Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Archive: August, 2011

POSTED: Wednesday, August 31, 2011, 12:10 PM

Somehow, to many people in the Philadelphia region, it was obvious from the start that Hurricane Irene would turn out to be much wimpier than the experts forecast. And this week their smug i-told-you-so attitude is saturating the comments sections of publications and seeping into editorial pages.

How did they know all the forecasts and news stories were hype? If you listen to them, it’s because they’re smarter than the rest of us. Only a fool would be so dumb as to worry just because a swirling mass of wind and water bigger than Texas was headed our way.

To psychologists, there are other possible explanations for this week’s smugness. First, there’s something called outcome bias, said Penn evolutionary psychologist Rob Kurzban. In short, that’s the tendency people have when they make a correct guess to assume after-the-fact that they arrived at their answer through their prescience and insight. Once a guess turns out to be correct, it became a calculation based on obvious empirical facts to which all those dummies were blind.  

Faye Flam @ 12:10 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, August 29, 2011, 1:30 AM

When evangelical Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry said evolution was a theory that has "got some gaps," he showed that if anything, religious and political gripes with evolution are intensifying, even as Darwin's idea remains established in the bedrock of science.

Other Republican runners are equally hostile to evolution - Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul support the teaching of creationism. When pushed, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have espoused a sort of mix, Gingrich saying that he believes in both creation and evolution, and Romney saying that he believes God designed the universe but evolution shaped the human body.

It was telling that even science-positive Republican candidate Jon Huntsman said that he "believed" in evolution, rather than, say, that he accepted it or appreciated its power to explain life's diversity. Then he qualified his statement with "Call me crazy," acknowledging that to accept mainstream science puts him outside the mainstream of his party.

@ 1:30 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Friday, August 26, 2011, 3:17 PM

The first official Planet-of-the-Apes quiz is finally here. While it was published in print on Monday, the online version of this is now interactive.

This is an open book test, so feel free to look up answers in previous posts, or refer to the” Darwin 101” essay that’s featured on the blog home page. Enjoy and stay safe and dry this weekend.


Faye Flam @ 3:17 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, August 23, 2011, 4:47 PM

We’re experiencing some technical difficulties with the first planet-of-the-apes quiz, but I’ve been promised an interactive version will be ready to post soon.  In the meantime, however, the science/religion issue is hot.

Yesterday I received a book called “The Language of Science and Faith” by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins. In the first chapter, titled  “Do I Have to Believe in Evolution”, they lay out some pretty compelling evidence. In their view, you can still get into Christian heaven and  accept evolution. But the more pressing question is, can you get into the Republican primary as a viable candidate?

John Huntsman apparently thinks you can, since he’s now publicly stated that he “believes in” evolution. That was his counterpoint to statements last week by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who said evolution is “a theory with some holes,” and proudly proclaimed that Texas students learn creationism too.

Faye Flam @ 4:47 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, August 22, 2011, 6:18 PM

On Mondays my column is supposed to appear here, as well as in the Health and Science section of the Inquirer. This week I wrote a quiz, with some great Tony Auth illustrations. It ran in the paper but it didn’t get posted online. The online people are trying to fix the problem.

I will therefore post the quiz in the blog tomorrow, and today I will post the next round in the debate over faith, science and God. It remains quite heated, with Dr. Winterstein making an argument that it takes faith not to believe in supernatural entities. But does it? 

My point remains that assuming the conclusion, that abiogenesis has occured,  simply because "we're here" is far from employing a rigorous scientific method.  This is where it is more like religious faith than scientific belief.  Although the baseball analogy only goes so far, you have decided the rules of the game, that there was any winner at all. Dr. Elisa Winterstein

Faye Flam @ 6:18 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Friday, August 19, 2011, 4:33 PM

Another round of letters are exchnaged between our lawyer and our scientist. The discussion, which is a continuation of this post, starts to encapsulate some of the fundamental areas of friction between science and religion. It also shows that this issue can be discussed in a polite way. The first letter, from the scientist, is a direct response to a letter from lawyer Steve Mendesohn. I’ll reprint the end of Mendelsohn's letter so you don’t have to look to the earlier post:

 If I tell you that the Phillies and the Marlins played a complete baseball game yesterday in which the Phillies were leading 14-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, you might have enough evidence to "believe" that the Phillies won the game, even if I didn't tell you the final outcome, but you wouldn't know for sure.  Nevertheless, faith is not required to “believe” that there was in fact a winner of that game.

 So, too, with abiogenesis.  Scientists might not yet know whether life originated in a reducing or a nonreducing atmosphere, but that does not mean that faith is required to "believe" in abiogenesis, just like faith is not required to "believe" that there was a winner in a baseball game when you don't know for sure who the winner was.  Simple logic will suffice.

Faye Flam @ 4:33 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, August 16, 2011, 5:53 PM

Over the next few days, I’ll blog about some letters exchanged between a scientist and a lawyer. Their argument: Whether scientists must be as faithful as religious people to believe life originated from non-life and evolved into its present forms. The exchange continued for several rounds, which I’ll continue to post. Which one takes which side? You might be surprised.

Then, in a week or two, I’ll write a column in which biologists and other experts weight on their argument and whether the scientist or the lawyer employs more scientific, critical thinking.   

The letter that kicked it all off was published in the Inquirer’s letters section:

Faye Flam @ 5:53 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, August 15, 2011, 5:00 AM
Tony Auth / The Philadelphia Inquirer (

Silly as the movie gets, Rise of the Planet of the Apes explores big questions about human evolution.

In the film, scientists use chimp subjects in a gene therapy experiment that triggers the growth of new brain cells. That makes some of the chimps act a lot like humans - adopting language, writing, and drawing. Which raises the question: If chimpanzees got brainier, would they start acting like humans? And if we tweaked a few chimp genes, could we endow them with the ability to speak, organize in groups, and seize the Golden Gate Bridge?

Some experts say it's not so far-fetched while others say more neurons are not enough to get our nearest animal relatives to discuss philosophy.

Faye Flam @ 5:00 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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