Field of Science

The Science of Biblical Literalism

Welcome to America! Home to (arguably) the largest population of people who view the bible as inerrant. These people often say that they take the bible literally. They don't, but they do use the word "literal" incorrectly.

For example, if the bible were literally true, there could be no parables.
Anyone of those people who espouse biblical literalism want to disagree with this point? If Jesus told a parable, you know a made up story to make a point, then the words in the bible reflecting that parable are NOT literally true. Those words are fiction, make believe, allegory, etc. So if you believe the parable is not literally true, then you are not a biblical literalist. By the way, if you happen to agree with me here, but are one of those jackasses people who believe the world is 6000 years old because of Genesis, then please refrain, in the future, from saying the bible is literally true. What you want to say is that the bible is inerrant. You are still a moron, but at least by being precise I won't think you're a fucking moron anymore.

So what is the problem with biblical inerrancy? It would be easier to start with what isn't the problem with biblical inerrancy, so let's start there....

1. Biblical inerrancy allows me to be a mindless dolt. I do not have to think, critique, analyze, or otherwise use any part of my brain above the brain stem to be a functional member of my church. It allows me to simply accept what I am told by those who affirm they know what they are talking about as long as they have previously cloaked themselves in some biblical context.

2. ??? I guess I only have the one.

OK, lets see about some of the problems with biblical inerrancy and by problems I do not mean specific issues but the overall problems with this line of "reasoning."

1. Translation. The bible is not read in the language it was written. The old testament was written in Hebrew and the new testament in Greek. These were then translated through Greek (in the case of the old testament) and Latin and ultimately into English. This is not completely true, for example we have some old Greek texts of the new testament which can be translated directly into English. Regardless, you have to believe that there is a 1:1 or 1:1:1 or 1:1:1:1 word for word translation between these languages. Anyone who is fluent in more than one language understands the absurdity of this position. Look at the English language: take the words LARGE, HUGE, GIGANTIC, HUMONGOUS do these all convey the exact same meaning? If these words were being translated into Japanese what would the corresponding words be? More importantly if we asked 100 Japanese-English speakers would they translate these to the same corresponding words?

"Fine" you say, "this is just a triviality it doesn't change any fundamental meaning thus the bible is inerrant." Indeed, the example of BIG synonyms is susceptible to that rationale. However, the fact is that translations are subject to interpretations and these interpretations affect the meaning of the text. How many sermons have you been to where the focus is on a specific word in a verse? If the original text had the word LARGE and through several translations it became GIGANTIC, then your pastor may incorrectly focus a sermon on the "fact" that the bible states it was a gigantic whatever and not simply a large whatever.

2. Source. There are no original texts of any part of the bible, no original verses, chapters, words, etc. None. Nada. Zip. Zero. Jack Squat. Thus, you have to assume that the translation you are reading is in fact based on a valid copy of the original. Not just a copy, a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy and nowhere during this genealogy can a scribe have changed the text (see below). Seem likely? Remember this was before the printing press so there were very few copies of any text.

3. Editing. Here you true believers just need to jam your head in the sand. It is clear that the biblical text has changed over time. In fact biblical scholars (not the ones whoring themselves on Sunday morning TV, but actual people of education and intellect that read and study the ancient manuscripts) have long known this fact. I will reference Bart D. Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus for a more thorough analysis of this point (and point 2 to a lesser degree), its an easy read and comes in at an simple to get through 200 pages. Also, you can go to your local study bible (not bible study which is less about study and more about ideological justification) and look at the various translations and difficulties with the text. Here's a fun fact for the biblical inerrancy campers still following along....John 7-8: verses therein regarding the adultress brought before Jesus by the Pharisees: NOT ORIGINAL it was added well after the fact. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," not written by John, more like the John Grisham of the time.

Please, before you throw out the "god had it added later to complete the bible" argument. Remember you will have to accept that the bible wasn't correct before that point or undergo some type of logical fallacy that should cause your brain to explode if there was a god.

4. Inclusion/Exclusion. How did the decision regarding which books and letters to include get made? There are numerous writings that were left out. The Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocalypse of Peter, etc. Why are these left out? and why are the others in? Note the new testament as we are familiar with it didn't originate until ~350 and even then it was not uniformly accepted as is for hundreds of years. So was the bible wrong for most of the first 500 or so years of christianity?

There are at least 4 lines of reasoning that demonstrate the position of biblical inerrancy is absurd. The one contradictory position is that biblical inerrancy is easier. This is true, but so is life after a lobotomy.

Science Debate 2008

I have joined ranks with Mooney and Kirshenbaum in my support of a presidential debate on science and technology policy. I see important reasons for this debate. Sciencedebate 2008

First, science and technology are either at the forefront of many current issues (global warming an embryonic stem cells) and are an underlying aspect of many addition issues (cost effective pharmaceuticals for the elderly). Here is where I see the greatest benefit from this type of debate. Determining where the candidates stand on certain issues and most importantly why they have that stance.

Second, I want to know how these candidates view science. Currently, our society has, at least a tolerance in, the idea that facts are akin to beliefs. There is an undercurrent of antagonism towards science, rationalism, intellectualism etc. In a variety of speeches, the candidates have reinforced this view in my mind. When 3/9 republican candidates raise their hands in response to the question "Which of you DO NOT believe in the theory of evolution?" without a show of embarrassment or subsequent backpedaling you know there is a problem. From this kind of debate we can find out who answers questions related to science and technology policy accurately or who answers in such a way as to appease the religious right.

When I joined I posted a question that will never get used, though I am sure many are posting something similar. I do not have the quote but it was approximately...."All of the candidates have expressed the importance of faith in their lives and policy decisions. My question is what will the candidates do if they learn that the best available science directly contradicts one of their beliefs, one current example could be the intelligent design-evolution issue. (Obviously there are a plethora of examples global warming, nukes in Iraq, abstinence-only sex education, etc.)

Sign up, tell your Congressional representatives, teachers, university officials, religious leaders, etc. to support this debate as well.

Lewis Black Shoots on Faith Via Creationism

Says "I have thoughts." Watch the whole thing, but focus on the 45 second mark for the previous quote.

Now before some of you get your panties in a wad, note this is not a dig on religion in general or christianity. It is a dig on a specific version of christianity in this country (if you follow this version, go ahead and wad up your panties now). I am not opposed to faith overall. Hell, I have faith. I have faith that most people won't act like psychopaths, I have faith you won't change lanes into my car while driving. However, this faith is based on experience. I have faith in other things as well, if you tell me you have the simple cure to some medical problem that the AMA doesn't want me to know about, I have faith you are an asshole, idiot, or both. If you tell me some product you are selling is safe, despite all these medical reports, I have faith you are more concerned with the health of your stockholders wallets and not my health. Again faith based on experience. I freely admit I could be wrong, but 9 times out of 10 I bet I'm right.

That being said I am concerned with "faith" as it is currently being bandied around. "Faith" these days means, to me, a belief in a fundamentalist version of evangelical christianity (FVEC). The nice thing about this version is that normal christian practitioners (of which I believe represent most christians) won't contradict it. When a FVEC says their faith tells them abstinence only education is the moral course, what christian is comfortable saying "I think your faith is wrong," when the data says abstinence only education is a failed policy.

Mostly my concern is all the talk by the presidential candidates on both sides about their faith. I care not-a-whit about your beliefs in the supernatural. Actually, to hear them talk about it scares the shit out of me. These people will have the potential to affect my life, and the lives of my family, in profound ways, I don't want to hear about their favorite fucking ghost story and how it may guide their decisions. I want to hear about their policies, how and why they came to have them, how they plan to support them, and what these policies mean to all the people of the US, not just the specific sub-set that hails from the same regional denomination. I want to know what it would take for a leader to abandon a policy. I want the next leader to think with their head and let their guts focus on digestion and not thinking. I want our leaders to make the best possible decisions using the information they have available and let them have faith in the fact they are doing the best they can.

Hit tip to Pharyngula

Clever science is fun science

From the day-to-day questions we ask, experiments we do, papers we read, and what we think about in my lab, things often seem dull. The breakthroughs and insights made by myself and members of my lab offset this and do make the work exciting, inspiring, and fun. However, sometimes I read a paper that fascinates me often from the new information perspective. Occasionally I find a paper that I classify as fascinating from the cleverness of the scientists who did the study. These tend to be the paper I read and think "Why didn't I think of that!"

The November 30th issue of science had just such an article.
The paper by Sorek et al discusses the issue of horizontal gene transfer in bacteria. Horizontal gene transfer (HGT), the acquisition of new genes from unrelated sources, is widespread throughout the bacteria and is found within eukaryotes as well. HGT is behind the epidemic of antibiotic drug resistance in previously susceptible organisms. We have known for quite some time that genes that encode diverse functions could be transferred horizontally, but the limits of what could and could not be moved has not been definitively studied. Sorek et al set out to answer this question.

Here is the clever bit...The authors used currently available genomic sequence information to get a idea about what was going on. To understand this you need to understand how genomes are sequenced.

In short, you purify genomic DNA from the organism you are interested in studying. This tremendously long genomic DNA is broken into much smaller fragments containing on average 1-3 distinct genes, This fragmented DNA is cloned into a vector (a DNA backbone that can be stably moved into 1 or more organisms) and the resulting vector + fragmented DNA (plasmid) is recovered in the bacterium Escherichia coli. Any given E.coli cell will get one plasmid, so 10s -100s of thousands of E.coli cells need to be recovered to get enough individual fragmented DNA molecules to ensure you have the entire genome of organism of interest represented. These plasmids are then recovered and sequenced. In general terms researchers want to have 10x coverage, that is every piece of DNA is sequenced 10 times on average. Despite this 10x coverage there are always regions of the genome that are not recovered.

Back to the clever bit, the authors realized that putting these plasmids into E.coli represents HGT. These vectors are in fact derived from natural E.coli strains and are transferred naturally between strains. So, through the process of obtaining genome sequence for a variety of bacterial species, Sorek et al realized that the scientific community had inadvertantly set up an experiment to determine the limits of HGT. They simply (and by "simply" I mean anyone with a computer and knowledge of these systems could have done it, it is not meant to diminish the work or insights of the authors) took available genome sequence information from 79 distinct species and looked to see what was not sequenced using the process described above. Again, the idea being if a region was not sequenced, it must not have been propagated in E.coli (the gaps in a genome sequence are obtained using other more labor intensive methods). Indeed, the authors found regions from these species that were not able to be propagated in E.coli. Interestingly, these regions that could not be propagated were not random, but contained genes encoding specific types of proteins. However, the authors noted a given gene could be recovered in E.coli from at least some of the 79 species, thus it seems like no specific protein encoding genes always fail to be transferred into E.coli.

This in and of itself is interesting and important information, but the authors did not stop here. They actually took this bioinformatic data and conducted some biological studies (something done too little in the bioinformatic field in my opinion). The authors wanted to know why some genes were not readily transferred to E.coli. They went on to show that these underrepresented genes are toxic in E.coli. Interestingly, it was an innate property of the gene product's activity because they observed the same toxicity if the used an extra copy of the E.coli gene.

So here we have a paper in which the authors learn some interesting biology primarily because they were smart enough to come up with and follow up on a good idea.