Ancient Teeth–What They Mean and What They Say

Haim Watzman

Scientific papers are not generally thought of as allusive, but, as the article I wrote for Nature this week shows, intentional ambiguity is not foreign to the scientific world.

So are the eight ancient human teeth, some dated as far back as 300,000-400,000 years ago, that Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues found in Qesem cave really evidence that Homo sapiens evolved here in Israel, as my friend and colleague Matthew Kalman wrote in the Daily Mail? Kalman based his story on Tel Aviv university’s press release, which Gopher vetted and by which he stands. Going out on a shorter limb, other reports in the mainstream press merely said that the discovery proves that modern humans evolved much earlier than the currently accepted 200,000 years before present.

As my article states, bloggers (such as Carl Zimmer and Brian Switek) who follow human evolution news jumped on the disparities between the press reports and the paper that Gopher et al. published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The latter cautiously offers three alternative interpretations of the teeth.

Read more

Putting the Micro in Archaeology

Haim Watzman Archaeologists classically discover lost cities and get excited about buried ramparts, palaces, and temples. But today they get excited about the small stuff, too—grains of wheat, mineral grains produced by plants, and tiny crystals of calcite. Take a look at my latest feature in the science journal Nature to read about the fascinating … Read more

Science Jews

Haim Watzman It’s not the headline that’s remarkable, it’s the picture. The website of the great science journal that I occasionally do news pieces for, Nature, has a headline today that is already somewhat ho-hum. Jews Worldwide Share Genetic Ties! We’ve seen this before, in reports of studies of mitochondrial DNA (which is inherited only … Read more

Knowledge and the Public Good–Some Suggested Reading

Haim Watzman

The dissemination of knowledge—high-quality knowledge—is essential to a democratic society. So I’d like to point out an interesting juxtaposition of articles from my Shabbat reading that, taken together, have something important to say about the importance of getting good knowledge to the public.

Danielle Allen’s review of Josiah Ober’s book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens in The New Republic concludes:

Josiah Ober shows us that Athens knew what the Athenians knew, because the city as a whole had devised institutions that made sure the useful knowledge of the widest possible range of individuals flowed to where it was needed. Have we fully tapped into the resources of participatory democracy to supplement our own representative structures with a citizenry within which all the sluices of knowledge are open and have been set a-flowing? Does America know what Americans know?

In the March 5 issue of Nature, Harry Collins, a social scientist who studies science, concludes an essay entitled “We Cannot Live By Skepticism Alone” with these words:

Science, then, can provide us with a set of values—not findings—for how to run our lives, and that includes our social and political lives. But it can do this only if we accept that assessing scientific findings is a far more difficult task than was once believed, and that those findings do not lead straight to political conclusions. Scientists can guide us only by admitting their weaknesses, and, concomitantly, when we outsiders judge scientists, we must do it not to the standard of truth, but to the much softer standard of expertise.

Read more

Science and Religion and the Mufti and Me

Haim Watzman Readers interested in the science (specifically evolution) and religion debate might be interested in the exchange I’ve been participating in with the Grand Mufti and others over on Jewlicious. The GM defines the problem well, and I’ve tried to help him dispel some misconceptions. The gist is that it’s an error to say … Read more

Science and Art in “Ice People”

Haim Watzman

Ice People is ostensibly a documentary about geologists in Antarctica, but beyond than that it’s a work of art about the continent’s landscapes. More than informing us about south pole science, director Anne Ahgion tells us something important about the processes of artistic and scientific creation.

In a central scene, the four geologists she whose work she chronicled climb up to one of the ridges of the Trans-Antarctic mountain range and gaze out over a huge ravine at a volcano. Aghion’s camera takes a long shot, showing a small human figure dwarfed against this primal landscape—one that only a handful of human beings have ever seen. It’s a moment of breathtaking, majestic beauty.

Read more

Is God a Republican?

Poor God. You created the world, you are the power and glory, but everyone thinks you’re a Republican.

But the association of the Most High with the most right-wing doesn’t stand up to philosophical scrutiny. Conservatives, after all, love order. They want today to be like yesterday, and tomorrow to be like the day before yesterday.

But then they’ve also got this all-powerful God who, they believe, intervenes in their lives, in politics, and in everything else on a daily, ongoing basis. But wait a minute–if God is constantly intervening in the world, that means the world operates according to God’s will, not according to any established laws. A world ruled by an omnipotent, interventionist God would, on the face of it, be totally unpredictable. Tomorrow would most certainly not be like today.

That’s not a very conservative proposition.

Read more

The Politics of Measurement: Miscalculating Public Health

Here’s an update in the value of doubt from veteran health journalist and muckraker (the word is a medal of honor) Shannon Brownlee, writing in the Washington Post:

Striking fear… serves pharmaceutical companies, which want you to worry about diseases, because people who worry are more likely to go to their doctors and ask for drugs than people who don’t. It turns out that much of what we — and our doctors — think we know about many health problems has been shaped by drugmakers and their marketers.

High anxiety happens to be good for the bottom line of some big corporations. But perhaps that money could be better spent

Read more

Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice

Purim is the Hebrew calendar’s brush with postmodernism. No other observance is so full of contradictions, alternative readings, ambiguities. Nahafokh hu, as the Book of Esther says—every character, event, and ritual comes along with its mirror image. We expunge the ultimate evil, Amalek, from our memories by remembering; we are commanded to recite a story we already know and listen to every single word, yet we may read it from a scroll in which many words are missing; we mark God’s miraculous intervention in Jewish history by reading a book in which God is not mentioned at all.

These contradictions are all emanations of the one great contradiction that every person who both thinks and believes must face. The problem presented by modern, scientific knowledge is not in the specifics. Belief in God can be squared with the assertions that the universe came to being in a big bang and that humans are just another kind of primate. The apparently unbridgeable gap is that between chance and purpose. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the world of the believer is that what happens in the world happens because of divine intent. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the scientist’s world is that it runs according to physical laws, with no purpose and no plan. God’s world can be judged; it can be good or evil. The scientist’s world can only be.

Read more

Getting the Treatment Right: Conventional and Alternative Medicine

What makes a medical procedure scientific? What makes it quackery?

Unlike many of my friends, I’m a conventional medicine guy. I don’t have any patience for homeopathy and reflexology and the like because they have no scientific backing. And as a writer about science, I’m convinced that the scientific method—which in the case of medicine centers on random controlled testing of therapies, drugs, and procedures—is the best tool we have for determining what treatments are effective and what are not. There’s really no rational argument you can make that would lead to any other conclusion.

Read more

The Sinews of Our Souls: C. K. Williams’ “Dissections”

“This unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” A man visiting an exhibition of exposed human tissue reflects despairingly on the disconnect between  his body and his soul, and between his soul and his self.

The poem is “Dissections,” the poet C. K. Williams. When it appeared in The Atlantic in November 2002 (read it, and hear the poet recite it, here), I pasted it up on my office door. Today I took it down, and had an opportunity to reread and reflect.

Read more