Thursday, 27 December 2012

Peter Higgs Criticises Evangelical Protestants

© The Guardian
In a video interview with the Spanish paper El Mundo, Peter Higgs, the man after whom the Higgs Boson was named, has criticised that particle's epithet, 'The God Particle':
It's inviting people to confuse theoretical physics with theology, and that's not a good thing to do.
Indeed, it has nothing to do with god - the name was apparently just part of the marketing effort for this book by Leon Lederman - and does not replace any god. The god hypothesis is noticeably absent from any serious scientific papers, so the discovery of an elementary particle could not replace a concept that is superfluous.

But that has not stopped Christians from accommodating it to their philosophies. Consider this reported conversation between a believer, Larry Taunton, and an 'agnostic' unnamed particle physicist:
"As you look back on a long career, what is one thing that your study of science has taught you?"
He did not hesitate. "It has taught me that there are laws in the universe that science is powerless to explain. We understand the laws of physics, but where did the laws themselves come from? Why do they work?"
"Professor, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that just as the Higgs boson is the most logical explanation for how particles get their mass, there must also be a kind of Higgs-boson-to-the-universe, so to speak, establishing laws and making them work, yes?"
He tilted his head inquiringly. "You mean God?" I acknowledged that I did indeed mean the Almighty. If, by faith, we accept that there are immutable natural laws, why not accept the possibility of a Lawgiver? "Yes," he conceded with a smile, "I suppose you could say that."
(The conversation took place at Green-Templeton College at Oxford University, which, as the name suggests, was partly founded with money from a man dedicated to the reconciliation of science and faith.)

The logic is poor and the conclusion vacuous, but it goes to show the lengths to which believers will go to accommodate science and religion.  Higgs is reported by the Guardian to be similarly accommodating, in an article entitled Peter Higgs criticises Richard Dawkins over anti-religious 'fundamentalism':
In the El Mundo interview, Higgs argued that although he was not a believer, he thought science and religion were not incompatible. "The growth of our understanding of the world through science weakens some of the motivation which makes people believers. But that's not the same thing as saying they're incompatible. It's just that I think some of the traditional reasons for belief, going back thousands of years, are rather undermined.
"But that doesn't end the whole thing. Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief. It means I think you have to be rather more careful about the whole debate between science and religion than some people have been in the past."
Such a tenuous accommodation could also be made between Stalinism and faith, or National Socialism and faith, but no such link is sought. Science has something which even the most ardent believer values. The Higgs boson is enormously important in explaining reality, but has nothing to say about gods; that fact in itself suggests there is quite a difference between reality and gods.

So it's good to see Peter Higgs himself baulk at the nefarious use of the 'God Particle' meme; he also says:
There have been some evangelical protestants who go around trying to convert influence people to follow them, and that I think is a bad consequence.
I would agree. It's odd, then, that he also has a pop at Richard Dawkins. The video above doesn't seem to include it, but the report says:
"What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists," Higgs said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. "Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind."
To be fair, he only says 'almost a fundamentalist', but the 'almost' gets lost in the edit. As the article itself notes, the 'Dawkins is a fundamentalist too' notion is a canard that Dawkins has been at pains to refute; he holds to no sacred text, so cannot, by definition, be a fundamentalist of any kind, if a fundamentalist is defined as one who holds unerringly to a sacred text (the Wikipedia definition). Dawkins does not really concentrate his attack on fundamentalists, in my opinion, but he obviously has to spend more time refuting creationists, because it is they who threaten science education the most; if Higgs does not recognise this, he is in danger of looking sadly complacent. And one may ask what Higgs is doing simply attacking evangelical protestants, when it's plain to me that any number of apologists have used the 'God Particle' to their own ends. Should Dawkins refrain from calling out creationists if Higgs is allowed to call out evangelicals?

Of course, a looser definition of fundamentalism could be applied to Dawkins; the Oxford Dictionary of English includes this variation:
strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline
Well, on those terms, perhaps Dawkins is a fundamentalist, since he adheres strictly to the principles of science. But then, so too does Higgs in his opposition to evangelical protestants using the boson to convert people. If that is the only line any of us have to cross to be labelled a fundamentalist, maybe it is more appropriate to call Peter Higgs a fundamentalist, the man who predicted a fundamental element of the Standard Model, a 'theory of almost everything', but who still objects to evangelicals citing it as a reason to believe in their god.

Of course, he's no more a 'fundamentalist' than is Dawkins; it's a shame that he's fallen for the trite clichés that the religious and believers in belief like to propagate about those who dare to point out the errors of faith; he's effectively accusing himself of the same thing.

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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Gun Ownership and Gun Deaths

It seems intuitively obvious to me that deaths by firearm would increase according to availability of firearms, and the prevalence of gun crime in the United States appears to bear this out. But that is just one data point; do the statistics bear this out?

Well I'm no statistician, but I can just about use Excel, so here's the developed countries culled from this list and plotted:

A trend emerges, though it's a lot less emphatic without the US:

Here's the dataset:
Country/Territory Homicide by firearm rate per 100,000 pop Average firearms per 100 people
Australia 0.14 15
Austria 0.22 30.4
Belgium 0.68 17.2
Canada 0.51 30.8
Denmark 0.27 12
England and Wales 0.07 6.2
Finland 0.45 45.3
France 0.06 31.2
Germany 0.19 30.3
Greece 0.26 22.5
Ireland 0.48 8.6
Israel 0.09 7.3
Italy 0.71 11.9
Netherlands 0.33 3.9
New Zealand 0.16 22.6
Norway 0.05 31.3
Portugal 0.41 8.5
Spain 0.2 10.4
Sweden 0.41 31.6
Switzerland 0.77 45.7
Turkey 0.77 12.5
United States 2.97 88.8

It's interesting that the US makes quite a difference, but then it is currently that anomaly (gun crime in the States) that we are trying to explain, given the dreadful events at Sandy Hook. Nevertheless, it should be noted that there are difficulties comparing countries like this.

A review of the literature 1 a few years back, however, does conclude that gun deaths and gun ownership are correlated, while noting my proviso:
4. Conclusion
The available evidence is quite consistent. The few case control studies suggest that households with firearms are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide. International cross-sectional studies of high-income countries find that in countries with more firearms, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide. This result is primarily due to the United States, which has the highest levels of household ownership of private firearms, the weakest gun control laws, and the highest homicide rates. Time series studies of particular cities and states, and for the United States as a whole, suggest a positive gun prevalence-homicide association. Finally, perhaps the strongest evidence comes from cross-sectional analyses of U.S. regions and states. Again, places with higher levels of gun ownership are places with higher homicide rates.
None of the studies can prove causation and none have completely eliminated the possibility that the association might be entirely due to reverse causation or omitted variables. But the available evidence is entirely inconsistent with the hypothesis that increased gun prevalence lowers the homicide rate. Instead, most studies, cross sectional or time series, international or domestic, are consistent with the hypothesis that higher levels of gun prevalence substantially increase the homicide rate.
The comparison across US States apparently providing the strongest evidence. It would be interesting to see some more literature reviews; it's interesting reading about the difficulties in data comparisons across diverse countries and regions - cultural differences and data collection methods must affect the data significantly. Nevertheless, the consistency in the results, leaves us confident in concluding there is a correlation (note the causation caution above) between gun ownership and gun deaths, which suggests reducing gun ownership might well result in a decrease in gun deaths, which is in line with my intuitions, at least.

1 Lisa M Hepburn, David Hemenway, Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature, Aggression and Violent Behavior, Volume 9, Issue 4, July 2004, Pages 417-440, ISSN 1359-1789, 10.1016/S1359-1789(03)00044-2.
Keywords: Firearm; Firearms; Homicide; Guns

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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Queenie and Cam

After attending today's Cabinet meeting, the Queen performs her celebrated ventriloquism act on David Cameron.

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Monday, 17 December 2012

The Land of the Weak and the Home of the Cruel

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Those broad smiles and bright eyes, through the madman's gunsight,
In the schoolrooms once safe, were no longer beaming?
And the barrels' red flare, shots shattering the air,
Gave proof through the day that our vice was still there;
O say does that ill-constituted right still rule,
O'er the land of the weak and the home of the cruel?

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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Pope is a Twitterer

Here are his first three tweets; the second I thought was rhetorical, but he answered it himself. Looks like talking to himself will be the holy order of the day.

Needless to say, this has caused quite a hubbub. Here are some responses:

Hmm, good point, well made. Pontifex needs some grooming advice.

Well, Christians are known for fishing, so this is not unreasonably cautious. Always beware an approach on the intertubez which starts with a leading question. Especially if the enquirer is covered in bling.

There's no need for that.

That's more respectful. Oh, no, it isn't.

Second child abuse reference; oh dear, I can see where this is going. What on earth could the dear Pope have done to merit such calumny?

This guy hits the nail on the head; until we see the Pope with his head down in the Popemobile (steady), feverishly thumbing away in 140 characters about the monkey shopper, I won't be satisfied that he's taking Twitter seriously.

Love can strike at any time. Good luck with those marriage arrangements, though.

I bet Benny doesn't even reply. Look at his tongue!

It turns out that 'Cupcakes' was the most popular answer to this question; who knew?

Faithless heathen!

DOH! Fourth reference.

Anyway, the bookies are laying odds on who the pope will have his first Twitter row with. Latest:

Evens Richard Dawkins
2-1 God
5-1 Archbishop of Canterbury
10-1 Rihanna
20-1 Piers Morgan

Follow the conversation on...

Here's a graphic of the Pope's followers around the world (click to enlarge):

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