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Local Members Write

by Hank Kocol

Activism

by Hank Kocol

The dictionary definition of activism is "the doctrine or policy of taking positive, direct action to achieve an end, especially, a political or social end." Action, of course is defined as "the doing of something; behavior, habitual conduct."

So, before we take action or become activist, we must have a political or social end in sight. For people in this audience, we may have as many ends in mind as there are people. Some will be primarily interested in State/Church Separation. Others may be primarily interested in advancing rational, as opposed to superstitious, thought. Still others may wish most to make the term "atheist" an accepted term in this society, so steeped in religious acceptance. For many of us, as for me, there are multiple ends. I wish to advance and continue the separation doctrine brought to this country, paraphrasing James Madison, so that these shores would not be steeped with the blood of religious conflict as had Europe for centuries before, and since. How do we act in ways to promote separation?

I am very interested in public speaking. Thus, I have been a member of three Toastmasters chapters. If you know the Toastmasters culture, you are aware that the traditional meeting contains a portion entitled an "Invocation." Most of the time, the invocation is used as an excuse for someone to pray or proselytize a particular religious doctrine. In two of the chapters, which happened to meet on federal and State property respectively, I was able to eliminate that portion of the program simply by using the separation argument effectively. In the third chapter, the same end was accomplished by appealing to the diversity of our society. These are small steps, but they can be taken.

Recently, I gave a speech to my local speakers' group concerning the "Ten Commandments Support Act." This Act, overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives, in its infinitesimal wisdom, is its proposed solution to the school killings with which we have all become familiar in the past few years. The solution is to encourage the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools nationwide. I pointed out the fact that there are at least two versions of the Decalogue in the xtian tradition (protestant and catholic); most people are completely unaware of the existence of two versions. Which would be posted? If government decides to post one version, it is telling those of a different xtian tradition that they are not counted as important. Then what about students from other religious traditions, Judaism, Buddhist, Islam, Freethinkers? In speaking with Jewish friends, I found that Judaism does not emphasize the Ten Commandments, even though they appear in Exodus. Thus, I was able to question governmental intrusion into religion, and vice versa, without using the "A" word. I am sure that others here can come up with other separation issues which they can discuss from a Constitutional or fairness viewpoint.

In the same instance, I sent a letter to the editor of the local newspaper which did, in fact, publish the letter. I sent a revised version to "my" congressional representative who voted FOR the Act; he and I disagree so drastically, that if he were to say it was Thursday, I would be absolutely sure it really was Sunday. I do not expect to change his mind; I simply will continue to show him that there are residents of his district of a different mind from his. We can all write such letters. After all, I think that every newspaper in the country has a Letters-to-the-Editor page wherein readers can express themselves on current issues. The religionists certainly get their letters published; it is up to us to make our views known. Legislators need to become aware that there are different views out here.

In advancing rational thought, I have for years spoken to groups concerning the scientific method as a way of understanding nature and our place within it. I continue this mode of teaching even in private conversations when people ask my opinion on scientific matters. I am able to distinguish between superstition, hype, and rational thought with a few well-chosen comments concerning the topic under discussion, be it christ's picture on a potato or alien abduction. Many of Carl Sagan's writings come in very handy for this purpose.

As to developing an acceptance of atheism, I have been open about my philosophy, unfortunately, however, not as in-your-face as many religionists are; I am a bit more sensitive. When people ask about my religion, I usually simply say that I have none or that I consider the subject private, depending upon the circumstances. I see religion as, of necessity, entailing faith (the ability to believe something in spite of all evidence against it), and ritual. As a freethinker, I do not accept faith as a reason for any belief. If the conversation extends beyond religion to a philosophy of life (You MUST believe in SOMETHING), I describe myself as a humanist. Such definition can sometimes lead to a very interesting conversation concerning values, ethics, afterlife, etc. Some religionists, unable to imagine someone with NO faith or worship, ask sincerely whether I am a devil-worshipper; such a question can obviously bring in further ideas concerning faith and worship. With the appropriate audience, the conversation can then really take off.

Other activist activities with which I have been associated was a year-long picket of the under-construction mormon temple in Bellevue, WA, during the days of the fight for the ERA. I have walked in marches concerned with "Fight the Right" in San Francisco, with ERA marches, and in other parades concerned with various social issues. Since the founding of Atheists and Other Freethinkers in Sacramento about seven years ago, our identifying banner has been proudly carried on marches over the local area.

The question then arises, "What can each of us do?" especially those of us who must live in isolated communities where we feel like the only atheist around. How about those who are too shy or inhibited to march in public? I suggest starting small, perhaps writing letters to the editor and to your Congressional and State representatives. DO NOT get discouraged if the letters do not bear immediate fruit, nor all get published immediately. Newspapers have certain restrictions on published letters, such as length and frequency (some papers will not publish more than one letter per writer per month). Keep your letter to one subject. Do not try to solve all the world's problems in one letter, a sure way to have the letter disregarded.

The same criteria apply to letters to legislators - short, to-the-point, single subject. Do NOT include threats to vote for the opponent, a sure way to be disregarded. Remember also to praise a legislator who does the right thing. I recently sent a letter to Barbara Boxer praising her stances with which I agree and thanking her for her support for my position.

ALL legislators have e-mail, so the letter you send does not even need postage. How easy can you get? All you need do is to compose and click on "SEND."

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Report of FFRF Northern California Conference - July 31, 1999, San Francisco

by Hank and Cleo Kocol

The Northern California Mini-Convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, FFRF, was held in San Francisco on July 30-31, 1999. With attendance count at 167, it was more than a mini-convention. Among those present were ten members of AOF: Steve, Janet, and Jason Borchers; Bea and Ken Dunn; Dave Flanders; Cleo and Hank Kocol; Eric Pengelley; and Paul Storey. The Convention proper began on the morning of Saturday, July 31, although a social hour and a Dan Barker Concert were held on Friday evening.

The Saturday program began with the FFRF-traditional non-prayer breakfast followed by the also traditional moment of bedlam.

Don Hewitson, Atheists of the San Francisco Region, and the local contact for FFRF who did the bulk of the work in organizing the Convention, spoke re "From Episcopalian Priest to Atheist Activist," delineating his work as a priest and his deconversion to atheism. He has been active in atheist circles ever since.

Ken Dunn, AOF member, spoke of being "An Atheist in a Foxhole" during some of the most intense battles in the Pacific in World War II. He also said that, of course, there were many other atheists in foxholes, contrary to the religious propaganda that stipulates otherwise.

Dr. Eric Pengelley then spoke concerning "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection - 140 Years On." He gave his usually great speech concerning the Theory of Evolution and made sure to include the MEANS with which Darwin says evolution occurs. Many religionists who argue against Drawinism fail to appreciate that the means is an essential part of the theory.

Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, National Center for Science Education, spoke concerning "Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Teach Evolution." She reported on the latest problems in teaching evolution such as the anthropic argument as a new "design argument" as well as the old problems that still seem to arise. She made a very effective use of introducing the "F Word," eventually defining it as "Fact" and that the anti-evolutionists seem to have a problem understanding that scientific term.

Dr. Meg Bowman's talk was entitled "An Atheist Do-Gooder." She described her activism in various fora for the past many years, from feminism and other social causes, to educational programs the world over, especially Africa.

The Activism panel followed with Nora Cusack, Don Havis, Cleo Kocol, and Hank Kocol each describing a particular definition and need for active participation, whether it be in civil disobedience, letters-to-the-editor, broad views of general activism, and social and medical causes. Some of the panel had no problem using the "A" word to others while some were more circumspect about leaving the closet. The panel was actually a great opening for audience members to discuss their own views and activities in the area. If the goal of the Convention organizers was to obtain audience participation in creative ways to be active, the goal was well met.

Annie Laurie Gaylor gave her presentation on "Women Without Superstition" which was, as usual, very well received.

After the banquet, George H. Smith discussed his first book, "The Case Against God," which had been written over twenty years ago and has a proud place in any freethought library. He is a very engaging and humorous speaker, keeping everyone's attention.

Although the San Francisco newspapers completely ignored the Conference, a reporter from the Contra Costa Times did attend, took photographs, and wrote a report which was printed in the next day's (Sunday's) paper.

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Science and Religion: Are they really opposites?

Within our education system today is a controversy which cuts to the very core of education. If we as a nation are to compete in a global economy, if we as a society are to make rational decisions concerning the implementation of technological advances, and if we are to extend the concept of critical thinking into all areas of out public and personal lives, we need to teach our children to accept real evidence concerning the world at large and out place within it. The best method we have learned to date to gather that evidence is the "scientific method." Yet today, in this most technological society, there is a determined effort to make the teaching of religion compulsory in science classes. I refer, of course, to the arguments concerning the teaching of creationism as science on a par with evolution.

Creationism is the view that the entire universe was created 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, with all life forms on earth essentially unchanged since then, as based upon the first chapters of Genesis.

Science, as a method, is a different world view of approximately 300 years old. It is a METHOD of determining the workings of nature and our place in it. Science is not, as is usually taught in the US, a collection of facts -- the distance of the earth from the sun, the dates of the phases of the moon, the listing of the chemical elements, Newton's Laws of Motion, Einstein's Theories of Relativity. Those "facts" are a result of the scientific method which is itself the essence of science.

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What is the scientific method?

It consists of several steps:

The observation of some natural phenomena;
The postulation of hypothesis to explain the observations.
The testing of those hypothesis by further observations;
The postulation of new or modified hypothesis;
The collection of many different, seemingly non-connected observations into a theory which explains all those observations.
The testing of the theory against future observations;
The development of a "mechanism" to explain physically how the effect occurs.

Occasionally, the method produces a statement of non-varying character in many situations resulting in the discovery of a NATURAL LAW.

Let's define a couple of terms which the public views differently from the way the terms are used by scientists. A hypothesis is a premise to be tested. Examples of hypothesis are:

Fusion can occur at low temperatures if a sufficient, but low, voltage is applied so as to overcome the electrical impulse of nuclei; If two liquids of different boiling points are mixed, the boiling point of the mixture will be between that of the individual liquids. Ocean tides are caused by far off-shore weather conditions. Colored filters work by adding a particular color to the light from a source. All these hypothesis have been proven incorrect, but they do illustrate the idea. An observation of a phenomenon leads a scientist to speculate on the generality of the phenomenon -- Does the phenomenon occur at various times, places, under various conditions?

Note that the observations are tested repeatedly. Other researchers are given the opportunity to test the findings by repeating the experiments; such opportunity can occur only if the original scientist was willing to communicate findings to others with sufficient information so that the work could be duplicated. If the original researcher does not communicate the findings, then the process stops.

Let's define the word, "theory": An explanation for a group of seemingly unrelated observations which can then lead to other observations which may confirm or negate the theory. Theories are tested and proven scientific ideas of the way in which nature works. The term does not refer to a guess.

The hypothesis and the theory must both be falsifiable; that is there must be some way to prove the hypothesis/theory to be false. A statement that the phenomenon occurs because "that is what god ordained" stops the process since that statement is seemingly irrefutable. If a falsifying experiment occurs, the result must be explained away or the hypothesis/theory modified or abandoned. For example, Einstein's Theory of Relativity predicted, as a natural consequence of that theory, that fast-moving particles, near the speed of light, would gain mass; In fact, operators particle accelerators today use that expected increase in mass in the "tuning" of those accelerators. If the increase in mass were not noted, Einstein's Theory would either fall or need very basic modification. The theory was further proven by observation of such diverse phenomena as the orbit of Mercury and the life-times of sub-atomic particles at high velocities.

We speak of Atomic Theory as an explanation of various observed phenomena, from the Idea Gas Laws (Pressure, Temperature, and Volume are interrelated) to nuclear physics. Indeed, all of modern chemistry is based on the Atomic Theory. No serious scientist today doubts the existence of atoms. No one doubts the observations which have led to the formulation of Atomic Theory. True, there are many details of the structure and behavior of atoms that have not yet been determined. Yet, we cannot say that the existence of atoms is "merely a theory" as the creationists do with another "mere Theory."

When we speak of the Theory of Evolution, we recognize that all relevant data lead to corroboration of the theory that evolution has occurred and, indeed, is still occurring. We can compare skeletal and organic structures of various animals, observing the similarities and differences. We note the similarities of all life forms in growth, nutrition, waste elimination, reproduction and death. We can comp-are the DNA of various animals and observe the similarities and the differences. We can compare the structures, both anatomical and chemical, of animals in existence today with those which are extinct and only known through their fossil remains. We can date the fossils by their radioactivity as well as by geologic aging methods. All the observations lead to the inescapable conclusion of a long-lived earth, with changing environmental conditions, leading to evolution of various life forms, the interrelation of all life, and sufficient time for the evolution of all life on earth to have developed into its current structure. We are all interrelated. Yet, there are many people today who insist that evolution is "merely a theory." The statement that evolution is a theory describes it as one of the bases of our knowledge of the world today. Evolution is as much a basis of biology as atoms are of chemistry.

Remember that a theory is defined as a unified explanation of a seemingly unrelated group of observations; the theory must lead to other observations which can confirm or deny the theory.

Another example: Since early times, people have observed the sky with wonder. What are those objects up there, some of which seem stationary while others obviously travel across the sky? In early days, the objects were given supernatural meanings. They indicated that there was something out there larger than we; hence the heavens with angels and gods. Later, with the invention of the telescope and modern astronomy, scientists began to investigate the sky. We have learned that wee are on a mere speck, even less so in context of a vast universe. At first, we thought that the universe was unending - a symbol, if not the reality, of a god. With further observations, we learned that the universe seems to be finite and continually expanding. We know out small part in the whole.

Through calculations from the observed expansion we have learned that the universe is about 15 - 20 billion years old. Through dating of geological formations on earth, we have learned that the earth is about 5 billions years old. Both figures make sense; that is, they are internally consistent and they reinforce data from independent observations. Thus, a long-lived earth is indicated from evolutionary considerations, as well as from cosmology and geology. Such independent observations can only add to the certainty of our knowledge.

What has this to do with us? Is this the only possible way to learn about nature?

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The differences between science and religion can be defined as follows:

Science, in its logical form, begins with questions about the operation of the universe. Religion begins with major premises which are not to be doubted, but accepted on faith.
Science devises various mental models of the mechanisms by which nature works. Religion accepts without question, a given model.
Science tests the models through observation of nature. Religion philosophizes about nature as it would exist if its major premises were true. There are no hypothesis or theories to be tested.
Science determines in advance the types of experimental results which would prove its model incorrect. Religion explains away, or disregards, any results which seem to violate its established dogma. Creationists have yet to describe the types of observations which would truly falsify their "theory". although they have been asked to do so many times.
Science is ever-changing as more information about nature is obtained. Religion always maintains its basic beliefs.
Very few Americans understand the differences between science and religion as stated above. Very few Americans understand the operation of science. Thus, very few understand the controversy between the teaching of evolution and of creationism as both being scientific. They fall for the "equal time" argument since both are "theories." They also fall for the either/or argument as if both views were equally valid and that these are the only possible world views.

Many people in the US and in many cultures in the world do not accept the scientific method or creationism as defined here. Other world views include Buddhism with its many planes view of the material and spiritual worlds, Hinduism with its reincarnation of souls, the evolution by design views of Catholicism and deism, the more liberal religions which accept a scientific view and yet insist on a correlative spiritual world, and Native American religions which espouse a kind of pantheistic philosophy of a spiritual world behind all natural phenomena. Modern creationists do not look for equal time for any of these other world views. While all those other views are interesting for anthropological and religious studies, only one explanation of life on earth, evolution, is scientific as defined by working scientists, and, therefor has a place in science classes.

A Gallop poll, in 1993, showed that 35% of Americans believe in literal creationism, 35% in theistic evolution, and 11% accept naturalistic evolution. Theistic evolution is that which I learned in catholic schools - even though evolution has occurred, god's direction was necessary to make it happen. Naturalistic evolution is the scientific explanation which needs no supreme being. I am reminded of the story if Laplace, a French astronomer and mathematician. When he showed his scheme of the universe to Napoleon, the emperor asked him where the scheme addresses god; Laplace's response was. "I have no need for that hypothesis, Sire."

The scientific method is not instinctive to humans. As we have seen, for a million years before the development of the scientific method, other world views were extant. People populated the world with spirits, good and evil, who held sway over all natural phenomena. These spirits were then given properties over various aspects of nature with different gods overlooking different phenomena. People spent much time and energy propitiating the spirit so that events would occur in ways beneficial to the supplicant. Gods were to be fooled or coerced into changing the natural order of things by us mere mortals. Some anthropologists now hold that the overturning of the many-gods concept and the adoption of one god was a great step in religious development of the human race. I frankly see no step forward, as the superstition remains. Imagine the various assumptions:

Superior beings could be coerced into behaving as we would like without their noting our presence. If there were such superior beings, they really cared how we behaved relative to them and to each other; hence all kinds of actions which are still displayed today, from prayers at sports events and before school tests to resources given to churches to be the agents for such propitiation. Nature was seen as very uncertain, so that a scientific method, as we have described it, would be useless, since replication of observation would depend upon a capricious agent. Prayer, the incantation of the appropriate "magic words" or some sort of good faith by the experimenter would be just as important as the procedure or the instruments.. We still have people thanking god for saving them from disaster, but no one seems willing to blame god when the disaster is not averted. Miracles were the foundation of actions of nature; really, prayer today seems to be the request for a miracle, some suspension of the laws of nature, so that the request can be granted. After all, what else is behind prayerful requests at sporting events, before school tests, and before airline take-offs?

As we learn more about nature, the spirit world retreated, albeit with returning regular forays, in the face of knowledge. Eventually, during and after the Renaissance over centuries, the scientific method was slowly developed.

Some of the more liberal religions seem to have accepted some of the methods and findings of science. Those religions seem to attempt a resolution between the scientific method of determining facts about nature and another realm they insist to be spiritual. Grant to Science those things that are Science's and to god those things that are god's. However, every time in history that there has been an argument between science and religion, the former has won out in the end. We can look back at the great science-religion controversies in the past: Galileo and Copernicus concerning the place of the earth in the universe, the study of cadavers to determine anatomy, the use of anesthetics in childbirth, the use of antibiotics for infectious diseases, all of which faced religious strictures, but today are generally accepted as important parts of our modern world.

In Western culture, we have found the scientific method to be the best method, so far, for determining the way nature works and of our place in the natural order of things. The method is so persuasive to me that as a scientist, I must agree.

Is the scientific method now set in concrete for all times, like another bible? I can only hope not. As a scientist, I would hate to be that dogmatic. There certainly can be another method developed later to take the place of the current scientific method; people years from now may very well laugh at our clumsy attempts to develop a world view when they have discovered a far superior one. To me, the method is just as evolving as out scientific knowledge and as we ourselves are.

When scientists prove something via the scientific method, does that mean that the answers are there for all to see for all time? Of course not. Again, knowledge evolves, new phenomena are observed, new experiments are performed, new theories are propounded and proven, existing theories are refuted.

Does this mean that we know nothing? again, of course not. Einstein did not prove Newton wrong. Newton's Laws of Motion are just as true today as they were in the 17th century when originally formulated. Einstein extended Newton's Laws into areas which Newton did not consider. More exact measurements of planetary motion did not prove Galileo wrong; they only refined his work. Later measurements did not show that the sun revolves around the earth. Almost always, with very few exceptions, science does not make strides by overturning everything that was known in a particular field. Almost always, strides are made by extending knowledge into heretofore unknown areas or by combining several previously considered unrelated phenomena.

Therefore, I do not look soon for a complete revolution in out current knowledge of the universe. WE can be fairly confident that what we know is fairly accurate as far as it goes, The distance to the moon will not be measured to be significantly different because of some new finding in the next century. However, there may very well be refinements in measurements which we have made,, and there will be new theories concerning phenomena we have not even considered yet. The proposal of string theory to explain the basic structure of the universe is one such. Complexity, an extension of Chaos Theory, is another. Findings in biology will very likely lead to new ways to treat diseases, perhaps methods having no relationship whatsoever to what we now recognize as drug therapy or surgery.

Do I paint an idealized version of the scientific method? Does it always work in such a cut-and-dried manner? Scientists are people; the scientific method was developed by and is used by people with all the foibles of people in any work field. Stephen J. Gould wrote a wonderful book, "The mismeasures of Man." which shows many errors of scientist in one small area of scientific pursuit - the measure of intelligence, We can all cite other misapplications of the scientific method from the Piltdown hoax to cold fusion.

Yes, some scientists keep their pet theories when others have proven them wrong, They are human who are swayed by prejudice, monetary consideration, politics, ego, friendship, competition, and all the other traits of humans.

However, the scientific method is self-correcting. Even if a particular scientist keeps to a long-dead theory, other scientists will recognize that for what it is and go on to other more rewarding persist. Even through the method is based on data, not authority, some great authorities have held sway over science years after the evidence was observed to prove them wrong. This is not to denigrate the authority of an expert in the field. However, an expert in one field talking outside that particular field, certainly should be questioned, and, even in the field of specialization, any comments need to make sense.

As an example of authority, if Carl Sagan makes a statement about the current knowledge in astronomy, everyone should believe him, if the statement makes sense; if he speaks on economics, he has no more authority than any other non-economist. If Linus Pauling gives a lecture on the chemical bond, the study for which he received the Nobel Prize, we should believe him; when he makes statements about vitamin C as a cold preventive, we should ask to see the supporting data.

Eventually, science has pushed forward. Even falsification of data has occurred and been overcome, for example with the Piltdown man hoax; hence, the importance of communication, reproducibility, and continued experimentation and observation.

Communication in science occurs through the scientific publications, the method by which scientists communicate with each other the findings of their experimentation. The better recognized scientific publications are "peer-reviewed," meaning that prior to publication a submitted paper is reviewed by fellow scientists in the field who will judge the paper for scientific accuracy, conclusions worthy of the data, proper presentation of the data, and originality of the work. A scientist who bypasses the peer review process does not allow the scientific method to work. The results may or may not be valid; there is really no way of knowing. Sometimes a scientist will go first to the press to beat the competition to a finding in the eye of the public -- remember that scientists are human, too. Sometimes the scientist is aware that the findings may not survive the peer review process. I have seen controversial articles published even though the scientific "establishment" may disagree with them; I have seen further articles on the same subject without new data or new arguments be refused publication. I have never seen a program committee at a scientific meeting turn down a presentation by a controversial author simply because of the controversy. As a matter of fact, scientific societies deliberately sponsor symposia on particularly controversial issues.

How do scientific controversies become resolved? Do the scientific societies take a vote among the membership? Is the scientific process democratic? One might expect that from viewing news stories on scientific issues, a scientist from each "side" of an issue is presented, giving the public the idea that there is really a controversy, or that scientists are unsure of the answers to a question, or even that "no one really knows anything about it."

Science is not a democratic system. It is also, remember, non-authoritative. Science controversies are resolved by consensus. Scientists convince each other of their positions by proving the correctness of those positions through logical arguments based on observations of natural phenomena. When a consensus is reached, we can say that "scientists agree that..." Note, there is no vote. Also note that there very well may be some scientists who still dispute the consensus; they are welcome to continue to present data and arguments for their positions and, perhaps, change the consensus. The usual news story cited above is the equivalent of having the Flat Earth Society have equal time with telecasts of space shots.

Does science explain or provide values for our lives - definitions of truth, beauty, goodness, evil? The only values inherent in the scientific method are those that make it work. Honest communication of observation, lack of data, falsification, recognition of previous work, proper reference to others are all values in the method. The traditional response of the scientist to questions of value is that all of the natural world is grist for study by the scientist. It is up to the society to determine how the discoveries are to be used.

How about the morality of science and its advances? Some people say that there are some studies which should not be done, because the results have undesirable social consequences. Scientists have discovered the ways in which energy is stored in the atom; society decides whether weapons should be built using those discoveries. There is still controversy among scientists as to whether some of the weapons of today should have been built in the first place. The arguments depend upon the history of the times, the likelihood that less benign societies would produce such weaponry and control the world, and the political stripes of the parties concerned. There is no difference here from a similar discussion by non-scientists. There is no scientific response to the question of whether the weapons should have been built. Scientists cone in all shades of the political spectrum, just like any other group of people.

Should there be ethical considerations concerning new experimentation? I know of no scientist who would accept the position that any work, done in any way, without ethical considerations, is allowable. We, again, are the products of out societies and are bound by the same strictures as are the rest of us. Does that mean that no scientist would ever do anything immoral for the sake of data? That seems a naive question in the face of a society wherein some physicians perform procedures simply for the payment without consideration of the welfare of the patient, where some attorneys will violate the law and legal ethics to save a guilty client, where some manufacturers will knowingly sell products that are unsafe. It is up to society as a whole to prosecute such actions and it is up the scientific community to express its abhorrence of unethical data collection.

I took part recently in a discussion in a scientific newsletter, concerning the use of scientific data accumulated by means that most of us would consider abhorrent. The originator of the question asked whether data obtained, for example, from Nazi concentration camps, should be cited in future scientific publications, thus giving, perhaps, credence to the way the data were collected. Several responses were published, including mine. How would you have answered the question?

Surprisingly, the considered opinions of the scientists were similar. We all felt repelled by the way the data were collected. However, we all thought that if the data were scientifically valid, and there is the rub, it should be used as a background for perhaps future work which would, of course, be performed with all ethical strictures followed. If the data did show some important results in physiology, reaction to stress, or other fields, that data should be reviewed as scientific data normally would be. To disregard such really useful data would mean that we would not accept the fact of their existence and that future experimentation, albeit under different protocols, of course, would be needed.

For example, much of the data in my field of health physics, or radiation safety, is from the bombing of Japan at the end of World War II. If we disregarded such data because of real moral qualms about the bombing, we would not accept the existence of that data. Would we then protest that we know nothing about those effects? In the event of an accidental exposure to someone, would we simply use that newly exposed person as the source of knowledge of effects, unsure of treatment and the course of the disease, refusing to acknowledge that which was learned previously? That stance would, to me, show a lack of compassion to both the new victim and those who suffered in the bombings.

Again in my field of health physics, we have a continuing discussion on the use of societal resources in the radiation protection area. In some cases, regulatory agencies have decreed such a large expense, relative to protection., that some of us see a misapplication of scarce resources such that the net benefit of the regulations is negative. For example, EPA has proposed a standard for natural radioactivity in drinking water which will cost the water suppliers, and the paying public, about two billion dollars per year to comply. The savings in lives for that expenditure is statistically two. The point is not whether a life is worth a billion dollars; the point is that the billion dollars can be used to save many more lives in other ways, such as food for the poor, school lunches, inoculation against diseases, prenatal care, breast cancer screening, prostate cancer screening, sheltering the homeless. The amount of dollars is not the question; those dollars represent resources that will not be used in those other areas for they will have been spent here.

Where do we go from here? One of our societal problems, to my mind, is the lack of scientific knowledge among our populace. We have people in this country, seemingly well educated, decrying the lack of "scientific creationism" in our public schools. We have seemingly educated people talking about the "religion" of evolution. We have people asking for a 100% surety that "nothing will happen" when some scientific or technological advance is mentioned. Our students place very low compared to those in other industrialized countries on standard tests in science and mathematics. Out people fall for news stories of scientific advances that should leave any thinking person with more questions than answers after reading that simplistic story. For all those reasons, and more, I see a crisis of scientific illiteracy.

The press, the source of information for most Americans after their school years, has de-emphasized, science reporting in recent years. Half the newspaper science departments have been mostly eliminated since 1988, and those that remain are mostly in Scene or Modern Living sections of the newspapers. As a scientist, I have long decried science reporting in the press which often leave me with more questions than answers.

What to do about that? We must upgrade out scientific education. In my parochial grade school, the teachers used science as a disciplinary tool. "You kids were bad today, so we won't study science." I wish they had used religion as such a tool; it would have made more sense to forego the myths. Many of the teachers in grade schools, and even high schools, today have little or no science training; this is obvious when many of them agree that scientific creationism should be taught together with evolution in science classes.

Unfortunately, it will take another generation, to my mind, to decrease scientific illiteracy in our society. We continue to pay for the lack of educational commitment by our governments at all levels. Only a great commitment can begin to correct the problem. With budget cuts for education and increases in costs for prisons, I see no real change for the better in the foreseeable future.

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Summary: taken from lecture handouts The scientific method:

Observation of some natural phenomenon
Postulation fo hypothesis to explain the observations
Testing of the hypothesis with further observations
Postulation of new or modified hyupothesis
Collection of many different, seemingly non-connected observations into a theory explaining all those observations
Testing the theory against future observations
Development of a "mechanism" to explain physically how the effect occurs
Occasionally, the production of a statement of non-varying character in many situations resulting in the discovery of a natural law.

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Some examples of hypothesis:

Fusion can occur at low temperatures if a sufficient, but low, voltage is applied so as to overcome the electrical impulse of nuclei;
If two liquids of different boiling points are mixed, the boiling point of the mixture will be between that of the individual liquids.
Ocean tides are caused by far off-shore weather conditions.
Colored filters work by adding a particular color to the light from a source.

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Theory

An explanation for a group of seemingly unrelated observations. The explanation must lead to other observations which may confirm or negate the theory.
Examples of theories:
Atomic Theory
Einstein's Theories of Relativity
Theory of Evolution

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Evidence supporting the theory of evolution

Comparative anatomy
Similarities in life forms
Genetic comparisons
Comparisons of current life forms with fossils
Dating of fossils by geological and radioactive methods
Consistency of light-polarizing chemicals in all life forms

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Results of studies

Interrelation of all life forms, past and present
Long lived eatch with a changing environment
Continuity of life forms from the simplest to the most complex

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Differences between science and religion

Science begins with questions about the operation of nature: Religion begins with major premises which are not to be doubted but accepted on faith.
Science devises mental models about how nature works: Religion accepts without question a given model
Science tests models by observing nature: Religion philosophizes about nature as it would be if its model were true.
Science determines in advance the observations necessary to prove its model incorrect: Religion explains away or disregards contrary evidence.
Science is ever-changing as more information is obtained: Religion always maintains its basic beliefs.

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Gallop Poll 1993

35% believe in literal creationism
35% believe in theistic evolution
11% accept naturalistic evolution

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Assumptions of Religion

Superior beings could be coerced into behaving as we would like without noting our presence
The superior beings really care about our behavior relative to them and to each other
Resources must be given to intermediaries (churches) between us and the superior beings.
Nature is very caprecious, so that observations are dependent upon the relation between the observer and superiour being.
People thank the superior beings for saving them from a disaster but no one blames the superior beings for producing that same disaster.
Miracles are the foundation for the actions of nature, so that prayers are the method of requesting that natural laws be violated in a particular instance.

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Bertrand Russell (1940)

"One of the most important things to teach in the educational establishment of a democracy is the power of weighing arguments and the open mind which is prepared in advance to accept whatever appears reasonable.


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