There are few times when something that I write is solidified for me the very next day, but some friends of mine posted this link on Facebook that gets at the exact point I made yesterday. It seems that the scientists that claimed they were able to coax a certain bacteria into taking up arsenic into their DNA (instead of phosphorous) were a bit sloppy with their methods. It certainly didn’t help that NASA used the media to garner unwarranted attention for this study. Now that this idea is out in the public, however, other labs can run their own experiments and we’ll eventually know the truth. This is the beauty of the science and the scientific method. Claims are testable and falsifiable. Bias can be avoided, and, if not, it can be overcome.
UPDATE: This is basically what the author of the original paper said in a statement.
Often, it can take years to figure out the truth. I’m currently reading a book about how science came to understand the origins of the univers (Big Bang by Simon Singh). One of the things they first had to figure out was whether all the stars we see are in our own galaxy or outside of it. It seems so simple and obvious now, but there was a big debate about it back in the early 1920s and it took half of the decade to figure it out at that time. They (Edwin Hubble, specifically) simply used the evidence that they gathered through better telescopes and a relatively new technology called photography to come to the truth.
Theological truth, though, cannot be tested. How are you to know if you believe correctly about the Bible? About atonement? About trinitarianism? Back when I was a believer, I know that I changed my beliefs a lot. Calvinism v. Arminianism, Penal Substitution Atonement Theory v. other atonement theories, Social Gospel v. Evangelicalism. And so on. The Bible both supports and contradicts each of these, yet supporters of each think they have it “right.” Their claims cannot be tested, though. They cannot be proved right or wrong.
And so, I shed it all. I am free to find the truth.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting the California Academy of Sciences. I realized as I approached the “Islands of Evolution” that this is my first visit to a natural science museum since I shed my religious beliefs. I was able to awe at the wonders of evolution without the mental gymnastics trying to explain away the evidence that was right in front of me. Everything just made sense, and it was all beautiful.
This way of thinking has really freed me. I used to be so caught up in minuscule points of theology, wondering and worrying if I believed the “right” things. Looking back, I see there was really no way to know for sure. There are so many ways of interpreting religious scriptures and traditions, and each generation changes the way they interpret the texts based on what is happening in the world and the moral and logical implications of increased human understanding.
With a skeptical, scientific mind I feel that I can learn the truth. Hypotheses can be proved by evidence. I have no pre-conceived biases other than what has been tested and proved by scientific research. There are things that I don’t know and don’t understand, and I can be ok with that, especially since there aren’t eternal consequences (for both me and others who I might interact with) based on my understanding.
I have been thinking a lot about “happiness” lately. I am happy; at least I am happy with parts of my life. I doubt that there is anyone who is honestly, perfectly, completely content. Yet, and I assume much like most people, I want to be happier. I worry about big decisions that I have to make soon; will one decision lead to more happiness than the other? While thinking about this, I came across this article in Psychology Today, and it has caused me to reconsider some things. When I really look back, my overall happiness hasn’t been much affected by big events or decisions, at least in the long term.
What does seem to affect my happiness? I came across a new study that has helped me to think about that a little better, too. Letting your mind drift during mindless tasks seems to make you unhappy, because (if you are anything like me) the wandering mind usually focuses on negative things – rehashing old events, worrying about future events, or thinking about other tasks that you should be doing. It seems that I just need to clear my mind and focus on the present. (Sounds new age-y doesn’t it?) An activity that helps you “clear your mind” may be an activity that actually requires quite a bit of concentration, such that you focus on the activity exclusively, thus making you happier. For me, when I’m out on my bicycle I feel very happy.
I should probably do that more.
(via Bicycle Design)
I learned today of an amazing new transmission for bicycles that houses 18 speeds in the bottom bracket (where the pedals connect). It looks like an amazing feat of engineering, and perfect for mountain biking. I’m always wondering what the next big mechanical change in cycling will be. I think this may be it. The only problem is that the frame has to be custom as well. I’m assuming this company will sell complete bikes initially, and perhaps other bike makers will design their frames to accept the gearbox.
I wasn’t originally planning a follow up to my original post about organic foods and farming, but I came a across a couple of articles that really drive home the point for me. (The point that only science and critical thinking can truly unravel the confusion around the subject.)
First, though I believe the GMO foods are the only efficient way to feed the world, it seems that because they allow the increased use of a certain pesticide or herbicide, that they tend to have seemingly dangerous amounts of that chemical. This is from a research paper published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences. Obviously, the conclusion is the part that you will most want to read. The rational response seems to me to be careful about how much of the pesticide and herbicide is being applied so that it is not over-applied just because it doesn’t hurt the crop.
Second, for those who watched Food, Inc. and learned about how bad it is for cattle (specifically of the bovine sort) to each a corn-based diet versus a grassfed diet, comes this news. Grass-fed beef releases more methane due to digestion than grain-fed. Of course, in Food, Inc., the main concern was for the safety of the meat, as grass-fed beef has much less e-coli in the stomach. For me it just highlights the fact that we live in a very complex world. It is easy to focus on one part of that world and declare that this way is “better,” but when you expand the boundaries of your system, often there are unexpected trade-offs.
Looks like I’m doing pretty good with my resolution so far. I already have more mileage this January than I did last year, and I’ve got a 30-40 mile ride today. Though I didn’t ride on the rollers this week, I did get out last Saturday with the club, and will be going out again today. I’d still like to ride the rollers during the week, even though I’m getting a real ride in today, but it is very hard (mentally) to hook the bike back up to my training setup after getting outside.
I felt really good last week, too…surprisingly good. Obviously, I have lost some strength and stamina, but not as much as I did last year during the winter, so I’m doing something kind of right.
Update (2010|01|24): Here is the updated graph after today’s ride.
In the past few months I have done a lot of thinking (prompted by podcasts, news, blogs, etc.) regarding farming, specifically whether organic farming is good or bad. Though I grew up on a farm, I am definitely no expert, but I’d like to share my thoughts and would love to hear your comments.
Initially, being the godless liberal that I am, I was all about organic farming, buying local (as much as is reasonable), and “eating slow” as I believe it is called. I understood that meat takes a lot more resources (water, grain, etc.) to raise than vegetables. Livestock also leaves a much larger carbon footprint, and produces other greenhouse gases, namely methane (produced by cows). I also thought that organic farming needed less pesticides and insecticides, and was generally better for the earth. I figured that local foods were more efficient, used less resources, and improve the local economy. My thinking was that GMO seeds and crops led to seed-company monopolies and possibly seed crises, not to mention the problems if the modified genes found their way into other plants.
All of this seemed reasonable to me, but I hadn’t really scrutinized these ideas or subjected them to much critical thinking. As I began to do so, I found some of the ideas to be wrong, some to be true, while others I haven’t really been able to prove either way. The main resources that really challenged me were the Skeptoid podcast (specifically episodes #5, #19, #112, & #166) and the Genetic Maize blog (also on Twitter).
Now, though still godless, but perhaps less liberal, I find myself not too worried about whether the food I eat is organic-or-not, GMO-or-not, local-or-not, or meat-or-not. I generally eat what is available in the house. My housemates seem to prefer organic, so I eat it. We have enough money to buy it, so I don’t complain or worry about the extra cost. If something is available locally, I find it reasonable to support local farmers, restaurants, and therefore the local economy. If something turns up on the table that is GMO, or non-GMO I eat it because it all tastes the same. I generally eat a lot less meat that I did growing up, and initially made this a conscious decision. Now, though, it is just that there is less meat around, partly because of the preferences of my housemates, and partly because of habit.
I said all of that to say this: take some time to think critically about why you do things. Listen to the arguments for and against your position (and not just the arguments against your position articulated by those who agree with you). See if your ideas stand up to scientific scrutiny. You may find that they do, that they don’t, or that there are good arguments for both sides. Be open to changing your mind. Even feel free to change the reason why you believe something. I have found that when I have balanced information I can be more relaxed, laid back, and less worried!