June 1, 2015

Pope FrancisThe Catholic Church and Climate Change
From Galileo to genetics, the Roman Catholic Church has danced with science, sometimes in a high-tension tango but more often in a supportive waltz. Pope Francis is about to introduce a new twist: global warming. (Seth Borenstein, Associated Press)

Budgies Yawn Contagiously
“Contagious yawning by itself is not exactly empathy, but it hints at the tendency to mimic and synchronize with the bodies of others,” says Frans de Waal of Emory University in Georgia. “This process is probably the basis of mammalian empathy.” De Waal thinks this is a good starting point for examining empathy in other types of animal. “Until now, most empathy research has been on mammals,” he says. “Empathy may turn out to be a mechanism even more widespread than we think, which is all the more remarkable given that it was thought just one or two decades ago that empathy was uniquely human.” (Penny Sarchet, New Scientist)

The Oldest Known Murder
The study doesn’t just show evidence of a murder hundreds of thousands of years old; it also points toward early use of a primitive cemetery. (Sam Sanders, The Two-Way, NPR)

Why Do We Experience Awe?
Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner: Years ago, one of us, Professor Keltner, argued (along with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt) that awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. Through many activities that give us goose bumps—collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship—awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong. Now, recent research of ours, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, provides strong empirical support for this claim. (The New York Times)

BOOK REVIEW
John Horgan on Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne and Private Doubt, Public Dilemma by Keith Thomson. (The Wall Street Journal)

Q&A
Jerry Coyne

Talking from the University of Chicago, where he is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, he explains why new scientific discoveries are undermining the claims of religion; why Stephen Jay Gould was wrong; and how U.S. law is not doing enough to protect children from being martyrs to their parents’ faith. (Simon Worrall, National Geographic)


May 14, 2015

America’s Changing Religious LandscapeAmerica’s Changing Religious Landscape
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. (Pew Research Center)

How Might Feeling Invisible Affect Our Moral Thinking?
Arvid Guterstam: I personally don’t think invisibility will affect our moral nature. But it’s an open question that we now can test by using this illusion, and I’m excited to see the results. (SABQ)

New Dimensions in Testimony Project
The project’s first subject was Pinchas Gutter, a Holocaust survivor, who was asked to tell his story, then was asked hundreds of follow-up questions. A computer cataloged and analyzed his responses, and when the story is complete, viewers can simply ask their own questions and a suitable answer will be selected and played back by the lifelike hologram. This allows not just for stories to be experienced as if the teller is physically there, complete with gestures and expressions, but also for those hearing it to further investigate in a natural way. (Devin Coldewey, TODAY)


April 28, 2015

James St John, CC BYEven Setting Evolution Aside, Basic Geology Disproves Creationism
David Montgomery: In the ongoing conflict between science and creationism, evolution is usually a main point of contention. The idea that all life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor is a major problem for creationists. As a geologist, though, I think that the rocks beneath our feet offer even better arguments against creationism. For the creationist model doesn’t square with what you can see for yourself. And this has been known since before Darwin wrote a word about evolution. (The Conversation)

Ethical Debate Over Editing the Genomes of Human Embryos
In the wake of the first ever report that scientists have edited the genomes of human embryos, experts cannot agree on whether the work was ethical. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

More on the Conflict Over Observatories at Mauna Kea
In Hawaii, a battle is going on over the future of a mountaintop. Native Hawaiians say it’s sacred ground, while astronomers say it’s the best place in the world to build a massive, 18-story telescope. This is not simply a story of religion versus science. Activists consider the construction of a giant telescope on the island of Hawaii to be a desecration of their sacred land. (Molly Solomon, Morning Edition, NPR)

New Reality Show Will Look at Generosity and Values
If somebody gave you $100,000, would you keep all the money for yourself, or share it with another needy family? That’s the setup for The Briefcase, a new reality show coming to CBS. And if you think that premise is tricky, wait until you hear the twist. “We’re testing the human spirit,” says executive producer Dave Broome (NBC’s The Biggest Loser). “These days, with paychecks shrinking, we wanted to tackle human values in a way in a big and loud way.” (James Hibberd, Entertainment Weekly)

Q&A
Frederic Lenoir

Frederic Lenoir’s Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide was a best seller when it was released in France last fall, and this month, it’s been published here, in English, courtesy of Melville House. Lenoir, a magazine editor, France Culture radio host, and professor at the elite L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, spoke on the phone from Paris about American culture’s contentment problem, happiness science, and The Bachelor. (David Marchese, Science of Us, New York Magazine)


April 22, 2015

religiousness and mental healthReligiousness and Mental Health
Is being a believer beneficial to one’s mental health? That’s the conclusion of much psychological research, which points to both the social support of belonging to a congregation, and the stress-reducing qualities of knowing that a larger force is looking out for you. But a newly published study challenges those beliefs. Analyzing answers provided by a large and diverse group of participants, it finds “secular and religious adherents have similar levels of mental health.” (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Why I Teach Evolution to Muslim Students
Rana Dajani: I teach evolution to university students in Jordan. Almost all of them are hostile to the idea at first. Their schoolteachers are likely to have ignored or glossed over it. Still, most students are willing to discuss evolution, and by the end of the course, the majority accept the idea. If Muslim students can challenge ideas on such a controversial academic topic, then they can also approach other aspects of their lives by questioning—and not just blindly accepting—the status quo. These tools and attitudes are crucial to the development of their personalities and to becoming responsible citizens. (Nature)

Creationism in Louisiana Public School Science Classes
Zack Kopplin: I have evidence that religion, not science, is what’s being taught systematically in some Louisiana school systems. I have obtained emails from creationist teachers and school administrators, as well as a letter signed by more than 20 current and former Louisiana science teachers in Ouachita Parish in which they say they challenge evolution in the classroom without legal “tension or fear” because of pro-creationism policies. (Slate)

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