr. Gaskell reach in this paper that you dispute?” He failed to identify a single one.

Dr. Steiner was also asked “Is there anything in [the lecture notes] notes which indicates that Dr. Gaskell does not appreciate or understand or has deficiencies in the scientific method?” He did not identify anything.

The director of the main anti-creationist organization in the US said that I was not anti-evolution and could be a good person for the University of Kentucky directorship
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a non-profit organization based in Oakland, California, which describes itself as “the premier institution dedicated to keeping science in the classroom and creationism out.” Based on information on their website, the NCSE considers theistic evolution an acceptable view. The NCSE director is Dr. Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist by training. She was told by the chairman of the UK search committee about the UK biologists’ opposition to hiring me. She was asked about my views and referred to my lecture notes. After reading the notes and investigating me further, Dr. Scott wrote that I was “accepting of evolution” and furthermore that I “could be a good person for the job.”

My 1997 lecture at UK was at the invitation of the Physics and Astronomy Department
Something that has not been widely realized in all the recent discussion about the lawsuit is that my 1997 University of Kentucky public lecture on astronomy and the Bible was at the invitation of the Physics and Astronomy Department. Some members of the department had read my lecture notes in 1996 or 1997, and, on the basis of these, decided to invite me because they thought my perspective on science and Christianity would be a worthwhile one for people to hear.

The University of Kentucky had my lecture notes on a class web site.
I put my lecture notes on my own personal web page, never on a server at my then current university. However, UK astronomy professor, Dr. Gary Ferland, put my lecture notes on a UK class website.  When asked about this under oath he said:

A. I put it on my class website. I said that there is no conflict between science and religion. This is an example of a very deeply religious person who is a respected astronomer, and he had provided this file which I had posted. So I wouldn't -- I mean if there were anything -- if there were anything blatantly wrong, I would not have put it on my website.
Q. And when you say blatantly wrong, would that include denying the validity of the theory of evolution?
A. If he had left mainstream science, I certainly would not have put it on the website.

Some closing thoughts
The fuss over my views on biological evolution is strange because, as I said above, biology is not a subject that interests me. In my talks on Genesis when I get to the verses on biology I always joke (as I do in my lecture notes) “Yuk! Biology!”

A lesson from all this is: read things carefully and don’t jump to conclusions. If you hear something outrageous sounding about someone, check up on it. Prior to and during the Kentucky observatory director job search, one astronomer at UK had been telling people that Alan Sandage (one of the most famous astronomers of our time) and I both believed God had made life on the earth only 8,000 years ago. The UK astronomer could have sent both Alan Sandage and me a one-line e-mail asking whether this was true. I would have straightened him out in one word: “no!” Sandage was a Christian, but, like me, he did not believe God created life only 8,000 years ago either. This came up a dinner I and others had with Sandage some twenty years ago and Sandage was quite annoyed about people believing such things. The same mistaken UK astronomer also believed that the most prominent astronomer in another country believed in UFO conspiracies. I simply e-mailed the purported UFO believer and asked him if this were true. It was not. In fact, he had co-authored a book in his native language saying there was no evidence that the earth had ever been visited by UFOs.

Although I don’t work on evolutionary biology myself, I married into a family that does. My father-in-law was the famous marine biologist and naturalist Kenneth Norris (to get a perspective on what he was like, I highly recommend his recently published last book, Mountain Time). Ken read over and commented on my lecture notes. My wife, Barbara, was trained as a micropaleontologist and my brother-in-law, Richard Norris, was a graduate student of the famous Harvard evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Dick is now an internationally known professor of paleobiology at the Scripps Institution, UCSD.  He works on large-scale evolutionary trends and the mode of species formation.  If I were claiming that all those dead critters in my wife’s thesis or that my brother-in-law studies were only 8,000 years old I wouldn’t just be having scientific problems—I’d be having marital problems!


Fun Theory

This week, I came across the following link from Volkswagen:

The fun theory says that people’s behaviour can be changed by offering positive incentives:  make it fun to do the right thing, and folks will do it more often. So they sponsored a contest with a 2500 prize to see what ideas people could come up with themselves. The winner, along with many entries, sought a fun way to get people to obey the speed limit. {The winner’s version has obedient drivers eligible to win a lottery gleaned from the speeding fines of the violators.} Another idea (I think it was done by the Volkswagen engineers as an example) was to encourage people leaving the subway to take the stairs rather than the escalator up to street level. This was accomplished by turning the stairs into large piano keys, so they played a note as each was stepped on. The video of the change in behaviour is amazing.

This has really captured my imagination. Not only did VW come up with a great idea, they sought input on making it happen from the very people they want to influence. Why try to guess what motivates people if you can get them to tell you themselves by unleashing their imagination on a problem?

I plan to incorporate this somehow in my labs. At next week’s staff meeting, I will show them the site and get them working on it, and then expand it to include the students. I’m thinking about offering a gift card or something to the student with the best idea.

We have a number of areas where improvement would be great: wearing their safety goggles in lab, properly disposing of their chemical waste, reading the texts, and so on. The key to fun theory is that it must be automatic in determining when the behaviour is done and then in giving the reward.

I have to admit one struggle I have with the concept. I’m old-fashioned enough that I tend to believe that we should not reward people for doing what is expected, rather when they exceed expectations. However, when training someone to follow the expectations, it is appropriate to reward steps toward building the habit of the expected behaviour. The trick is to not make them dependent on the reward in order to meet the expectation.

I’ll keep you posted on how it ‘plays’ out.

Admin note:  the Twitter feed is working, so you can follow me on Twitter @ScholRed, and receive tweets when new material is posted. Also, the Feedburner email subscription is working. I appreciate all of you taking the time to check in here. We are approaching 2000 hits to the blog, and several other blogs link to this site. I’ll be returning the favor this weekend!


Christian and Muslim Views on Science and Religion

Tonight, the same group sponsoring last night’s talk sponsored a talk on science and religion. They had a Christian Religious Studies professor from the University of Houston, Dr. Lynn E. Mitchell, and a Turkish Imam from San Antonio, Zubeyir Safak.
Mitchell went first and then Safak. There followed a Q&A with only a couple of questions, most of which were fielded by Mitchell.  Nearly everything discussed has been pretty thoroughly covered in previous posts, particularly the “What is Science?” series a couple of weeks ago, and a few Vibrant Dance topics from last fall.

Mitchell is a clear NOMA supporter, a fact he confirmed to me explicitly afterward, though he seemed to respect the Concordist view I tend to hold, and is appreciative of the work of Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe. He correctly and at length explained that in spite of much belief to the contrary, there hasn’t really been a war between science and religion, again as covered in the highlighted post earlier in this paragraph. He also echoed Ross by describing how Genesis is unique among creation accounts in that God created, rather than creation creating some pantheon, like the Babylonian {and Greek} mythologies do.

I found Safak a pleasant, likable, soft-spoken gentleman, and very thoughtful. He holds a concordant viewpoint that the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, when properly interpreted are in complete agreement/harmony. The key difference is that his Book of Scripture is the Qu’ran, not the Bible. I would enjoy sitting down with him over lunch or dinner and discussing theology, philosophy and/or science. One of the more interesting things he touched on was why the Muslim nations, which had an advanced scientific/technological understanding for centuries, stagnated. He stated simply that they stopped watching the sky.

As has been recently popularized by the DVD “The Star of Bethlehem,” The magi were likely Babylonian scholars descended from the school of scholars of which the Old Testament prophet, Daniel, was chief. One of the primary things this school of scholars did was astronomy.

Why did they stop watching the sky? I’m not sure, but I interpreted Safak’s statement as being both literal and figurative, in that for some reason, scholarly pursuits were simply not valued. There is a rather unflattering legend that in A.D. 640 when the Muslims conquered Egypt, they sent word back to the Caliph Omar asking what to do about the documents in the Library of Alexandria. He is reported to have replied, "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." And thus they were burned. This legend, recorded 300 years or so after the event by a strongly anti-Muslim bishop, must be taken with a rather large grain of salt. Furthermore, it is sad to admit that a few of our brothers and sisters in Christ would agree with the Caliph, viewing any book other than the Bible as being unnecessary.

Before going to the lecture, I had mentioned it to some of my staff, and one commented that he expected that the Islamic view of science and religion would likely be comparable to the other monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, and he was right. On the one hand that makes a lot of sense, but on the other hand, there has been such a long historical divide in the cultures of Western Judeo-Christianity and Islam, and corresponding difference in scientific development, that I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was there is a range of view that is very similar to the range among us.

Still the biggest surprise for me was the similarity. I have read precious little of an English translation of the Qu’ran (which must be read in Arabic to insure you’ve gotten the message correctly, I’ve been told), and have heard a fair bit of hearsay regarding the content of it. That small level of exposure has not left me with an expectation that Concordism between the Qu’ran and science would be feasible or significant. That an imam sees it as such is interesting.

During the Q&A, I was the first to raise my hand, and thanked them for coming, saying that as a scientist of faith, it was encouraging to hear theologians speak on the subject in similar terms to my own views, and got the chance to offer up this blog to demonstrate it. (Never pass up an opportunity for free advertising!) The unexpected result of that comment was to draw enough attention to myself, that afterward, three students accosted me with digital voice recorders, saying they were in a journalism class and wanted to interview me for an assignment. Sigh. (What was that about free advertising?) Fortunately, they said it would not appear in the student paper, as I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of publicity.

Admin note: it appears I have fixed whatever setting was causing the email subscriptions not to go out daily, and I think I have linked the blog to Twitter. Supposedly, when I post, it will send a tweet out to @ScholRed. It didn’t work last night, but maybe it is fixed now???? Stay tuned or tweeted or friended or…