Archive for the personal views Category

What TAM Australia Means to Me

Posted in News, personal views, skepticism, Trips and Visits with tags , , , on June 9, 2010 by cpolsonb

Just a few days ago it was announced that TAM Australia tickets would go on early-bird sale June 20th, with full public sale on July 4th. What is “TAM” and why do I care? First a little background.

TAM stands for ‘The Amazing Meeting’ and is a science and critical thinking conference hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). For the last seven years it’s been held in Las Vega and just last year they branched out across the pond and held a TAM in London. Now it’s our turn, time for a TAM meeting down under! If you’re not aware, the JREF is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering critical thinking in new generations and providing information and resources for the public and media about paranormal or psychic claims (amongst a host of other things). Most famously they are know for the $1,000,000US challenge, the prize pool of which is available to any claimant that can demonstrate the existence of anything paranormal under stringent and mutually agreed upon conditions. The Amazing Randi himself is far more than a name for the JREF, he is still, at the venerable age of 82 a fearless warrior on the front-line of battling harmful pseudoscience and paranormal nonsense.

When I was first introduced to the organized skeptical movement in 2006 through the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast it became immediately obvious just what a figure James Randi has been over the last half a century. The SGU team with their ‘Randi Speaks’ segment gave me a direct channel to hear from Randi and the podcast itself opened my eyes wide to movement as a whole. Now, four years on I am completely enthralled by the entire culture, constantly reading blogs, browsing the SGU forum, writing my own blog, following fellow skeptics on twitter, reading the books and of course, still listening to the podcasts! (with a host of others like Skepticality & Skeptoid added to the pile). Over the last four years the idea of attending a TAM event was like a far off dream, something that I may be able to do in a hefty number of years. I imagined by the time I finally attended a TAM (if they were still running), most of the names I’m familiar with would have passed out of the spotlight in the movement and made way for equally hard-working, yet less personally important folks.

But now the chance has come. Later in the year I will (hopefully) be flying off and coming face to face (or at least room to room) with many of my skeptical heroes, including the group that got me into it (the SGU). TAM offers a chance to connect face to face with international skeptics and reach far beyond the small pocket I’ve seen in Perth. I have no idea what the conference will be like or how comfortable I’ll feel at a conference of mostly older professionals but I have no doubt it will be a remarkable and gratifying experience.

Now I just have to grab an Australian Skeptic subscription so I can get an early bird ticket. Oh, and I need to start thinking about why I deserve a $150 student reimbursement :P

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What’s This About Methane On Mars!?

Posted in astronomy, biology, personal views with tags , , on May 6, 2010 by cpolsonb

I have had at least a few people ask me directly “what exciting stuff is there left to discover in science?” Other than the obvious fact that there are definitely exciting answers to questions we haven’t even conceived of yet, there are also many major scientific mysteries answerable in this lifetime. I do not look think badly of these people, they likely haven’t had the exposure to learn about cutting edge modern scientific mysteries. It is also true that many of these mysteries, like those potentially answered by the LHC, require a deal of background knowledge to wrap your mind around. Nevertheless a few hours on wikipedia browsing major concepts in physics and astronomy is all anyone needs to appreciate the awesomeness of things like black holes, dark matter, entanglement, supernovae, exo-planets or the Higgs Boson.

This blog entry is about what I consider possibly the most exciting scientific question easily answerable in my lifetime. That question is “What’s with the methane on Mars!?”

What is so exciting about some gas leaking from Mars you might ask? First a little background. Methane on Mars was first discovered by a team at NASA back in 2003 using infrared telescopes fitted with spectrometry devices that break down incoming light into it’s constituent spectrum and can infer chemical composition from the signature or absorbed wavelength. This methane is being released annually (Martian annual) during the warmer periods at a number of locations. The gas is released in a series of plumes which can release as much as 19,000 tons of methane each!

So what does this all mean? Well we begin by considering all possible explanations for these methane plumes that scientists consider plausible. A likely explanation is that some geologic process is going on underneath Mars that is creating this methane. The only known way this could be happening on Mars is if water, carbon dioxide and the planet’s internal heat are converting iron oxide (rust) into serpentine minerals (common rock-forming hydrous magnesium iron phyllosilicate minerals). One major stumbling block with this explanation is that Mars is not thought to be geologically active and the required heat has not yet been found. It is possible that pockets of methane created in aeons past are stored beneath the surface and released annually as fissures form from cracking permafrost but this adds in another layer of complexity. There are other geologic questions that need to be answered before a complete explanation could be established and any such answer would still provide fascinating and as yet unknown information about ongoing activity on the Red Planet previously not thought to exist.

Another explanation, recently discounted by published research suggested that the methane might be left over on Mars from meteorites. Calculations have shown that the amount of meteorites needed to continually maintain the levels of methane found on Mars is far beyond what could be considered possible. There are other gaping holes in this hypothesis, such as why would the methane be confined to a few discrete pockets and why is it only being released annually. After considering the possible explanation of geologic activity and the unlikely explanation of meteoric activity we are left with one other major hypothesis.

LIFE!
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In Dog We Trust – The Case For Man’s Best Friend

Posted in biology, personal views with tags , , , on April 20, 2010 by cpolsonb

According to a recent survey about 36% of households in the USA have at least one dog. According to the Pet Food Institute this totals to around 57.6 million dogs, meaning there are nearly 3 times the amount of dogs in America as there are humans in Australia. Americans spend around $5.6 billion on food for their dogs and the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates around $7 billion dollars are spent annually on keeping dogs healthy. Why and how are humans so connected to an entirely separate and distantly related species like Canis familiaris? What makes dogs stand out from other domesticated animals and what can the study of human-canine co-habitation tell us about our own evolutionary history?

Let’s start with a very brief look at the ancestry of both dogs and humans. The canine group has its origins in North America and were originally small forest dwelling carnivores around the size of a fox. When open herd grazing ungulates like horse and antelope began to dominate the vast plains of North America the ancient canines radiated out from the forest onto the open ground. This created a canine ancestor that began evolving into a swift pack hunter in order to tackle the ungulate herds. It is thought that some of these ancestors migrated over the Bering straight into Asia, Europe and Africa around 10 million years ago. Over the next few million years these canids formed into the wolves, jackals, coyotes and painted dogs (not actually ‘dogs’) that we are familiar with today. The grey wolf (Canis lupus), the species from which domestic dogs arose evolved at the end of the Late Pleistocene around 300,000 years ago.

Meanwhile in Africa the ancestors of humans had been evolving steadily. The earliest member of the homo genus is currently identified as Homo habilis who lived from around 2.4-1.4 million years ago. Homo habilis was already using stone tools though it’s leg structure was more suited to tree dwelling than plains walking. After (and alongside) habilis arose Homo ergaster, who later gave rise to Homo erectus and Homo antecessor. Erectus and Antecessor were the first human ancestors to move far out of Africa and into Asia and Europe, both around 1.2 million years ago. Then from Antecessor came Rhodesiensis which finally evolved into Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Homo sapiens have lived from around 250,000 years ago till present while poor old neanderthalensis disappeared around 30,000 years ago. So while canid ancestors beat us into Europe and Asia by a good margin the grey wolf from which dogs evolved arose at around the same time as modern humans.

The exact circumstances surrounding the first co-habitations of wolf and man are not known but evidence suggests the earliest interactions took place more than 100,000 years ago. Even before this time it is thought that humans may have been observing and learning from the wolves about how to hunt large ungulates on the tundra. What is known is that by 30,000 years ago dogs had split from wolves and were living alongside humans. The earliest clearly identified dog skeleton was found in Belgium and dates to 31,000 years ago. The March 2010 edition of the Journal Nature published a study that looked at tracing the geographic origins of the domestic dog using genetic markers. The genetic evidence shows that the domestic dog originated in the Middle-East, rather than East Asia as previously thought. It is logical to assume therefore that if the oldest dog remains we have are from Western Europe but dogs evolved in the Mid-East then the split must have taken placed many thousands of years before our oldest skeleton.

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Chronicle of Belief: Part 3 – Nature’s Value

Posted in biology, personal views, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by cpolsonb

This third installment of Chronicle of Belief is about a subject very personal to me as a budding Biologist; nature. It is very easy to say that the natural world is a thing worth protecting and few fellow skeptics or rationalists would disagree, but why? What is so important about nature and is there an objective rational justification for why nature has value? To begin with let’s look at what my particular field, Conservation Biology is really all about.

For many people I imagine conservation conjures images of protesters and hippies, marching in the streets or standing in front of bull dozers. That sort of naïve environmentalism is however often irrational, counter-productive and/or used as a means to push some other ideological agenda. Conservation Biology is a scientific discipline that looks at how biological communities react to change, how different species and the environment interact with one another and how we as humans can ensure the continued existence of these systems. At it’s core Conservation Biology has a number of guiding principles:

Principles of Conservation Biology

1. Evolution is the basic axiom that unites all biology. Conservation biologists do not aim to conserve the status quo, nor stop the evolutionary process but to ensure that populations can adapt naturally to environmental change.

2. The ecological world is dynamic and non-equilibrial. Conservation based on a static view of nature is fundamentally flawed and a mis-representation of the natural world. A dynamic view allows for a deeper understanding.

3. The presence of humans must be included in conservation planning. Conservation biologists aims to integrate humans into the equation and study their impact.

These principles are text-book simplifications of a complex scientific field and highlight the dynamic, integrated approach that conservation biologists must take when approaching questions. It is also valuable to note that conservation biology is a ‘crisis discipline’, having been born from the outrage at anthropogenic mass extinctions and environmental destruction of the last few centuries. In this way it is also a science of eternal vigilance, there can never be a complete theory conservation biology as it is reactionary and time dependent. It is also not an exact science, biological systems are far too complex to ever predict with the certainty of say for example, a chemical reaction.

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Chronicle of Belief: Part 2 – Secular Humanism

Posted in personal views, Philosophy with tags , , , , on March 6, 2010 by cpolsonb

It’s time for the second installment of my “Chronicle of Belief” where I attempt to put into words my own world-view and the opinions and positions that help define me. This entry is about my identification with the label Secular Humanist, a particular world-view with which I sympathize and identify strongly. Before I begin explaining secular humanism I should start by clarifying my position on other terms commonly used by those who reject the supernatural and/or demand falsifiable evidence for claims about reality. Of these people some of the most common terms I hear used are skeptics, rationalists, critical thinkers, agnostics, atheists and humanists. I must make clear that this blog entry is not about arguing for or against the existence of divine beings. I am planning on dividing my evaluation of particular arguments for divinity into a series of future blog posts. This is simply about which branch of non-believers I identify with and why. I am also not discussing which particular belief systems I believe are objectively “better” than any other. While I do believe strongly that beliefs in the supernatural range along a spectrum with demonstrably harmful on one side (Jonestown) and perfectly harmless on the other (loose deists) this post is not a discussion on such matters. I shall enter now into a case by case discussion on particular labels associated with a rejection of the supernatural:

Atheism vs Agnosticism
This issue is perhaps one of the strongest and most passionately debated topics dividing non-believers today. At the core of the issue is a true lack of definition for each of the terms. As well as this there are a myriad of sub-divisions and cross-overs between the camps. I couldn’t dream of covering the issue in any real depth, there are hundreds of pages of blog entries and forum threads which have attempted to do that already. Instead I’ll hit on a couple of main points as I see them.

One interpretation of atheism is that it requires an assertion that no gods exists. In this particular strand a truth claim is made that positively argues that there are no gods or divine beings. While this view is an honest interpretation of atheism it is also commonly set up as a straw man by believers in order to characterize the atheistic world-view as dogmatic and unscientific. I reject this view of atheism as there is no scientifically verifiable way to prove a negative. There is an equal amount of proof that the god of Abraham doesn’t exist as there is that a Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t exist. All that can be done scientifically is to prove that any interaction with reality claimed to be divine (like prayer or creationism) actually occurred through natural means. So far this effort has been successful and I’m not aware of any testable divine claim that has turned out to be truly supernatural.

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Chronicle of Belief: Part 1 – Labeling

Posted in personal views, Philosophy, Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 23, 2010 by cpolsonb

I thought I’d take some time to draw out a sketch of my own beliefs or worldview. There is far too much to condense into a single entry so I shall instead space it out over a number of broader topics. Before I begin I wish to stress that all of these posts will be an attempt to put into words my current belief and are subject to change via rational arguments. This is an important difference between people similar to myself (whatever label they wish to use) and those who follow dogma blindly (which is only a subset of people with supernatural/divine belief systems), in so far as I am perfectly willing to modify and refine my personal beliefs as I learn new information and mature as an individual.

One issue over which my opinion has been rather fluid as of late is that of labels. Often times I avoid the use of labels, arguing that they provide others with opportunity to make unfounded assumptions and put into practice pre-conceived notions. As we come to learn new labels we inevitably begin a process of shaping our opinion of that group of people. This opinion is formed through a number of means, chiefly our personal meetings with these people, stories or memes that circulate through society, media image and place in popular culture. As a quick demonstration of what I mean please conjure into your mind thoughts and feelings associated with the following ‘labels’: fundamentalist, emo, atheist, nerd and bogan. These images in your mind both consciously and subconsciously shape your interaction with any individual who self-identifies as or you identify as belonging to these groups. In sociology this is referred to as “Labeling Theory” and is described as follows:

“The theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them, and is associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping.”

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