Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Creationism in Science? Get Real!

I like to write. I like to share my opinions. And I know full well that not everyone agrees with me all the time. If they did, it wouldn’t really be an opinion would it?

Anyway, I do enjoy reading responses from my opinions. I have several outlets for my opinions. These include newspapers and several Internet Web sites.

I’ve noticed that most of the time when I get feedback it is from someone who disagrees with me. That’s not too surprising, since those who agree do not feel compelled to take up their pens and respond.

I was reading one letter recently from a person who, probably in response to one of my previous columns, was promoting the equal treatment of creationism in science classes along with evolution.

He mentioned me by name when he said that evolutionists consider creationists “ignorant folk who just have not seen the light as he has.” Well, it’s true. I do consider that creationists just have not seen the light. And most of them are fairly ignorant on the subject of science – some almost comically so.

I mean, how ignorant of the law does one have to be to call for parents to lobby their school boards to incorporate creationism in the science classroom. The gentleman pointed out that a recent student survey showed that more than 60 percent of high school students believe that creation should be taught alongside evolution in the science class.

Fortunately, science students and their parents do not get to decide what constitutes science and what doesn’t. Scientists get to do that. And evolution is science; creationism is not.

Now, if these students and parents want to see the Christian version of creation taught in school, maybe they should lobby for a comparative religion course. I wouldn’t object to that, as long as all major religions are compared and contrasted fairly. It might even pass legal muster.

But to actually lobby for the inclusion of a Christian fable into science classes is ludicrous. Why don’t we also include the views of the California-based Flat Earth Society in earth science classes, too? Their belief that the earth is flat is based on their interpretation of the bible.

The bible, although much of it is considered great literature and it can be spiritually soothing, was put together in a hurry during the fourth century by a group of Catholic bishop lawyers under pressure from Emperor Constantine, who had his own personal agenda. It’s about as close to being the unerring word of God as my collective works of Over Coffee.

So if my columns are not considered required reading in schools across the state, then the bible’s fairy tale about creation shouldn’t be either. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

The Science Policy of the Theocrats

When is a nation’s science policy formulated without much input from actual scientists? It’s when that nation is the United States and when the policy in question is that of George W. Bush.

According to speakers at the national meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science last week, the Bush administration is putting the hush on input from scientists in key federal agencies. In fact, some scientists are being pressured to change their study conclusions if they do not support administration policy.

What that amounts to is bad science. But it’s not the scientist’s fault. It is simply an issue of the president ignoring the results of scientific studies he doesn’t agree with, or worse, forcing his own scientists to fudge the results to make them fall in line with what he wants.

Kurt Gottfried of Cornell University and the Union of Concerned Scientists said a survey of scientists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that about 42 percent said they felt pressured to not report publicly any findings that do not agree with Bush policies on endangered species.

Despite all the talk about going back to the moon or going to Mars, this president is doing more to harm fundamental research than any president in recent history. Reagan and Nixon were not big on science, either. NASA’s space program suffered tremendously under both administrations.

But neither of them, to the best of my knowledge, tinkered with scientific data to make it match administration policy.

Bush has also slashed the funding for basic research projects. He has made it more difficult for bright young scientists and students from abroad to enter the country and carry on their research. In fact, some scientists feel so hamstrung by administration policy that they have elected to go abroad.

Researchers working on embryonic stem cells, for example, are finding it easier to do their work in other countries, such as Britain.

California has had to step up to the plate itself to promote this vitally important area of research. Voters there approved a referendum to fund embryonic stem cell research even if the federal government does not. Massachusetts is considering a similar policy.

Some scientists have claimed the Bush administration has cut scientists out of some of the policy-making processes, particularly on environmental issues. They say during past administrations scientists were always at the table when policy was being developed, even if they didn’t always have the last voice.

Proven, widely accepted research on issues such as global warming is typically ignored by the Bush administration. Bush policymakers, who are non-scientists, are questioning the long-standing conclusions of world environmental scientists on these issues.

It’s one thing to ignore proven scientific facts in favor of political gamesmanship, but not to acknowledge that global warming is even a problem is the epitome of arrogance.

Conservative Republicans don’t care much for the environment because, frankly, many of them don’t believe humans will be here long enough to worry about long-term environmental problems. They won’t say it publicly, owing to the public flogging Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, took when he alluded to such a belief himself. But many of them think they will be “Raptured” away before global warming can cause much damage.

So their Rapture-friendly policies don’t leave room for much real science, despite the fact that most people, even many Christians, don’t even believe in the Rapture. It’s just one more sign of how the right wing policymakers in Washington are turning our country into a theocracy.

In a theocracy, one of the first things to go is science.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Nanobots are Coming

Ray Kurzweil is a fitness freak. He takes 250 supplements every day, along with at least eight glasses of alkaline water. He also drinks 10 cups of green tea and measures a plethora of fitness indicators.

Kurzweil, a 56-year-old scientist and inventor, wants to live forever.

But his rigorous diet and exercise regimen are not supposed to do that for him. No, he just wants to live long enough, about 20 more years, so he can take advantage of what he predicts will be a new, life-extending technology. Within 20 years, Kurzweil says advances in nanotechnology, the science of the extremely tiny, will have permitted the creation microscope robots that can be injected into the bloodstream and repair any tissue.

Nanobots, as he calls them, which will be about the size of a red blood cell, can be injected by the millions into the bloodstream where they will go around and repair anything within us that is damaged. In addition, we will be able to upgrade our genetic code simply by downloading the latest version of it from the Internet. The nanobots can then install it for us.

So is Kurzweil a crackpot scientist?

Not at all. He's a recipient of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize, a major achievement for inventors, and he won the 1999 National Medal of Technology Award. He is a published author, having written in several magazines, including TIME. He was even inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002. And he has written a book which is a combination of a guide on how to live a healthy lifestyle and an explanation of his human immortality prediction.

To be sure, some of his fellow scientists believe he may be a little overzealous. They hesitate to call him a quack, but they point out that his predictions may not be in line with current technological trends.

But Kurzweil has history on his side. In a 1990 book Kurzweil predicted the development of a worldwide computer network and of a computer that could beat a chess champion. Both of those predictions came true within his predicted time frame.

But even assuming Kurzweil is accurate in his predictions about extending human life indefinitely, would that really be a good idea? After all, the planet is overpopulated now in places. How would immortality figure into a population problem?

Kurzweil believes that technology will develop along ways that will be necessary in order to solve such future problems. He has almost total faith in technology to solve all our human needs if only we develop it openly and democratically.

And who would opt for this shot of immortality? Certainly not everyone. Although most people say they do not want to die, most people accept it as inevitable and would be loathe to extend their lives much beyond current limits.

Personally, I would be one of the first in line to join the nanobot bandwagon. Although, in practice, they wouldn’t guarantee immortality since they couldn’t prevent you from being hit by a truck, they at least would have the potential of doubling, even tripling, current life expectancies.

As long as the little buggers keep you healthy enough to enjoy it, why not live to see the future?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Online Banking

I was reading a news item a few days ago about how many people do their banking online. I was a little surprised by the results of the study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Overall, 44 percent of Internet users do their banking online.

Almost half the people who have an Internet connection bank online, which is a giant leap from the number who did so two years ago. But I had thought the number would have been much higher.

Maybe that’s because I started banking online long before most people had even heard of the Internet, even before it existed in its current form. I started paying nearly all my bills online in 1988 using a computer program called CheckFree and a slow modem.

But now, almost everyone has heard about online banking. It’s impossible not to know about it given all the promotion it’s been given by even the smallest of banks. Yet less than half of those who are online choose to do their banking in that manner. It’s puzzling.

Consider the logic. I, like most people, have my payroll check deposited directly into my checking account. The funds are available early in the morning every payday, so I don’t have to make a trip to the bank to deposit a check.

During the two weeks prior to each payday, I get the usual array of bills. I still get many of them via regular mail, but many companies now let you opt for e-mail billing. I choose that option whenever it’s available.

So every time I get a bill, I simply go to my online banking page, click the “Bill Pay” button, and schedule the payment for the due date, which is always after the date of my next payday.

I used to dread sitting down at my desk, sifting through all the paper bills, filling out the checks, addressing the envelopes, licking the stamps, and making a trip to the mailbox. With online banking, I don’t have to do any of that, and I haven’t done it for years.

It’s not just paying bills either. I no longer get bank statements. I don’t have to sit down with my calculator and reconcile my account every month. My statements come online and every couple of days I can log on to my account and see which deposits and debits have cleared. Balancing my bank statement is a thing of the past, and I don’t miss it.

Another puzzling thing that came out of the Pew study was that the majority of those who do their banking online were more than 27 years old. Only 38 percent of those 18 to 27 bank online. Typically, it’s the younger crowd that are the online trailblazers.

Still though, the numbers are up from the 30 percent who did online banking in 2002. Mostly, it’s because more and more people have come to accept that Internet banking is safe. I can vouch for its safety; I’ve never had anyone breach my account during the 17 years I’ve been doing my banking online.

There are, however, some caveats for those who have online bank accounts. The most important thing to be aware of is “phishing.” That’s when some lowlife tries to steal your personal information by pretending to be your bank. But disaster can be easily avoided by never giving out personal information using e-mail.

And always make sure you are on your bank’s real Web site before filling out any forms that ask for personal information. You can do that by going to the site via your own bookmarks instead of clicking on a link embedded in an e-mail message.

With bank cards, Internet shopping, and online banking becoming more prevalent, it may not be too long before paper checks become quaint artifacts from the age of paper. Already, it’s annoying to wait in line at the cashier behind someone who still writes checks. Even cash is becoming more obsolete.

When vending machines begin accepting plastic, I’ll know that electronic funds transfer will have become the standard for performing transactions. And that will be just fine; I hate carrying change.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Prophecies of Doom

I remember a TV show I watched a few years ago. It was one of those pseudo-documentaries. They pretend to reveal something striking when all they really are is entertainment.

The show was all about doomsday prophecies and what people are doing to cope. For example, one guy was preparing for the worst by placing all his consumables down on the floor, just in case the earth's gravity suddenly increases in strength! It was funny stuff.

The show also focused on some biblical prophecies foretelling the end times, and that most of them have come true. This I believe, not because there is anything special or unusual about our time, but because almost all of the biblical prophecies regarding the end of time were based on signs that are not only present today, but always have been.

There have always been wars and rumors of war; there have always been famine and pestilence; floods and drought; earthquakes and volcanoes. In fact, some of the floods, droughts, earthquakes, and volcanoes of the past would make the episodes we are familiar with seem rather puny.

Everybody knows about the earthquake that produced the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean back in December. But it was nowhere near as powerful as the explosive force that formed Yellowstone National Park about 600,000 years ago.

Ever since I was very young, I have heard rumors of the destruction of the earth, or of the “end of the world.” I read a book a couple of years ago written in the 19th Century by a woman who had absolute proof, as outlined in numerous bible verses, that the Second Coming would be sometime in the year 1842. She couldn't predict the exact day, but she could narrow it down to the year and the season.

Every generation has had false prophets that foretold the swift approach of the end of time. And there have always been those who have misinterpreted the prophecies of the bible in such a way that it becomes apparent to them that the end of time is nigh.

But even in the days of the Apostle Paul, the early Christians were convinced that the Second Coming would be in their generation. Yet how many generations have passed since then?

There were those who were thoroughly convinced that the year 2000 was going to be it. But here we are, firmly planted in the year 2005.

The point is that there will always be, in every generation, signs of the end of time. When I was young, these predictions of doom scared me a little. But as more and more of the predicted cataclysms came and went, I came to realize that all of the predictions were false, and will continue to be false.

I recently watched a Science Channel documentary about the possibility of an asteroid strike that would wipe out civilization. The odds have been calculated at about one in 26,000. It sounds pretty safe, but those are better odds than getting killed in a plane crash, and much better than winning the state lottery.

I guess if one must worry about the end of the world, it’s better to worry about the scenario we might have control over, like building early detection systems to spot those rogue asteroids.

Besides, it seems more likely to me that those biblical prophets weren’t really predicting anything. They just wanted everyone’s undivided attention, and scaring us is one way to get it.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Increase Indiana's Speed Limit

Remember back in the 1960s and ‘70s when motorists could cruise along at 70 miles per hour on Interstate highways? It’s not a done deal yet, but drivers might be able to legally go 70 again soon.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has said he does not oppose and would sign into law a bill that would increase the speed limit on rural Interstate highways to 70 miles per hour for cars and 65 for trucks. The only thing that would make more sense would be to allow trucks and cars to go the same speed. Traffic going at different speeds causes more accidents than the speed itself.

The bill passed out of the Senate's Commerce and Transportation Committee last week. It must still be approved by the full Senate and House and then signed by the governor before it becomes law. The bill’s chances for passages were unclear.

Higher speed limits are opposed by the insurance industry and by safety advocates who believe that higher speeds will increase accidents and insurance rates. They say increasing the speed limit will only tempt motorists to go faster than they already do.

But that belief is unsupported. Twenty-nine other states have already increased speed limits to at least 70 miles per hour. There is no indication that drivers in those states are speeding more often than they are in Indiana.

It’s true that the fatality rates for accidents in some states with the highest speed limits are greater than in Indiana. But it’s only common sense that if you crash into something going 70 or 75 you’ll be more likely to die than if you’re only going 60 or 65. It still should be up to the driver to decide if they want to take that extra risk.

I’m not a speed demon. Generally, I don’t drive more than five miles per hour over the speed limit. I still get passed more often than I pass others. But I do believe that Interstate highways were built for speed. They are generally safe as long as all traffic is moving along at approximately the same speed. Increasing the speed limit will make that happen.

Ideally, trucks and cars should all be allowed to go 70 miles per hour on rural Interstate highways. Obviously, motorists should reduce their speeds during inclement weather or during times of high traffic. But going 70 or even 75 miles per hour on a lightly-traveled rural stretch of highway is not that dangerous.

It won’t happen this year, but in addition to increasing speed limits on rural Interstates, consideration should be given to increasing speed limits on some multi-lane divided highways other than Interstates, too. For example, the speed limit on U.S. Highway 31 south of Franklin is only 55 miles per hour. This seems unnaturally slow for that stretch of highway. A speed limit of 65 would make more sense.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Gregory D. Server, R-Evansville. He said that people are going 70 anyway. We might as well make the law fit what people are doing.

It probably would bring more motorists into compliance with the law. More importantly, it would allow drivers to cruise along at the speeds that Interstate highways were built to support.

Speed limits increased every decade from the time the car was invented until 1973 when the Arab oil embargo prompted the federal government to mandate a nationwide 55 mile-per-hour limit in order to conserve gasoline.

That ban was eased in 1987 when Congress allowed higher speeds on rural Interstates. It eventually was lifted completely. And most states quickly increased their speed limits to pre-1973 levels. Indiana also increased its speed limit, but only to 65.

It’s time for us to take the final step and allow motorists the freedom to go 70 again.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Cell Phones and Driving

If you’re a young adult, talking on a cell phone while driving will make you drive as though you were 70. So says a new study conducted by the University of Utah. “"It's like instant aging,” said author of the report David Strayer.

Most people have always assumed that talking on a cell phone while driving makes you a worse driver. This is one of the first studies that prove it. In fact, the Strayer study said cell phone use actually makes you less responsive than driving while legally drunk, with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent.

What is somewhat surprising is that using a hands free device made no difference. Being actively part of a conversation is apparently what causes the increase in driver response time. So it’s not really cell phones, per se, that are the culprits; it’s talking.

Advocates who are pushing for a ban on cell phone usage while driving are using the Utah study as ammunition to push their cause through state legislatures. But before governmental bodies respond with knee-jerk reactions, it might be prudent to determine just what the risks of using cell phones really are.

The study showed a driver talking on a cell phone was 18 percent slower in breaking. But that is measured in milliseconds. Although a few milliseconds might be enough to cause an accident, there really isn’t very much of an increase in reaction time because of cell phone usage.

There may be other driving distractions that have an even greater impact, but which nobody is pushing to ban. For example, if talking causes an increase in reaction time, does listening?

If you are heavily engaged in listening to your favorite song on the radio are you more likely to have an accident? If so, maybe radios should be banned from cars.

Does hauling children around cause enough of a distraction that accidents are more likely to happen? If so, maybe there should be a law against kids riding in cars.

Certainly smoking a cigarette while driving is one of the worst offenders in causing distractions. Why are there no advocacy groups demanding a ban on smoking and driving?

And if it is the conversation itself, not the cell phone, then perhaps it should be against the law to talk and drive.

The study showed that young drivers are instantly aged by using cell phones. Yet there is no law against a 70-year-old driving. If fact, older people do not show an increase in their reaction time as a result of cell phone usage; only younger drivers are affected.

It’s true that cell phone usage is something that is best done while not driving. Anything that causes a distraction might lead to an increased risk of having an accident. But that doesn’t mean there should be a law against it. It should be left up to people’s common sense.

The best way to avoid a traffic accident is to drive defensively. Drive under the assumption that every other driver on the road is an idiot that you have to avoid running into. And be patient. Don’t be one of those aggressive drivers that are always in a hurry.

The cautious driver will avoid using cell phones as much as is feasible while driving. But there may be some cases in which time and convenience warrants a slight increase in accident risk, especially if the driver is otherwise undistracted.

We have enough laws that limit personal freedoms, such as the seat belt laws. We don’t need another one.