Friday, October 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, Universe!

The universe is now 6013 years old.

At least, that's true according to the calculations of James Ussher. Specifically, the universe was created at noon on October 23, 4004 B.C.

I first wrote about Ussher in 1988, as a freshman at Emporia State University. You can read the essay here. It's called "Does God Exist?" but it makes no effort to answer the question. Rather, it explores what happens when people try to answer it.

I take Ussher's research seriously: the mid-seventeenth century, James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland, figured out that the earth was created in 4004 B.C. As Ussher was a noted Bible scholar whose name carried weight, science had an obstacle to overcome for over three hundred years. The sensory evidence scientists used contradicted the religious evidence Christians used. Note that Ussher’s statement on the age of the earth was a theory, not a postulate. It was based on the Bible which in turn is based on the concept of God. Ussher’s theory is similar to scientific theories on the age of the earth, which are based on radiometric dating which is in turn based on sensory evidence that radiometric dating works.

So Ussher's work isn't better or worse than scientific approaches, just based on different assumptions (which are almost certainly flawed--but he didn't know that).

I'm not alone in respecting Ussher's work, even as I reject it. Stephen Jay Gould, in Eight Little Piggies, has a fascinating essay on the subject: "Fall in the House of Ussher."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rhetoric of science v. rhetoric of technology

What is the essential difference between the rhetoric of science and the rhetoric of technology? The two disciplines are often lumped together, but in my view, they shouldn't be. Technology changes the way we communicate about facts. It changes our understanding of facts. It even changes the nature of the facts themselves. All of these points are essential to rhetoric.

I don't see how you can dispute the first point if you're reading this on my blog. With a click of a button, I can give millions of people access to my ideas. They may not choose to take advantage of this access, of course, but the principle remains. When PZ Myers posts something, it reaches people a lot more quickly and easily than if he were publishing it in a book. (And I might add that bound books are pretty impressive technology in their own right.) Perhaps more relevant as far as rhetoric is concerned, these people can reply much more easily than they could without technology, too. In effect, as my colleague Bethany Iverson has argued, the Internet is recreating the ancient interactive environments in which the principles of rhetoric were first developed, but it's doing so on a vastly larger scale.

Google is one obvious part of a huge web of technology that changes the way we learn and think. What's the population of Massena, Iowa? You almost certainly don't know--but you might as well. You can look it up in seconds. Even if you're away from a computer, you can look up more things on a mobile device than you could have in the entire Library of Alexandria. This easy access to facts (and to nonfactual statements) makes it easier for writers to support their arguments, and easier for readers to challenge them. Are you really 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder in your home, if you own a gun? A quick Google search will allow you to check something that might otherwise have gone unquestioned.

None of what I've said so far is likely to be very controversial. My last claim, that technology changes the nature of facts themselves, may be more so. But what I mean by it is really quite simple. Although a purist might find this distinction overly simplistic, I think most scientists try to understand the world as unmodified by humanity. In some cases, they may manipulate their environment to study it. This is called experimentation, and it's intended to shed light on what things are like when they're not manipulated. In other cases, they may study the effects of humanity on the environment, as climate scientists do. In general, however, I stand by my statement.

Technology, however, does something quite different. It actively changes the environment--and therefore the facts about it. Computers, cell phones, roads, ballpoint pens, nuclear weapons ... all of these are products of technology. We couldn't study the rhetoric used by proponents of nuclear weapons if the weapons didn't exist in the first place.

There are other differences, as well, between the rhetoric of science and the rhetoric of technology, but excessive length is a rhetorical error I strive to avoid. The other points will have to wait for another day.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The data in the bacteria

Richard Dawkins, in The Greatest Show on Earth, devotes much of Chapter 5 to describing the work of Richard Lenski, who performs experiments on the evolution of bacteria. "Creationists hate it," Dawkins explains, because it shows evolution in action, and "it also undermines their central dogma of 'irreducible complexity'" (130-131).*

Creationist Andrew Schlafly asked Lenski to send his data. He agreed to. Then "Lenski went on to make the telling point that his best data are stored in frozen bacterial cultures, which anybody could, in principle, examine to verify his conclusions" (131).

Now this, to me, is a fascinating concept. The data are in the bacteria. The implication seems to be that Lenski's job, in writing his report, was merely to put on paper what already existed in nature. By extension, that may be viewed as the job of scientists in general. Language is a conduit between nature and mind. Read the words, and you know what's really out there.

Elsewhere in this blog, I've stated firmly that I do believe there is a Real World Out There. The Earth really is round (although not a perfect sphere), and bacteria really do evolve (and there are no qualifications for this statement).

At the same time, I'm skeptical of the implications I just mentioned. There are facts in nature, yes. In that sense, we can say that the data are in the bacteria. But even so simple an organism as a bacterium has a great deal of data in it. The choice of which data to emphasize is a rhetorical one. Not everyone will be working from the same concepts, so not everyone will choose the same data.

The conclusions are even more open to interpretation. I'm fairly certain that even if Schlafly were qualified to examine the cultures, he wouldn't come to the same conclusions Lenski did. One obvious response to this statement is that Schlafly's conclusions would be wrong. That misses my point, though: the same data can be interpreted by different people in different ways. It has no meaning until that meaning is created by humans. The moons of Jupiter, seen through Galileo's telescope, could as well be defects in the glass without the proper context.

Let me be clear. The moons of Jupiter were there long before Galileo--or any other human--was born. I am not claiming that the fact of their existence was created by humans. The knowledge of their existence, however, was.

Language, then, is not, and cannot be, simply a conduit between nature and mind. The most it can do is help lead to a shared understanding of our world. And I must say, that's quite enough to ask of it.

*Not all creationists emphasize irreducible complexity. It's mostly at the focus of the intelligent design theorists, led by Michael Behe, who does believe in a type of evolution--albeit one guided by a Designer. That doesn't deny the point Dawkins makes, though.

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Monday, October 19, 2009


After a long absence, I'm returning to this blog. Past entries have been very helpful to me, and I hope also to an occasional other reader.

Oddly, the blog has been useful to me even when I haven't been writing in it. I keep asking myself how I would write about this or that thought in my blog. On some sheet of paper somewhere, I have a list of topics I want to blog about, and on lots of little slips of paper scattered throughout my life, I have notes and the dates I came up with them. Some of them, unfortunately, are excessively cryptic. "Autorhetoric"? I have some ideas on what I might have been thinking when I wrote that one-word note to myself, but I'm not at all sure which of them is correct. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's enough that the note inspired several thoughts between its original writing on an old receipt and its current electronic version that you read here.

Will the blog be even more useful to me when I do write in it? Let's find out.