"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Bitten by a turtle lately?

Have you been crushed by a crocodile lately?  Well don’t worry–your doctor has a code for that.  Injured by an exploding non-powered glider?  There’s a code for that too.  Pecked by a turkey?  It’s covered.

Yes, the federal government is requiring that all doctors, hospitals, and health care providers use codes from the newly issued DCM-10 when reporting injuries and illnesses.  So when you tell your doctor that you were pecked by a turkey, they’ll enter put the code W61.43XA on all forms related to insurance claims, medical reports and so forth.  Assuming that this is the first time your report it, that is.  For subsequent turkey-pecking injuries, the code is W61.43XD, so don’t get confused.  Likewise, W58.13XA would be code for your first instance of being crushed by a crocodile, not to be confused with W58.03XA, which is “crushed by alligator, initial encounter”.  And “Glider (nonpowered) explosion injuring occupant” is code V96.25XA, while while V96.15XA is “Hang-glider explosion injuring occupant.”

The codes don’t apply exclusively to the type of injuries.  Doctors must also report the location of the injury.  So if you’re injured in a chicken coop, your doctor will need code Y92.72, while Y92.311 indicates that you were injured on a squash court.  Y92.152 informs us that you got hurt in the bathroom of a reform school, which is distinct from the bathroom of an orphanage (that would be Y92.111).  If you strain your vocal cords at the opera house, that would be Y92.253, while if the aforementioned crocodile crush occurred at the zoo, then it’s time to break out code Y92.834.

All kidding aside, this is serious business.  The total cost of implementing the new reporting system will be in the tens of thousands of dollars for all medical practices, and in the millions for some.  83 large organizations representing most of America’s doctors recently sent a letter to the government, requesting that the DCM-10 be canceled.  The government ignored it, naturally.  And the name of the federal rule which requires doctors to use this system?  “Administrative simplification“.

A cold

For the past two weeks I have had a cold.  This has given me the opportunity to contemplate colds.

Objectively the word “cold” means having a low temperature.  Cold is the opposite of hot, in other words.  Yet we also use the word “cold” to describe a sickness, one characterized by a runny nose and occasionally a sore throat and other symptoms.

One immediately senses that it’s not a coincidence that wwe use the same word to indicate this disease and low temperature.  Yet what is the connection?  Having a cold doesn’t make one cold, nor does it make one feel cold.  There’s certainly no rule that colds can only occur when you’re cold.  It’s often said that colds in the summer are the very worst.

At the same time, though, we do know that if you get cold, you’re more likely to get a cold.  Like smoking and lung cancer, the first isn’t the only cause of the second, but it’s the most common cause.

Indeed, in the old days folks were much more carefule about not exposing themselves to cold , lest they get a cold.  In the opening scene of Gone with the Wind, Mammy warns Scarlet not to go running around without her shawl, lest she catch her death.  (Scarlet ignores her, needless to say.)  Nowadays, on the other hand, we’re much more nonchalant about exposing ourselves to cold.  It seems we just don’t fear cold or colds like we used to.

No why should that be?  Is it that we don’t get colds any more?  Hardly.  Colds are really the only disease that everone gets.  Other diseases that loom large in our consciousness these days are generally the rare but fatal ones: cancer, AIDS, and so forth.  Colds are unique in being the only minor disease that we pay attention to.

For lack of any other reason, it seems that we don’t fear colds because we have ways to reduce our suffering.  Any supermarket, drug store, or even gas station will yield dozens of treatments that can alleviate the symptoms if we get one.  As a result, we no longer go to great lengths to avoid colds.  Indeed, many of us probably have colds while barely being aware that we have them.  While we’re prone to thinking that technology makes us more intelligent and aware of the world around us, in some cases it actually makes us less aware.

Chesterton on cave paintings

Those who follow this blog have probably noticed that Chesterton hasn’t been posting much lately.  The recent discoveries of cave paintings from as far back as 77,000 years ago has at last provoked him to comment.

Today all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with numberless allusions to a popular character called a CaveMan. He seems to be quite familiar to us, not only as a public character but as a private character. His psychology is seriously taken into account in psychological fiction and psychological medicine. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff.’ I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded. Nor, as I have explained elsewhere, have I ever been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off. But on every animal analogy, it would seem an almost morbid modesty and reluctance on the part of the lady, always to insist on being knocked down before consenting to be carried off. And I repeat that I can never comprehend why, when the male was so very rude, the female should have been so very refined. The cave-man may have been a brute, but there is no reason why he should have been more brutal than the brutes. And the loves of the giraffes and the river romances of the hippopotami are effected without any of this preliminary fracas or shindy. The cave-man may have been no better than the cave-bear; but the child she-bear, so famous in hymnology, is not trained with any such bias for spinsterhood. In short these details of the domestic life of the cave puzzle me upon either the revolutionary or the static hypothesis; and in any case I should like to look into the evidence for them; but unfortunately I have never been able to find it. But the curious thing is this: that while ten thousand tongues of more or less scientific or literary gossip seemed to be talking at once about this unfortunate fellow, under the title of the cave-man, the one connection in which it is really relevant and sensible to talk about him as the cave-man has been comparatively neglected. People have used this loose term in twenty loose ways; but they have never even looked at their own term for what could really be learned from it.

In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what be did in the cave. It is little enough, like all the prehistoric evidence, but it is concerned with the real cave-man and his cave and not the literary cave-man and his club. And it will be valuable to our sense of reality to consider quite simply what that real evidence is, and not to go beyond it. What was found in the cave was not the club, the horrible gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head. The cave was not a Bluebeard’s Chamber filled with the skeletons of slaughtered wives; it was not filled with female skulls all arranged in rows and all cracked like eggs. It was something quite unconnected, one way or the other, with all the modern phrases and philosophical implications and literary rumors which confuse the whole question for us. And if we wish to see as it really is this authentic glimpse of the morning of the world, it will be far better to conceive even the story of its discovery as some such legend of the land of morning. It would be far better to tell the tale of what was really found as simply as the tale of heroes finding the Golden Fleece or the Gardens of the Hesperides, if we could so escape from a fog of controversial theories into the clear colors and clean cut outlines of such a dawn. The old epic poets at least knew how to tell a story, possibly a tall story but never a twisted story, never a story tortured out of its own shape to fit theories and philosophies invented centuries afterwards. It would be well if modern investigators could describe their discoveries in the bald narrative style of the earliest travelers, and without any of these long allusive words that are full of irrelevant implication and suggestion. Then we might realize exactly what we do know about the cave-man, or at any rate about the cave.

A priest and a boy entered sometime ago a hollow in the hills and passed into a sort of subterranean tunnel that led into a labyrinth of such sealed and secret corridors of rock. They crawled through cracks that seemed almost impassable, they crept through tunnels that might have been made for moles, they dropped into holes as hopeless as wells, they seemed to be burying themselves alive seven times over beyond the hope of resurrection. This is but the commonplace of all such courageous exploration; but what is needed here is some one who shall put such stories in the primary light, in which they are not commonplace There is, for instance, some thing strangely symbolic in the accident that the first intruders into that sunken world were a priest and a boy, the types of the antiquity and of the youth of the world. But here I am even more concerned with the symbolism of the boy than with that of the priest. Nobody who remembers boyhood needs to be told what it might be to a boy to enter like Peter Pan under a roof of the roots of all the trees and go deeper and deeper, till he reach what William Morris called the very roots of the mountains. Suppose somebody, with that simple and unspoiled realism that is a part of innocence, to pursue that journey to its end, not for the sake of what he could deduce or demonstrate in some dusty magazine controversy, but simply for the sake of what he could see. What he did see at last was a cavern so far from the light of day that it might have been the legendary Domdaniel cavern that was under the floor of the sea. This secret chamber of rock, when illuminated after its long night of unnumbered ages, revealed on its walls large and sprawling outlines diversified with colored earths; and when they followed the lines of them they recognized, across that vast void of ages, the movement and the gesture of a man’s band. They were drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. Under whatever archaic limitations, they showed that love of the long sweeping or the long wavering line which any man who has ever drawn or tried to draw will recognize; and about which no artist will allow himself to be contradicted by any scientist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when be swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail, an action familiar enough in the horse. But there are many modern animal-painters who would set themselves something of a task in rendering it truly. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. In that sense it would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist; the sort of naturalist who is really natural.

Now it is needless to note, except in passing, that there is nothing whatever in the atmosphere of that cave to suggest the bleak and pessimistic atmosphere of that journalistic cave of the winds, that blows and bellows about us with countless echoes concerning the CaveMan. So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past, that human character is quite human and even humane. It is certainly not the ideal of an inhuman character, like the abstraction invoked in popular science. When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes,’Red spark danced in Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.

When the psychoanalyst writes to a patient, “The submerged instincts of the cave-man are doubtless prompting you to gratify a violent impulse,’ he does not refer to the impulse to paint in water-colors; or to make conscientious studies of how cattle swing their heads when they graze. Yet we do know for a fact that the cave-man did these mild and innocent things and we have not the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things. In other words the cave-man as commonly presented to us is simply a myth or rather a muddle; for a myth has at least an imaginative outline of truth. The whole of the current way of talking is simply a confusion and a misunderstanding, founded on no sort of scientific evidence and valued only as an excuse for a very modern mood of anarchy. If any gentleman wants to knock a woman about, he can surely be a cad without taking away the character of the cave-man, about whom we know next to nothing except what we can gather from a few harmless and pleasing pictures on a wall.

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

It’s worth linking to this story in Slate, which documents that some scientists now agree with the premise that artistic creation is what defined primitive humans as distnct from animals.

Jesus’s Deadbeat Wife

One advantage to my slow posting is that often a story has completely run its course by the time I get around to commenting on it. Last month a tiny fragment of an ancient Coptic manuscript showed up that included a reference to “the wife of Jesus”. The manupscript supposedly dated from the third century A.D., which would obviously make it useless as far as real, historical evidence was concerned. That didn’t stop the mainstream media from going into a tizzy, playing up the the supposed “fact” that Jesus had a wife and discussing how this new revelation would rock the foundations of Christianity.

Within a few days, more sober-minded scholars had taken a look at the fragment. It was a fraud. Some forger had copied a few lines from the Gospel of Thomas and inserted the phrase “the wife of Jesus” in the middle. There were also errors in grammar and continuity. Here’s an article that tells the whole story.

Of course this sort of hoax is not new to those who study the Bible and archaeology. Less than two years ago, we were treated to the case of the lead codices from Jordan.  Before that there was the “Jesus family tomb”, the supposed ossuary of James, Secret Mark, and many others.  Plainly anyone should be on their guard against fakes, and a supposedly major find relating to the life of Jesus should always be treated with skepticism.  Thre question then becomes: why don’t the media and the liberal scholars do that?  After all, we’re told time after time that the non-religious and mildly religious are much more skeptical than the truly religious.  We’re informed over and over again that true believers fall for all kinds of bunkum, while the other group does not.  Why, then, is it the media and the secular academic complex that got suckered by this fragment?  Why indeed?

The Zoo

Last Saturday I went to the zoo with my fiance.  We saw orangutans.

And cheetahs.

And an oryx or two.

(These are not my pictures, by the way.)

When I was a child, my parents took me to the zoo almost every time that we visited a major city.  When I grew up, I stopped attending zoos.  That lasted until my third year of grad school, when I returned to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago to relive the grand experience of being mere inches away from a polar bear.

What makes some people like zoos and others not?  Why do some, such as myself, seesaw back and forth between both camps?  It is a mystery.  One might as well ask how the cheetah got his spots.

What I’m Reading: The Population Bomb

There are for more books than there are movies, TV shows, or computer games.   In one way this is a good thing, since it gives us readers more choices.  On the other hand, since the number of books is in the millions, making the choices can be difficult.  In a lifetime each of us can read at best a few thousand books.  That means millions will be left out.  How do we pick?

I’ll narrow the question slightly by leaving out recent books and focus only on classics.  Even there we face a choice among millions of books, stretching from a few years old to the dawn of human history.  Which ones should we read?  How do we decide which books are good ones?

An old book is good if it’s been vindicated.   In that respect, my homeboy G. K. Chesterton wrote a lot of good books, because the things he said are now agreed to be true.  Eugenics is actually evil, as he said in Eugenics and Other Evils.  Christianity has lasted, as he predicted in The Everlasting Man.   It’s fun to see the man predicting things which were in his future but our past.  The successful fulfillment of his prophecies also demonstrates his wisdom and clarity of thought.

On the other hand, it can sometimes be entertaining to read a book that was not vindicated, especially one that failed in spectacular fashion.  Which brings us to today’s entry, The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich.

This book, written in 1968, is most famous for its opening sentences: “The battle to feed humanity is over.  In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”  This prediction did not come true.  The 1970’s are over—thankfully—and hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death—again thankfully.  Few people today know or care what’s in the rest of the book.  They should.  It’s highly entertaining.

For example, the final chapter, entitled “What can you do?”, presents suggestions for individuals to take to combat overpopulation.  One suggested tactic is, “Proselytizing Friends and Associates”.  That section begins as follows:

At no small risk of being considered a nut, you can do a lot of good by persuading your personal acquaintances that the crisis is here, that something must be done, and that they can help.

Yeah, I think anyone who started lecturing friends about the dangers of overpopulation would be considered a nut.  In that sense, Ehrlich did make one correct prediction.  And then there’s this recommendation for talking to college professors:

The population crisis must be an integral part of his teaching—it is pertinent to every subject.  He must use the prestige of his position in writing letters to whomever he thinks he can influence most.  If he is in English or drama, he may be able to write novels or plays emphasizing near-future worlds in which famines or plagues are changing the very nature of society.  If he is in business school, he can “hit the road” lecturing to businesses on “The Stork as an Enemy of Capitalism.” … Any professor, lecturing anywhere, can insert into his lecture a “commercial” on the problem.  “And so I come to the end of my discussion of the literary significance of Darwin’s hangnail.  In conclusion, I would like to remind you that our Society for the Study of Darwin’s Hangnail can only exist in a world in which there is leisure time for intellectual pursuits.  Unless something is done now to bring the runaway human population under control, the SSDH will not long endure.”

Yes, Ehrlich did write this stuff.  Seriously.  If you don’t believe me, buy a copy of the book and read it for yourself.   He wrote it and millions of people, many of whom were educated and intelligent, took it seriously.

Unfortunately the book contains some ideas that aren’t quite so funny.  First of all, there’s this recommendation: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”  So much for freedom.   Elsewhere this:

 The reproductive function of sex must be shown as just one of its functions, and one that must be carefully regulated in relation to the needs of the individual and society. … With a rational atmosphere mankind should be able to work out the problems of de-emphasizing the reproductive role of sex.  These problems include finding substitutes for the sexual satisfaction which many women derive from childbearing … If we take the proper steps in education, legislation, and research, we should be able in a generation to have a population thoroughly enjoying its sexual activity, relatively free of the horrors created today by divorce, illegal abortion, venereal disease, and the psychological pressures of a sexually repressive and repressed society.

Quite a lot of bad stuff here.  Ehrlich calls for government to muck around in people’s private, sexual decisions.  He calls for us to teach children dishonest things about sex.  He implies that women are unable to understand or control their own sexual desires.  And he predicts that as soon as we rid ourselves of the boogeyman called “sexual repression”, STDs, divorce, and abortion will vanish.  Needless to say, he was wrong.  Society has dropped almost all traditional views of sex and we now let everyone do as they will, but divorce and abortion and STDs were still with us when I last checked.

Lastly Ehrlich offers prescriptions for international policy.  Here’s where he gets truly ugly.  He argues for a system of triage in distributing food aid.  Some third-world countries, in his view, are well off enough that they don’t need aid.  Some are deserving of our aid.  And some are just so overpopulated that there’s no point in giving them aid, so we should just cut off the food and leave them to starve.  Don’t take my word for it; read what Ehrlich says: “Finally there is the last tragic category—those countries that are so far behind in the population-food game that there is no hope that our food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency.  India is probably in this category.  If it is, then under the triage system she should receive no more food.”  So there you have it is so many words.   Ehrlich recommend cutting off food aid to India, which would have resulted in the deaths of many millions.  Fortunately our government did not implement his recommendation.

(One final note: Ehrlich’s example of a good third-world country was Libya, the same Libya that was ruled by the murderous Gaddafi for decades.)

One thing that very few people know about this book is that it was published by the Sierra Club.  Wait, you might ask, the Sierra Club promoted sterilization by force, misogyny, and the unnecessary starvation of millions of people?  It sure did.  I am not an enemy of the Sierra Club.  I consider myself an environmentalist and I strongly support the goal of preserving nature and reducing pollution.  But this book stands as a testament to the need for intelligence and skepticism when someone makes a claim of impending doom.

Is the earth flat?

One of the things that I want to do with this blog is stick together rebuttals to atheist arguments commonly found on the internet.  One of the most common is the flat-earth myth.  The idea is fairly simple.  The atheist explains that at some point before the enlightenment, ignorant Christians were all sure that the earth was flat.  Some versions say that the Catholic Church persecuted anyone who claimed that the earth was round.  Others insist that when Christopher Columbus first looked for funding to sail westward from Spain, nobody supported him because they all though he would sail off the edge of the world.  Taken together, it all comes to a dramatic demonstration of the fact that superstitious Christians held the human race back for centuries until the superior, enlightened, secular folk showed up and saved the day with their superior enlightenment.

The only problem with this is that it’s, to use the technical term, complete &$!%*@&#.

For starters, we have no record that people believed in a flat earth at any time in the history of western civilization.  In the cosmologies of Ptolemy and Aristotle, both dating from centuries before Christ, the world is as round as a cantaloupe.  Christian scholars from the middle ages generally accepted what these guys said about the cosmos, though with some notable exceptions.  We have no evidence of anyone important advocating for the idea of a flat earth either in Ancient Greece or in medieval or Renaissance Europe.  This article by James Hannam, a historian of science, covers the topic thoroughly: The Myth of the Flat Earth.


So where does the notion that folks once believed in a flat earth come from?  From lies, prejudice, and ignorance.  It seems to have become widespread thanks to a book called The Warfare of Science with Theology, by Andrew White, a scholar and co-founder of Cornell University.  His book today is known to be a complete fraud, with White himself making up most of the claims in it and burying any evidence that didn’t match his thesis.  (Some people apparently still feel proud to provide the book, though.)  From there it wandered to other books and sources, and just became some part of general knowledge.  I recall as a kid reading a picture book about Christopher Columbus which explained that “in those days people thought the earth was flat as a pancake” and offered a picture of ships falling of the edge of the earth to prove the point.

On the plus side, intelligent people today are generally aware of the truth, but there are plenty of people who aren’t intelligent.  We’ll probably continue hearing versions of the flat earth myth from them for a while.

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