Friday, February 24, 2006

18th Dynasty Tomb in Luxor

This has been in the news for several weeks now and isn't new by any means, but I thought it would be nice to collect some information and links about the new discovery in Luxor, Egypt just 5 meters from the tomb of Tutankhamen. It'll probably be years before any scholarly reports will be published on the tomb and anyone with an interest in Archaeology or Egyptology is probably like me, sitting at the edge of their chair with each new morsal of information.

The Egyptian State Information Service is calling the find a "cache of mummies," and is a vertical grave that starts about 3 m below the surface and is about 1.5 m wide and nearly 2 m in length. 20 airtight jars were also found along with the 5 wooden sarcophagi, which comprised the cache of mummies.

Archaeology Magazine's online news page reported that the mummies "
date to the 18th dynasty (1539 to 1292 B.C)"

The cache was discovered by The Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Mephis , and their site reports that there are 7 sarcophagi and that the tomb is actually 25 m south of Tutankhamen's. Director of the Institute and a member of the team, Dr. Lorelei Corcoran is quoted on their website as saying, ""We do not know as yet the names, titles or status of the individuals who may have been buried there ... and will not know ... until we can examine and analyze the material thoroughly. ..."

Until then, we all wait with bated breath as the tomb, designated KV 63, is excavated and the artifacts analyzed.

-Carl Feagans


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Does Scientism Exist?

The topic of "scientism" keeps coming up in conversations with both those who criticize the rigorous demands of the scientific method as well as through a short monograph on the internet (Menton 1991) with the title, Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism.

Interestingly enough, the term scientism exists among scholarly references and refers to the notion that science and the scientific method can be used to explain all that can be observed or experienced in the universe. This is consistent with logical positivism, which holds that there is an objectively knowable universe.

However, a different use of scientism has been co-opted, which implies that there are those within science that are to be derided as extremists or, at the very least, alarmists who reject critical thought and reason by denying "both the special revelation of truth and the existence of a sovereign, supernatural and external being (Menton 1991)." The assumption here is that science generally accepts the supernatural and spiritual "revelations" as valid methods of obtaining truths.

More often than not, the sources of these implications and assumptions originate with theistic proponents of creation mythology. Some, however, tactically avoid the direct association with creation and supernaturalism as if to provide plausible deniability if directly called on either to produce evidence or supporting references. It is, after all, difficult to logically prove that which cannot be tested, and the intellectual and educated theist wisely avoids this. The tactic, instead, appears to be to assert that there is a subculture called scientism, which is a moral and extremist faction of real science.

The overall thesis of this assertion seems to suggest that scientism as an extremist faction of science is somehow a danger to society, perhaps with its rampant atheism and certainly with its naturalistic and materialistic views of the universe.

Menton's paper on the subject made Carl Sagan the focus of the anti-scientism movement (as it were). Menton accuses Sagan of being a "prophet" of scientism, which implies very clearly that the author believes this to be a new form of religion. Menton's opening paragraph makes the unsupported claim that Sagan's work consisted of "only a tissue of empirical science covering a great bulk of improvable speculation liberally laced with Sagan's own philosophical and religious views of life." Menton then states, very plainly, "Sagan's religion […] is 'scientism.'"

Menton's article is short and falls even more short in delivering any support for either his claim that Sagan was a representative of a religion or that this religion of "scientism" actually exists. Menton's derision of Sagan's work goes little beyond merely stating that it is speculative and supported only be a "tissue of empiricism." He does, however, criticize Sagan's position (Cosmos 1996) that evolution is a fact and that it really happened. Menton is unconcerned with the enormous body of evidence that exists to support Sagan's assertion and seems only interested in attempting to negatively affect Sagan's credibility in the matters of science. In doing so, Menton invokes the words of Harlow Shapely, an apparent one-time professor of Sagan, who is alleged to have said, "some piously record, 'In the beginning, God,' but I say in the beginning hydrogen." Menton then vastly oversimplifies Shapely's contention by concluding that Shapely is suggesting hydrogen + time = H. sapiens as if the complex processes and mechanisms between hydrogen and civilization came about in a few days. I'm not sure what specific creationist beliefs Menton has, but it is interesting to note that he rejects the hypothesis that hydrogen, many billions of years, and untold energy can result in the universe as we know it. The irony is that he probably has little difficulty accepting that a mysterious, supernatural entity can speak the world into existence –complete with people in just a few days!

Menton mines several quotes from Sagan's Cosmos, which he takes from their original contexts and juxtaposes with new a new context –the one of an atheistic scientist attempting to convert the masses to become godless heathens. Menton's deception isn't very subtle. He quotes Sagan from a 1980 newspaper article as saying, "I feel in order to survive we someday must be able to give up our allegiance to our nation, our religion, our race and economic group and think of ourselves more as just a temporary form of life under the creation of a power beyond our comprehension." Menton cites the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as the source but immediately follows the quote with "Sagan concludes that if man is to worship anything greater than man himself, it should be something which amounts to the pagan worship of nature," to which Menton follows with another Sagan quote mined from Cosmos (p243): "Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?"

Perhaps Menton truly believes that Sagan's position was that the sun should be worshipped and that a pagan religion was necessary. But a look at page 242 of Cosmos and reading on through 243 reveals the context of Sagan's words. The chapter these pages reside in is titled The Lives of Stars and Sagan is describing the power of a star on the community of planets from which one is lucky enough to be able to support life. He was noting that the power of the sun did not go unnoticed to man and the footnote that was attached to the quote was this: "The early Sumerian pictograph for god was an asterisk, the symbol of the stars. The Aztec word for god was Teotl, and its glyph was a representation of the Sun. The heavens were called the Teoatl, the godsea, the cosmic ocean." The very next paragraph that follows the quote begins with, "The Galaxy is an unexplored continent filled with exotic beings of stellar dimensions."

Even Menton couldn't have missed the literary devices of metaphor and hyperbole which Sagan effectively utilized to convey the enormity and power that a star has, even a "mediocre" one such as our Sun.

Menton was again disingenuous with Sagan's words when he quoted UFO's: A Scientific Debate (Sagan & Page 1972, p.xiv): "[s]cience has itself become a kind of religion." Menton inserts the period that follows "religion" as if that is the end of the thought, leaving the reader with the impression that the "prophet of scientism" has spoke and the movement begun. But to add context and truth to the eight words quote-mined by Menton, it is important to note that "religion" is punctuated with a trailing comma and the sentence completes with, "and many pronouncements cloaked in scientific attire are blandly accepted by much of the public." Clearly Sagan and Paige (the co-editor Menton so conveniently omits to credit) are providing an introduction to the thesis of the collection of articles to which they are the editors of in UFO's, which is that science must contain skepticism and critical thought in order to balance the pop-culture appeal that it has attained.

What then is the purpose of criticizing notable figures of science with charges of "scientism" and of starting a "religion?"

For the theistic apologetics of creationism and it's guise under the form of "intelligent" design, this question's answer lies in an agenda to justify beliefs and promote doubt among believers. Indeed, the much talked about "wedge strategy" dictates, among it's goals, to seed doubt among lay persons regarding the validity of the science behind evolutionary processes in order to further the creationist agenda.


Menton, D. N. (1991). Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism (Get the Facts). Retrieved 13106, from Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.:
Sagan, C. (1986). Broca's Brain. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C. (1996). Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Page, T. (1972). Introduction. In C. Sagan & T. Page (Eds.), Ufo's: A Scientific Debate (p. xiv). New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.


Science in Action: Sonic Hedgehog and Down Syndrome

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have made great strides in dealing restoring the the growth of nerve cells in mice that are afflicted with trisomy 21.

In mouse models, the researchers (Roper et al 2006) found that a protein could restore normal growth of specific nerve cells in the cerebellum. The protein's name is Sonic Hedgehog (Shh) and is appears to activate a pathway of signals to the nerve cells, which, in turn, stimulates mitosis and thus growth.

The implications of this are, simply put: "wow."

It may soon be possible to reverse the effects of trisomy 21, or "Down Syndrome," in newborns. As a father myself, I can tell you that every expecting parent fears this sort of defect. For the parents that have children with Down Syndrome (DS), it must be a difficult ordeal. Knowing some of the parents, its clear that they have as much love for their child as any parent, but it would be a true triumph of science if this leads to a treatment for newborns that would minimize or even eliminate the effects of DS. Indeed, this would be a milestone comparable to the Polio Vaccine.


Roper, R.J.; Baxter, L.L.; Saran, N.G.; Klinedinst, D.K.; Beachy, P.A.; and Reeves, R.H. (2006). Defective cerebellar response to mitogenic Hedgehog signaling in Down's syndrome mice. PNAS, 103(5), 1452-1456.


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