Friday, April 3, 2009

Falling into a Black Hole

Ever wonder what it would be like if by some odd set of circumstances you just happened to fall into a black hole? Of course you have. Everyone has. Well, go here and have it explained to you. Meanwhile, here's a quick simulation of the event:

Looks like a wild ride. I'm surprised amusement parks don't have one of these.


What's a Promise Worth?

What's the value of a politician's word? Breitbart gives us a clue in this report on President Obama's recent tobacco tax hike:

"I can make a firm pledge," [candidate Obama] said in Dover, N.H., on Sept. 12. "Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes."

He repeatedly vowed "you will not see any of your taxes increase one single dime."

Now in office, Obama, who stopped smoking but has admitted he slips now and then, signed a law raising the tobacco tax nearly 62 cents on a pack of cigarettes, to $1.01. Other tobacco products saw similarly steep increases.

This is one tax that disproportionately affects the poor, who are more likely to smoke than the rich.

"Listen now," he said in his widely watched nomination acceptance speech, "I will cut taxes-cut taxes-for 95 percent of all working families, because, in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class."

An unequivocal "any tax" pledge also was heard in the vice presidential debate, another prominent forum.

"No one making less than $250,000 under Barack Obama's plan will see one single penny of their tax raised," Joe Biden said, "whether it's their capital gains tax, their income tax, investment tax, any tax."

Okay, you say. So the Democrats broke their promise, nothing new about that, but people don't have to pay the tax. After all, no one has to smoke. Yes, but suppose everyone stops smoking, or at least many do. The revenue this tax is supposed to raise is to be used to expand medical care coverage for uninsured children. If people stop smoking where will the funding for this program come from?

Those of you making less than $250,000 may be the first to hazard a guess.


Hitchens Underwater

Christopher Hitchens wades into the Darwinism/Intelligent Design controversy and almost immediately finds himself in philosophical waters quite over his head. Referring to the Texas School Board debate over whether to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory to school children Hitch writes this:

So by all means let's "be honest with the kids," as Dr. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas education board, wants us to be. The problem is that he is urging that the argument be taught, not in a history or in a civics class, but in a biology class. ... But it would also set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy. Less boring perhaps, but also much less scientific and less educational.

Well, yes. Much of the debate is over how to interpret biological evidence. Why shouldn't a discussion about biological evidence occur in a biology class?

It's not just that the overwhelming majority of scientists are now convinced that evolution is inscribed in the fossil record and in the lineaments of molecular biology. It is more that evolutionists will say in advance which evidence, if found, would refute them and force them to reconsider. ("Rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian layer" was, I seem to remember, the response of Prof. J.B.S. Haldane.) Try asking an "intelligent design" advocate to stipulate upfront what would constitute refutation of his world view and you will easily see the difference between the scientific method and the pseudoscientific one.

This is simply not so. I can think of several things that would give pause to most IDers. One would be if procedures similar to the Urey/Miller experiments produced living cells or even just self-replicating molecules. Another would be if plausible pathways (as opposed to nomologically possible pathways) could be adduced to explain how seemingly irreducibly complex structures could have been constructed in a step-by-step fashion with no intelligent input.

At any rate, in the end Hitch comes up with a proposal that almost no Darwinian wants to see adopted:

I certainly do not want it said that my side denies a hearing to the opposing one. In the spirit of compromise, then, I propose the following. First, let the school debating societies restage the wonderful set-piece real-life dramas of Oxford and Dayton, Tenn. Let time also be set aside, in our increasingly multiethnic and multicultural school system, for children to be taught the huge variety of creation stories, from the Hindu to the Muslim to the Australian Aboriginal. This is always interesting (and it can't be, can it, that the Texas board holdouts think that only Genesis ought to be so honored?).

Set aside the fact that Mr. Hitchens, like so many other ID critics, still hasn't comprehended that the issue is not about teaching Genesis. Intelligent Design is not creationism. The real problem here is that Hitchens inexcusably perpetuates another myth about this whole debate: This is not a controversy between rival creation stories. It's silly to suggest that if we teach one creation story we have to teach them all. The debate is about this question: Are blind purposeless processes and forces adequate by themselves to account for the fine-tuning of the cosmos and the existence of information-rich living organisms or do the exquisitely precise values of the cosmic parameters and the existence of astonishingly complex biological machines and algorithms point to the need for intelligent input and/or guidance.

That's the question at issue and Mr. Hitchens misses it entirely.

He finishes with a second proposal which I'd love to see adopted:

Second, we can surely demand that the principle of "strengths and weaknesses" will be applied evenly. If any church in Texas receives a tax exemption, or if any religious institution is the beneficiary of any subvention from the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we must be assured that it will devote a portion of its time to laying bare the "strengths and weaknesses" of the religious world view, and also to teaching the works of Voltaire, David Hume, Benedict de Spinoza, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. This is America. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a thousand schools of thought contend. We may one day have cause to be grateful to the Texas Board of Education for lighting a candle that cannot be put out.

This proposal for teaching the arguments for and against the existence of a cosmic designer in all state and tax-exempt institutions is one that most IDers would love - and every Darwinian would be horrified - to see implemented. It would be great if both churches and public schools did what Hitchens suggests, but surely Darwinians blanch at the prospect. The works of Voltaire, Hume, Paine, et al. do nothing to challenge the view that the cosmos and life are intelligently designed, and, indeed, several of these worthies themselves believed that there was a designer of the world.

Hitchens seems to think that just because these writers were critical of classical Christianity that they therefore were opposed to the idea of a designer. They were not. Even uber-atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledges, albeit somewhat unguardedly, in the documentary Expelled that there's a case to be made that life on earth is designed by an intelligent agent.

It would be wonderful for students to be exposed to writers on both sides of the debate and allowed to make up their own minds without being indoctrinated by a philosophical school of thought which doesn't suffer any other position to be heard.