Science: January 2004 Archives

Scientists have discovered that feelings of eeriness and religious experiences can correlate with very sounds lower than we can hear. According to NPR today, a man working on a house alone saw what looked like a ghost. The next day he discovered an electric tool buzzing on its own. He investigated and found a fan operating at a very low frequency. When he turned it off, the tool stopped. Apparently this was also the reason for his ghost sighting. British scientists have investigated the effects of infrasound at musical performances. Parts of the music with infrasound notes correlated with experiences of "sorrow, coldness, anxiety and shivers down the spine". The NPR story described a different experiment. There was a strong correlation between those in an audience who near infrasound projectors and those who reported strange or spiritual sensations during the performance.

What do we conclude? Those who are quick to dismiss any reality to spiritual claims say: According to The Guardian's story, "natural sources of infrasound - wind, air conditioning systems and traffic for example - could possibly explain why there were persistent reports of hauntings in some buildings." That doesn't bother me. At atheists.about.com, however, we find a stronger stance. "It disproves that old idea that there are some things that science cannot and will not ever be able to explain, one of which is often the strange sensations people have in some circumstances. Religious feelings are not immune to careful, scientific investigation - we just need the right sorts of things to look for, first."

This is doubly fallacious. First off, you can't disprove the idea that there are some things science can't explain by showing that one such thing is now explained. There still may be lots of other things science can't explain, for all this argument has shown. Second, as one of the people interviewed on the NPR spot this afternoon pointed out, all this shows is a correlation. This gives us one occasion for religious experiences. It doesn't show that it's the cause. I can think of a number of possible scenarios for this. He suggested that maybe we're always unconsciously having religious experiences, and this just brings it into our conscious awareness. Another explanation would be that these infrasound effects bring us into a connection with spiritual realities that we're otherwise not aware of. A third possibility is that this is an effect that leads to a similar sensation to those caused by spiritual realities. One way or the other, the conclusion doesn't follow. It's a possible explanation for some religious experiences, as the Guardian story said, but it's a bit beyond the evidence to say much else for sure.

Gay gene?

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There's an excellent discussion going on right now at Josh Claybourn's blog on whether homosexuality is determined or made likely by genetics and whether that's even significant for moral issues. Unfortunately, the direct link keeps closing my browser, so I've just linked the main page, and you'll have to scroll down.

I generally don't like to link to things without having anything to say myself, but this is a great discussion, and I do chime in a little bit over there.

I haven't seen this [Update: the original article has been removed, but here is the content of that article] described so nicely before. It's been common knowledge among most philosophers of race that our American concept of race has no scientific basis. That doesn't mean there's no reality to race, but it's a social phenomenon, not a scientifically discoverable division within the species. The work on the human genome project has not only confirmed this but given hard numbers to back it up.

Two little bits as a sample:

"Gray wolves split into subspecies, scoring 0.7 on Wright's scale. Even Ozark mountain lizards living on ridges less than a mile apart differ from each other by an Fst score of 0.4. But human groups score only about 0.15 on the statistical scale. That's a worldwide total measuring all human variation. When scientists try to measure differences between only two groups of people, they usually find a lower score, on average about 0.08 -- only 8 percent of the genes examined have more than one allele. The most disparate human groups barely make the 0.25 mark, far below the diversity seen in lizards."

"For instance, the Pygmy people living in Zaire and the Central African Republic, and people from Melanesia, such as people from the island of Fiji, are among the darkest-skinned populations in the world. A racial classification based on skin color would likely group them as members of the same race quite distinct from fair-skinned Europeans. But genetic analysis reveals that both African Pygmies and people from Fiji are more closely related to Europeans than to each other."

Update: I should explain what's going on with the comments on this one. I was involved with a discussion on Kwanzaa at World Magazine's blog. Someone there co-opted the discussion toward some pet issues, basically arguing for a thesis something along the lines of what The Bell Curve is usually used to demonstrate -- that standardized test differences between racial groups are explainable only through genetic predispositions for certain levels of intelligence. (See the Thomas Sowell discussion I linked in the comments for a more balanced view of that book.)

Independently of that discussion, I found this article and thought it relevant to some of my own thoughts on race that I've been posting here, so I posted it on my blog. Then I decided that it would also be relevant to that discussion and posted it there. Instead of continuing the conversation there, the person who had been trolling there rudely decided to continue the discussion here, thus giving readers of my blog absolutely no sense of where this is coming from unless they'd already been following that discussion.

My policy on trolling is that I will address any real arguments that I think are worth discussing, even if the general tone of the message is trolling, as long as I haven't already addressed them. Any posts that are pure trolling will be deleted.

Stem cells without embryos

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This came out two weeks ago, and it's huge news, I've been spending a lot of time in the internet lately, and this is the first I've heard of it. Scientists at Scripps Research Institute in California have found a way to turn differentiated adult cells into stem-cells using a newly discovered compound called reversine. The primary argument for scientific research on embryos, which many pro-life people believe are fully persons and therefore have the rights of persons, was to procure stem-cells for research without having to take cells from aborted fetuses. In the mind of the pro-life person, this solution wasn't much better. President Bush's mediating proposal was not to create any embryos for this purpose but to be able to use cells from embryos that had been created but didn't survive. Now there seems to be a new way to get these cells. Why do the major news outlets (and even the minor ones, from what I can tell) not consider this immensely important?

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