Category Archives: Science

Attorney General Jeff Sessions scores 8 out of 20 on Religious Freedom

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.

Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.

From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”.

1. The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance

Agreed. Score +1. Sessions rightly points to constitutional protections deriving from the Founding Fathers. In his Virginia Statute, Jefferson wrote perhaps the best one-line statement of religious liberty, that: “… all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.

Note all three of “diminish, enlarge or affect”.

2. The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or to abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs

Wrong. Score 0. Religious freedom is a form of free speech and does not grant extra privileges when it comes to actions. If the law requires a non-religious person to “act or abstain from action” then it must demand the same of a religious person. Anything else would violate Jefferson’s maxim that “opinion in matters of religion … shall in no wise … enlarge … their civil capacities”.

If you think that requiring an act or abstention from a religious person would be too burdensome to their conscience then nor should you require it from a non-religious person. That is the deep principle of equality under the law that distinguishes a properly secular state from a theocracy in which the religious grant themselves additional privileges.

3. Freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations

Yes, ok. Score +1. People do not lose their rights simply because they group together and exercise them with like-minded citizens. The problem with the Hobby Lobby ruling was not that it allowed a corporation to have a religious identity, but that it granted extra privileges as a result, just as Sessions wants in the above (2). Continue reading


Should Nobel Prizes go to teams?

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to members of the LIGO consortium for the detection of gravitational waves, namely to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. But the contributions of many hundreds of people were necessary for the success of LIGO and so it can be argued that the restriction to three people is wrong and that future Nobel Prizes should go to teams.

Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told BBC correspondent Pallab Gosh that: “LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the Nobel Prize committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.

Rees is right, of course, but would changing it be a good thing? It would mean that nearly all future Nobels in physics would go to teams, either simply to a named team or to a list of team members that could amount to hundreds.

I’m not sure this would be a good change. Continue reading

Fundamental ontology: what is the universe actually made of?

In his classic “Feynman lectures on physics”, Richard Feynman starts by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

Of course atoms are not the basic unit, they are composed of nuclei surrounded by electrons. The nuclei are then composed of protons and neutrons (and short-lived virtual particles such as pions), and the protons and neutrons are themselves composed of quarks and gluons.

But what is the ultimate level? What, when one goes down to the most fundamental level, are things made of? While there are lots of opinions there is no accepted answer, and mulling it over for myself I realised that none of the options are attractive in the sense of aligning with intuition about what “physical stuff” would be made of. Here are some of the possibilities: Continue reading

The Second Law of Thermodynamics made easy

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is one of the few scientific laws that has attained a status in wider culture, even featuring in rock tracks by Muse. Famously, C.P. Snow cited an understanding of the 2nd Law as something that every educated person should have.

The 2nd Law is often stated in technical language that makes its meaning hard to understand, but the basic principles are actually readily grasped. I was recently challenged to explain the 2nd Law at the level of a bright 13-year-old, and so here is my attempt. Continue reading

On Stephen Law on Scientism

scientism It’s good to see philosophers taking scientism seriously, and not just using the term as a bogey word. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry are editing a forthcoming volume on scientism (Total Science, University of Chicago Press) and some of the essays are appearing on the internet.

I’ll discuss here the draft chapter by Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London) who writes, discussing the proper scope of science: Continue reading

Telling science from pseudoscience and the demarcation problem

demarcPhilosophers of Science have long puzzled over what they call “the” demarcation problem, of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In the early 20th Century the Logical Positivists proposed the verification principle, that a statement was meaningful and scientific only if it could be empirically verified. Karl Popper then proposed a similar idea, that a scientific idea is one that can be falsified.

There is a lot of truth in both proposals, but neither can be interpreted too narrowly. The problem is that no statement can be verified or falsified in isolation. Science constructs whole webs of ideas, and it is the whole construct that is then compared to empirical data, to be adjusted and improved as necessary. Further, a statement such as Newton’s law of gravity can never be verified in the general sense, all we can say is that it worked well enough — as part of the wider web of ideas — in the particular instance we tested. Nor is it straightforward to falsify such a law. If our overall model is inconsistent with an observation then we could indeed alter one of the laws; but we might also overcome the inconsistency by altering some other part of the overall model; or we might doubt the reliability of the observations. Continue reading

Lamenting the reburial of ancient bones

In 2015 ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra and proceeded to destroy ancient ruins that they regarded as pagan or polytheistic. The World Heritage Site monuments were typically 2000 years old. Did ISIS have a right to destroy them? Most of us would say no, and would lament the loss of a heritage that cannot be replaced.

In saying that we are being culture-ist. That is, we are placing the values of our culture above those of ISIS, who, after all, would regard their acts as virtuous and as mandated by the highest authority, namely their religion. I readily plead guilty to be unapologetically culturist.

This comparison might be considered inappropriate, but in Nature this week I read about a 12,600-yr-old skeleton, the “Anzick Child”, that had been passed to Native American groups for reburial. The article lists 12 other skeletons, all older than 8000 yrs, that have either been reburied or might be. Reburial here effectively means their permanent loss, since they would decay relatively quickly under normal burial conditions.

As a scientist I am saddened by the loss of irreplaceable material that could tell us much about the past history of humans. I would regard such remains as part of the common heritage of us all and am unhappy about one group destroying them in the same way that I am unhappy about a group taking it upon itself to destroy Palmyra or the Bamiyan Buddha statues. This is obviously very culturist of me, but then I’ve already pleaded guilty. Continue reading