Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Unhappy Medium

UMpromoKaleesha has a great write-up on skeptic and atheist indy author Tim Brown's excellent work of comedy, "The Unhappy Medium". Read her review and then download the Kindle Book for free tomorrow. Or buy it for only $5 today! Absolutely hilarious and well worth your time! From the book:
When even the laws of physics let you down, the absurd, the ludicrous and the frankly impossible may be all you have left.

Dr Newton Barlow has everything a theoretical physicist could ask for – a glittering career both in the lab and on television, a beautiful wife, and best of all, the opportunity to promote his rock-solid certainty that supernatural and religious beliefs are nothing but complete and utter hokum.

But Barlow is about to take a tumble. Mired in accusations of fraud, incompetence and malpractice, Newton is cast out from the scientific establishment and ejected from the family home. With his life in tatters, he descends into a wine-sodden wilderness. Then, after three lost years, Barlow is suddenly approached by his old mentor and fellow sceptic Dr Sixsmith with an extraordinary proposition, an offer that Newton simply cannot refuse. There’s just one small problem: Dr Sixsmith is dead.

Thrown headlong into a new reality that simply shouldn’t exist, Dr Newton Barlow is about to come up against the best and the worst of human nature: tooled-up vicars, paper-pushing ancient Greeks, sinister property developers, a saucy rubber nun and possibly the most mean-spirited man ever to have walked the earth (twice).

From the dusty plains of Spain to the leafy vicarages of Hampshire, Dr Barlow will have to contradict everything he ever believed in if he wants to save this world – and the next.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Racism ruined my dinner

For me Ferguson started when I was around 12 years old. Let’s say, 1981. I was at the doctor’s office and my doctor was making small talk. I don’t remember the exact question he’d asked but it was something along the lines of did I like football and who was my favorite player. I don’t remember the name I gave him, but I’ll never forget the line that came out of my mouth after. “But you know them niggers all look the same.” My mom was, as I recall, embarrassed. I don’t recall the exact correction that I received when we got back into the car. She was not happy. I wish I remembered the specifics of our exchange after because I think it would be very telling in describing everything that has come since. It might explain how, some 33 years later, a really nice home made pizza dinner was spoiled by a conversation about Ferguson (which is really an ongoing conversation about race). Actually, it wasn’t really a conversation about race so much as it was my parents and I talking at each other with neither side actually listening. It escalated and I lost my temper. I got up and walked out slamming the door behind me and that was that. I trudged up the hill and found a place in the rocks to sit.

Tic tock. The house is quiet now. No raised voices. Just a clock and the quiet hum of the refrigerator inside. Outside, the night-time chorus of frogs and insects is in full swing. Maybe I have to go back further than that doctor visit. That is my first recollection of race as an issue but I knew, even then, that we had moved south to Arnold when I was 9 because of something called “bussing.” I didn’t fully understand it but knew it had something to do with me not being allowed to go to the school down the street because I might have to take a bus to another school while other kids, black kids, would be brought into my school in Spanish Lake. The solution was to leave the city and move to a relatively young suburb with a brand new school that was just opening up. I started school there in the 4th grade.

It wasn’t until the early 90’s that my family began discussing race again. I’d gone to college and studied sociology and what’s more, I’d taken it a step further and become an “activist.” For me, becoming an activist started with becoming more knowledgeable about U.S. foreign policy and military spending. Next, it was learning about “political prisoners” and groups such Amnesty International. This was followed by environmental activism and in particular learning of the “Greens” and anarchism. Essentially, as I was learning (via university studies) about things such as “social stratification” and “systemic racism” I was also becoming increasingly “radicalized” in my activism. What I was only partially aware of at the time was that I was also stepping away from the collective values of my family. It was a gradual move.

By the mid 90s my activism was in full swing. It wasn’t something my parents understood. My parents are not all that political or religious. I’ve always thought of them as sitting on the sidelines. They worked hard and focused on raising their 3 kids. They were sociable with the neighbors in our subdivision in Arnold. We watched plenty of tv and lived what I consider (looking back on it) a fairly typical life in middle class white suburbia. I didn’t consider my parents raging racists, but I did consider them racists, as I do today. But I also consider myself a racist. I don’t think I know a person in America who is not a racist. I’d imagine that that there are many young people who have not yet learned the racism of the larger culture but suspect that they will not be spared. We live in a country that is still steeped in racial problems and we are all still a part of it.

When Michael Brown was shot in early August, the heated arguments about race that had been dormant in my family for most of the past decade were suddenly rekindled. To my knowledge I stand alone in my immediate and extended family on the issue of race in the U.S., as well as our reaction and interpretation of Michael Brown’s killing. We’re back to conversations that go nowhere as they try to explain their side and I try to explain mine. But, as is often the case, we’re not really learning or understanding each other so much as we are talking at each other. Sadly, last night, not only did we spoil our pizza dinner, but we also set a terrible example for the kids. They didn’t see or hear adults that were respectful of one another attempting to understand one another. They saw adults not listening and not communicating. They saw me get angry and storm out of a conversation and out of the house. A perfect microcosm of the U.S. and our inability to communicate not only about race, but also about our other problems.

I wonder how much of this failed communication is cultural and how much of it is human? Particularly regarding race and violence; why do we seem to have such difficulty understanding these problems? I suspect that it is not a problem specific to the U.S., but we do have our own unique racial history and that history helped shape the culture we live in today. No doubt it is a very complex process. It’s not even a question of just race as the equations must include economics, politics and geography. A discussion of race is going to be different based on our locations and our specific family histories, as well as our educational backgrounds. So many variables to consider.

As I sat up on the rocks, angry and sad at our inability to communicate, I felt stuck. I still feel stuck. I think of my family, our society, our species and I wonder about our way forward. How do we begin to communicate? How do we deepen our understanding on the issues that divide us?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Free to Be - Free Kindle Promo!

Promo FlyerThis Wednesday, August 27th, we will be offering Kaleesha's book, "Free to Be" as a free Kindle download. Normally $7.99. About the book:
This is not a book about how to get out of religion or how to prove there is no God or how to become a humanist. This book is a collection of one woman’s thoughts over the course of one year as her life changed and her freedom evolved, as she worked her way out of religious bondage, as she decided there probably is no God and considered why mankind wants one (or two or three), as she explored her freedoms, her past, her future, her culture and her universe. Her religion permeated every aspect of her life and therefore the removal of it also deeply affected every aspect. From her small home in rural Missouri Kaleesha invites you into the innermost areas of her life with warm, personal style. Bits of wit, sadness, beauty and sarcasm abound as she examines the nuances of creating a new life for herself free from the expectations of God. Surrounded by children, goats, chickens, friends and family she sorts through her relationships and perceptions of herself, her fellow creatures and the cosmos. This book is an engaging exploration of life, teeming with thoughtful and honest questions about what it means to be human.
To sweeten the deal, after you read it she'll be sharing a preview of the first chapter of her second book if you leave a review on Amazon.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wonderland

There are moments in life when everything feels just right. I'm not sure if those moments are happening all the time and it is just a matter of seeing them, recognizing them and acknowledging them or if it is the act of recognizing the potential of their existence that we help them into existence. Whatever the case may be, I feel fortunate to have chosen a life, created a life, in which such moments seem to come often. If I had to guess I suppose I'd say that such moments become more numerous the more we are able to slow down, the more we are able to be in the moment with those around us. We had such a night tonight here at Make-It-Do.

Dinner was unusual in that I missed it. We always make it a point to sit together for every meal. All of us. But tonight I slept through it because I'd been up late at the scope and because we had a long day in the car which left my back aching. I napped until Kaleesha woke me after six. By that time the kids had gone off to play in the woods. Kaleesha had made the two of us salads for dinner so we sat on the back porch to eat. The sounds of life went on all around us. The chickens and goats were doing their thing and off beyond the goat yard the kids were at the edge of the woods playing. So many sweet sensations all mixing together: the wonderful food, the cool and unusual July temperature, the sounds of children and farm and conversation between the two of us made for a wonderful start to the evening. Shortly after dinner we were separated for a bit as she took a call from her mom and as she often does while chatting on the phone, wandered around the house taking care of little chores. She took care of the bread dough she'd started before dinner and, not long after, she put the rising loaves into the oven the smell of fresh bread filed the house. The kids continued to play in the woods so I picked up my book on the Herschel Objects and started reading, alternating between the book and a few articles on the iPad. At some point I got up for a bit of coffee and decided to hang LED string lights on the back porch. It's something we'd talked about doing just the other day in preparation for company coming Thursday night, so I thought I'd go ahead and get them up. By the time I'd finished the task the sun had settled in behind the trees and the kids had returned from their time in the woods. There's nothing quite as sweet as these kids telling the stories of such evenings. They described the work they'd done in cleaning a little patch of woods they sometimes play in and showed me the fresh callouses on their hands. They were excited and very pleased with themselves.

The bread was out of the oven and I was having another mug of coffee when we'd decided it was dark enough to get everyone ready to walk up the hill to the observatory. We've not taken much time to get everyone up here for viewing since we built the observatory. Mostly that is due to the seemingly never ending streak of cloudy weather which has meant observing time has been scarce. In recent days a couple of the kids have expressed a desire for scope time, so we jumped at the chance to share a clear night with them. As an amateur astronomer one of the greatest joys is sharing the beauty of the Universe. There's nothing quite like the reactions one hears when someone sets their eyes upon Saturn or the great globular cluster of Hercules or any number of other beautiful objects. Sharing it with kids is even better.

The Tucker Creek Observatory.

By the time we'd gotten the scope out it was just starting to get dark and Saturn was low in the horizon so I started with the beautiful ringed planet. Justin had the first turn and he seemed more interested than he's ever been. Most people, kids included, usually don't keep their eyes at the eyepiece long enough. I've noticed the same thing whenever I've taken a walk in the woods with others. More often than not, such walks seems to be a race to finish the walk with little time taken to really observe the details of everything on or near the trail. I suppose I'm not surprised. Our culture seems to emphasize quantity over quality, passive consumption over authentic engagement. This is a mistake, especially when it comes to amateur astronomy. Objects in the night sky are much better when viewed for a length of time. Our eyes take time to adjust to the dark and even after they are dark adapted more time looking through an eyepiece almost always allows for our brains to notice fine details.

Justin took his time. In fact, he seemed to be in no hurry at all as he focused on the planet.

“Do you see it Justin?”

“Yep.”

The scope moves easily and he has a tendency to bump in when he leans in, so I got on the ground while Kaleesha helped him at the eyepiece. From the ground I could look up the tube to the center red circle and keep the planet where it needed to be. Every 20 seconds or so we repeated the question to make sure he still had it in his view and each time he responded with “Yep.” He looked far longer than any of the other children; probably 2 minutes, maybe more. He was very attentive. Finally he pronounced, “Royal's turn!” and moved away from the scope. The kids all cycled through their turns at the scope, most of them offering some sort of excited acknowledgment of what they were looking at. From there we moved on to Mars which was just off to the west of Saturn. Royal requested that we look at the beautiful blue and gold double star Alberio in Cygnus. He remembered it from our very first time at the telescope in November 2012, so we moved to that next. From there we moved to the Ring Nebula and last the M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules.

The Ring Nebula image similar to that viewed in
our 12" telescope. Our view has less color.

The Ring Nebula, while not too flashy in the telescope, is a beautiful sight nonetheless. As with most astronomical objects the beauty is enhanced if some of the details are known. At the core of the nebula is a white dwarf star consisting of carbon and oxygen. Its mass is about 0.61–0.62 solar mass, with a surface temperature of 125,000±5,000 K. Currently it is 200 times more luminous than the Sun. Keep in mind that this is a star which is no longer in active nuclear fusion. It has exhausted its fuel and blown away the remaining gasses which form the ring nebula we see. The star is now just radiating heat and it is thought that such white dwarfs will do so for trillions of years. Source: [Wikipedia]

In contrast to the subtle beauty of the Ring Nebula, the Hercules Cluster, M13, is quite a sight and one of our favorites. Here's why:

Messier 13 contains several hundred thousand stars; some sources even quote more than a million. The brightest is the variable star V11, with an apparent magnitude of 11.95. Toward the center of M 13, stars are about 500 times more concentrated than in the solar neighborhood. While the probability of collisions between stars in such a crowded region is negligible, the night sky seen from a planet near the center of of this globular cluster would be filled with thousands of stars brighter than Venus and Sirius!

Unlike open clusters, such as the Pleiades, globular clusters are tightly bound together by gravity, and contain very old, mostly red stars. The age of M 13 has revised to 12 billion years - nearly as old as the Milky Way galaxy itself. Born before the Galaxy's stars had a chance to create metals and distribute them them in its star-forming regions, M 13's iron content relative to hydrogen is just 5% of the Sun's.

Source: Sky Safari App.

M13 as it appears in our 12" telescope.

It is a sight to behold. As the kids took their turns at the eyepiece on this last object I explained what they were seeing just as I had for the other objects. Justin, upon looking at the cluster simply said, “It's a galaxy!” We corrected him, knowing that while he may not understand the difference some of the other kids, Little Brook, Royal and Blue would likely pick up on it and would likely have a better understanding of the difference. There's something extraordinary about taking our time to explore the Universe with one another, especially when children are involved. Whether it is a globular cluster or a tiny frog, they are intensely curious. I continue to be amazed by the details they pick up on and the amount of information that they retain. While the youngest may not fully understand the difference between a galaxy and a globular cluster they certainly retain the information that they are different.

Just as exciting as our shared explorations is that they are actively investigating on their own time. The other day Little Brook saw a photo of a nebula as the kids were browsing through one of our astronomy photo books and excitedly proclaimed “That's the Horsehead Nebula!” This was something that she had learned on her own. Imagine a five year old learning to identify the Horsehead Nebula! Sometimes all I can do is shake my head and smile. As I sit typing this there are 3 day old ducklings happily chirping as they follow their momma just 10 feet outside my window. One room away Farra is working on some chain-mail armor and Blue and Little are speaking in very well done British accents as they play on the porch.

Yeah, I live in Wonderland.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Our Podcast

Rhubarb and Sam LogoIt's been a good long while since I had a podcast. I think I was one of the first back in 2004 and I kept it up for awhile but soon dropped the ball. This time around, I have a partner. We'll keep them relatively light (usually) and fun, probably a bit absurd. Not saying we won't occasionally delve into something serious or deep but, for the most part, that is not the intent. You can subscribe to Rhubarb and Sam via rss or via iTunes.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Growing into skepticism

As children we are in a constant state of exploration. We turn over rocks, look under cushions all the while asking the adults around us “why”? We humans are born with a natural curiosity about our surroundings. At an early age we begin learning by listening, looking, touching, smelling and tasting. Sometimes the experience is pleasant and other times painful. Interestingly, this process of growth happens alongside of our very active imaginations. Our ability to fantasize, to create stories is practically a super power but consider too our ability and desire to discover the truth around us. What a fascinating process is this process we call “growing-up”. But we're not just on our own in this exploration. We share our world with other children and with adults which are a part of the mix and influential.

Let's pause for a moment to consider the role of adults in the socialization of children. From infancy we are fully dependent on adults, usually our parents - they meet our every need. From bathing to feeding to everything in between. They warn us about dangers such as hot stoves and tend to our burns when we ignore such warnings. Our parents (and close extended family) are key in our early intellectual development. From learning colors to shapes, numbers to the alphabet, they are our teachers. But they do something else: they introduce us to myth as truth. From Santa Clause to Jesus, from ghosts to tooth fairies, it is from our parents that we are started down the path of irrational belief in the supernatural. It is a strange contradiction and just a part of the larger process of cultural transmission.

Just a couple years ago my father's mother died. I was able to visit her in her final days an saw her just moments after death. There were no children present to see the distress of my father, aunt and my mother. But days later, at the funeral home, there were children around to see her laid out in a casket, her shrunken 93 year old body which was no longer their great grandmother, but a sort of shell that only slightly resembled her. What might they think? The adults in the room made it clear that Rose had gone to heaven to be with grandpa. The children saw their elders cry steadily at the loss of her. As for myself, I don't mourn much at the loss of my elders. She was 93 and lived a good long life. She was ready so she stopped eating and drinking. Then she died and was no more. Simple. With the cessation of brain activity and other bodily processes the entity we knew no longer existed here or anywhere else. But most of the other adults in my life preferred to tell themselves (and those around them) that she lived in heaven now. A fantasy of course and just another example of how we are taught delusion by our elders.

There's much about our Universe that we do not understand and human tendency is to fill in the gaps of knowledge with comforting stories. Whether the mystery is the nature of stars in the sky, our origins in the cosmos, or what happens to us at death, plenty of mysteries exist have been “explained” by such things as religion. The alternative, also a part of our culture, is the rejection of myths and the acceptance (if only temporary) of gaps of knowledge with the understanding that in time and with scientific pursuit, those gaps will be reduced. But this alternative, this rejection of comforting myths means confronting our mortality which is, for many, a difficult thing. It's bad enough when our elders die in older age, but what about the difficulty of our children dying? Such loss is certainly not easy and the idea of heaven is, no doubt, a great comfort at such times. Everlasting life for or dead loved ones, young or old, might be what we want, it might comfort us, but there is no evidence that life after death exists.

Which brings me to an important question for any aspiring skeptic: can a skeptic hold onto a belief in a “higher power” or deity? Ultimately I think not. At its very core skepticism is about critical thinking and the examination of arguments for logical validity as well as the quality of evidence presented. Skepticism, as a component of modern science, is a method which leads to reliable conclusions but is not itself a conclusion or knowledge. This is not to say that those who believe in a deity cannot be skeptical in many other areas just that such a belief is not evidence based and ultimately not something that holds up to skepticism. The same might be said of any other supernatural or paranormal belief.

For much of my adult life much of my thinking lacked the level of skepticism I aspire to today. For a variety of reasons, starting at the age of 19, I did begin a process of critically examining many of my previous assumptions. I'd never accepted Christianity but I had not rejected the notion of a deity so spent many years exploring the world's religions. But, as I recall the process, it was more like window shopping or watching a movie. I wasn't being critical so much as looking around for something that seemed to fit. I never settled on anything. At some point it came to feel as though I was shopping for something I didn't really need but rather thought I should have because others did.

I also began examining the political, cultural and economic systems of the United States and ultimately rejected what I had previously accepted as “right” or “correct”. I concluded that much of what I was taught by my parents and by the public school system was far too biased. This process was a bit more meaningful than my search for a spirituality or religion in that I had actual facts to consider. The world had been presented to me one way and I found that the presentation was not truthful. Even this though was tricky. Sociology, history, economics, and agriculture are all human created systems of knowledge which attempt to understand human cultures and practices and as such are open to bias in both data collection and interpretation.

Regardless of the context, I was not yet operating with full awareness of what it meant to be a skeptic. Much of my belief system during my 20s and 30s was based on what felt good, seemed environmentally sustainable or socially just. In some cases I'd done my homework on particular issues and had come to solid conclusions based on the evidence I'd examined. But my standards and my effort fluctuated and I had the bad (and lazy) habit of accepting as true propositions on which I had not done the due diligence. More often than not my position was, at least in part, a reaction to the status quo more than a fully developed understanding.

One interesting aspect of how skepticism is practiced and developed is the connection it has to our worldview. I suppose that in practice skepticism should be a process which stands apart of our worldview but it can be difficult to separate out. Let me share an example. As an anarchist generally opposed to global capitalism I continue to struggle with issues such as GMOs. I generally trust the process of science based on peer reviewed journals but I also understand that science is a tool which can be used for a variety of purposes. I do not, however, trust multinational corporations which have a long and demonstrated history of putting profits before science and before the public good, can I trust Monsanto and other multinationals involved in bio-technology? Can I trust what they say about the safety of their technology? If I cannot trust them who do I trust? How do I reconcile this apparent conflict of interest? My current answer as that some questions will remain open for me as I attempt to understand the science and the surrounding issues.

In the age of social media, most notably Facebook, the need for critical thinking and skepticism has never been greater. As of May 2013 Facebook reported 1.11 billion people using the site each month. Anyone that has used the site knows that it is commonly used to share articles. Whether the topic is GMOs, vaccinations, climate change or any number of other issues, it is certain that much of what is shared is not fully understood by those sharing. On the issue of health, medicine and “alternative” medicine I regularly see articles posted from sites that are, almost exclusively, bunk. I've gotten in the habit, when I have time, of debunking them and will continue to do so. Not that I expect to make much of a difference in the vast flow of misinformation but because it is good practice to do so. Even more, I greatly enjoy practicing skepticism. I'd like to be a part, even a small part, of helping create a culture of skepticism because a skeptical, scientifically literate society is one which is likely to be more rational.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Skeptic Toolkit - Peer Reviewed Science

Before we begin, you have to ask yourself: Do you want to believe or do you want to investigate?

This is the first in a series of posts I plan to do about the tools and practice of being skeptical. This first time around I intend to highlight one of the most important tools in the toolkit: Science. More specifically, peer reviewed science which is not to be confused with the mainstream reporting of science which often focuses on the sensationalistic headline at the cost of explaining the actual findings. More on that in a bit.

Let's begin by defining skepticsm. According to Wikipedia :

Skepticism is “generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.”

Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence. Classical philosophical skepticism derives from the ‘Skeptikoi', a school who “asserted nothing”. Adherents of Pyrrhonism, for instance, suspend judgment in investigations. Skeptics may even doubt the reliability of their own senses. Religious skepticism, on the other hand, is “doubt concerning basic religious principles (such as immortality, providence, and revelation)”).

I think I'd emphasize the skepticism of opinions and beliefs stated as facts as well as the importance of evidence in evaluating information in a general sort of way. Of course evaluating information requires a certain toolset, a framework for evaluation. With ever increasing internet access has come access to a vast ocean of “information”, much of it nothing more than mis-information, rumor and opinion. Unfortunately it would seem that many people are not equipped with the tools which are not only helpful but necessary in evaluating information. Add to this the relatively recent development of easy to use social media such as Facebook and the spread of misinformation happens even faster and to greater effect. Of course, I don't mean to suggest that such misinformation is only to be found on the internet or social media, just that it seems to spread quickly through such media. It can easily be found in our face-to-face relationships often in areas we might not expect.

Let's start with a recent conversation I had with a family member about health issues and she brought up that her family's pediatrician had recommended that she give her kids honey. Why I asked? She responded that it was really good, really healthy according to the doctor. But I wanted to hear more specifically about the benefits so I asked again looking for something specific. She couldn't recall that he offered any specifics but said that he recommended 1–2 tablespoons a day. I've read and heard many things said in favor of honey as something good to take for a variety of issues - so many things in fact that it could be called a “cure all” given all the supposed uses. It's an old standby used by “holistic” practitioners.

Let me say again that this is her family pediatrician encouraging her. Now, generally speaking, I like the idea of being able to trust the opinion of a medical professional. They have far more training than I. That said, I'd like to see some solid, scientific proof behind the claims so I did a bit of digging. I started with this article at the Mayo Clinic and another article at WebMD. My intent with these two sources was to look at an overview of the peer reviewed scientific research on honey and what I found is that there is little to no evidence supporting the notion that honey is beneficial for anything other than a cough suppressant. Use it to sweeten coffee but don't expect anything more from it, and, most important, don't give it to infants younger than one year of age though. According to the WebMD article (among other sources) “It's been shown very clearly that honey can give infants botulism,” a paralytic disorder in which the infant must be given anti-toxins and often be placed on a respirator.

I wonder how many people that sing the praises of honey on Facebook know that it should not be given to infants less than 12 months of age? When they are advocating the use of honey for this or that scenario are they also offering the appropriate caution? But this is just one example. There is a bountiful supply of such “information” to be found and it is often presented as fact.

Let's talk for a moment about the importance of peer reviewed scientific research when discussing medical issues or any other issues which fall within the sphere of science. To put it simply because it really is very simple, if the topic at hand is something which is being investigated by a field of science then that is where we turn for answers. What is “peer reviewed science”?

Northern Arizona University:

“For college-level research, you might be asked to cite only scholarly or peer-reviewed articles for your research projects. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they amount to much the same thing. A scholarly journal is a journal that contains articles authored by experts. Articles that report on new research findings are peer-reviewed to ensure the quality and accuracy of those findings. This means that before an article gets published, it is sent out to other researchers with relevant expertise, and these researchers evaluate the merits of the article. The article will be published only if it passes this peer review process. The ”peers“ who evaluate articles before they are published are called referees; sometimes you will hear the phrase refereed journal rather than peer-reviewed journal – don't worry, they mean the same thing.”

What is a peer reviewed journal? Again, from Northern Arizona University:

“In a peer-reviewed journal, article manuscripts submitted to the journal are critically reviewed by other scholars (peers). The reviewers might reject the manuscript outright, or require that the author make corrections or alterations before the manuscript is accepted for publication. This process helps ensure that only high-quality, accurate articles get published. The ”peers“ who evaluate articles are called referees; sometimes you will hear the phrase refereed journal rather than peer-reviewed journal – but they mean the same thing.”

Another great example of misinformation which can be countered by peer reviewed science is climate change. The most accurate knowledge will not to be found on political blogs or popular media publications nor should you turn to think-tanks of any variety. The answers are to be found by those publishing the latest in climate science research. It is important to know the difference between who is publishing the actual science (peer reviewed journals) as opposed to those reporting on the science. If we are not ourselves scientists it can be daunting and sometimes nearly impossible to find and read the actual journal articles which often require journal subscriptions. So we often rely on others to report the science but who can be trusted to accurately report the actual peer reviewed research in its proper context?

Want to practice? I hopped over to Natural News, a site notorious for posting health-related misinformation advocating alternative medicine, and picked an article from the front page with the headline “Active Release Technique' provides safe, effective healing for common injuries”. There are other such articles to choose from every single day. The site seems to be based on misinformation. Here's the introductory paragraph:

Active Release Technique, also known as ART, provides an effective alternative treatment for soft tissue and nerve damage injuries. Commonly treated injuries include plantar fasciitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow. These injuries are often treated by conventional medicine with steroid injections and surgeries, with long recovery times. The use of the targeted massage treatment known as ART can significantly shorten healing time for these injuries.

Note the assertion that ART provides an effective alternative treatment in the first sentence and the last sentence: “The use of the targeted massage treatment known as ART can significantly shorten healing time for these injuries.” Hmm. Let me put my skeptic hat on. Thus far, we have nothing but an assertion, no actual evidence. We dive deeper and find this:

Dr. Michael Leahy, DC discovered this successful technique approximately 25 years ago through observation and use with patients. He was able to obtain a 90 percent success rate in his patients with various ailments and later trained others in his technique. There are now hundreds of trained practitioners worldwide.

Still, no actual peer reviewed science but now we have a “doctor” who lends the appearance of authority though there are many that would not consider a Doctor of Chiropractic a legitimate medical doctor. No mention in the article of anything he might have published just that he obtained a 90% success rate. Reading through the rest of the article there is zero reference to any kind of actual peer reviewed science carried out by Leahy or anyone else. The qualifications of the author? She “is a mental health therapist who incorporates holistic approaches into her counseling practice. She became passionate about holistic health, healing and politics, after immersing herself into the world of alternative medicine looking for answers to a family member's health crisis.”

The article provides no references to any kind of scientific evidence to back up the claims made for the technique. None. And yet, on the surface, without skepticism, some would likely be inclined to come to a conclusion that this treatment is safe and helpful.

Here's another, the Seven health benefits of ginseng which starts with this very excited paragraph:

It's simply amazing how natural herbs and foods can have multiple, wonderful health benefits! Take for instance ginseng (usually Korean/Asian Red Ginseng, Panax ginseng), it lives up to its cure-all description (Panax means “all-curing/healing” in Greek)! Add another health benefit to the list! Recently published research in Nutrients has demonstrated that ginseng can help treat and prevent influenza!

The article goes on to make a variety of fantastic claims most of which have little science associated with them. Some of the points which do have a connection to actual science are taken out of context. Like honey, ginseng is being treated as a kind of cure all. Let's focus on the study referenced under a large heading towards the top of the article.

Research found that using red ginseng daily over the long term can prevent the effects of influenza A. Influenza is a deadly respiratory illness that affects millions each year with new strains having the capability of spreading rapidly worldwide! Over the long term, daily oral administration of red ginseng improved the survival of lung epithelial cells infected with influenza and also reduced associated inflammation! The researchers hypothesized that this could be due to the immune-modifying effects of red ginseng that prevented or reduced the symptoms of the flu!

This leads the reader to the conclusion that they can take red ginseng to prevent the effects of influenza A. True? Let's look a bit further. I took a look at the primary source and as it turns out, it was a press release from the University of Georgia: Ginseng Can Treat And Prevent Influenza And Respiratory Virus, Researcher Finds . That's a bold claim. I googled that headline and found that, as usual with such sensational proclamations, it was picked up and republished all over the place. No actual reporting, just a repeat of the press release. There is an assumption made by those republishing the release that what it contains is true.The research comes out of the University of Georgia's Institute for Biomedical Sciences and seems legitimate. Let's dig a bit. According to the release his research was done in "cooperation with a university and research institutes in South Korea that wanted international collaborative projects to study if ginseng can be used to improve health and protect against disease because of the potential benefit in fighting these viruses." There's no mention of who the research institutes are but reading between the lines I ask, is this actual science or is it more of the same pseudo science that often surrounds such natural remedies? From the press release:

Ginseng can help treat and prevent influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages, according to research findings by a scientist in Georgia State University’s new Institute for Biomedical Sciences.

Again, the average reader might take this to mean that they can purchase ginseng and use it as a treatment. So, this research consisted of human trials and was peer reviewed? No. Not at all. The research is preliminary and was, as is often the case, conducted on mice. I'll grant at this point that they may be headed in a direction that could prove useful but as of this study? No, not yet. Something else to consider: what journal was it published in? Is it a reputable journal that publishes peer reviewed science? Hmmm. It was published in an "open access" journal, Nutrients. This isn't necessarily a problem but open access journals are a new development and do not operate in the established tradition of science publishing. The problem is that unlike traditional journals which are supported by subscriptions, open access journals are supported by fees paid by those submitting articles. In other words, they have to pay to be published. From the front page of the Nutrients site:

Rapid publication: manuscripts are peer-reviewed and published within 58 days (average Jan-Jun 2013), accepted papers are immediately published online.

The point of peer review is to ensure quality research. When I read the above I see an emphasis not on quality but on speedy publishing. In recent years there have been real problems with the quality of science being published in open access journals so I consider this a red flag. Of open access journals, Steven Novella writes:

Open access journals frequently make their money by charging a publication fee of the author. This creates an incentive to publish a lot of papers of any quality. In fact, if you could create a shell of a journal, with little staff, and publish many papers online with little cost, that could generate a nice revenue stream. Why not create hundreds of such journals, covering every niche scientific and academic area?

This, of course, is what has happened. We are still in the middle of the explosion of open access journals. At their worst they have been dubbed “predatory” journals for charging hidden fees, exploiting naive academics, and essentially being scams.

John Bohannon decided to run a sting operation to test the peer-review quality of open access journals. I encourage you to read his entire report, but here’s the summary.

He identified 304 open access journals that publish in English. He created a fake scientific paper with blatant fatal flaws that rendered the research uninterpretable and the paper unpublishable. He actually created 304 versions of this paper by simply inserting different variables into the same text, but keeping the science and the data the same. He then submitted a version of the paper to all 304 journals under different fake names from different fake universities (using African names to make it seem plausible that they were obscure).

The result? – over half of the papers were accepted for publication. I think it’s fair to say that any journal that accepted such a paper for publication is fatally flawed and should be considered a bogus journal.

This, of course, is a huge problem. Such journals allow for the flooding of the peer-reviewed literature with poor quality papers that should never be published. This is happening at a time when academia itself is being infiltrated with “alternative” proponents and post-modernist concepts that are anathema to objective standards.

Combine this with the erosion of quality control in science journalism, also thanks to the internet. Much of what passes as science reporting is simply cutting and pasting press releases from journals, including poor-quality open access journals hoping for a little free advertising.

I'm not suggesting that this is the case with this particular journal article or even that the journal Nutrients is of poor quality, I'm just pointing out different variables which should be considered in evaluating the quality of information. In looking for information about the journal I did discover that the publisher, MDPI, is on a list of suspected predatory journals.

The unfounded conclusion of the article?

Ginseng truly is an amazing plant and lives up to its name as a cure-all! Although it has been used medicinally for at least 5,000 years, we are still discovering its uses! Next time you are experiencing anything from fatigue to hair loss, take a look at this natural cure-all!

The article has been shared on Facebook 2,171 times as of this writing.

Here's another one of my favorites from the same site: High-dose vitamin C injections shown to annihilate cancer.This one has 48,000+ shares on Facebook since being published on February 19, 2014.

Groundbreaking new research on the cancer-fighting potential of vitamin C has made the pages of the peer-reviewed journal Science Translational Medicine. A team of researchers from the University of Kansas reportedly tested the effects of vitamin C given in high doses intravenously on a group of human subjects and found that it effectively eradicates cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact.

Oh, but wait, this article claims to be based on peer-reviewed science. Maybe it's legit?

“Patients are looking for safe and low-cost choices in their management of cancer,” stated Dr. Jeanne Drisko, a co-author of the study, to BBC News concerning the findings. “Intravenous vitamin C has that potential based on our basic science research and early clinical data.”

Wow. You mean we might be able to treat cancer with intravenous vitamin C? Then in bold, across the page:

Researchers admit more human trials on intravenous vitamin C unlikely because drug companies cannot patent vitamins

Oh, I see, this is one of those big conspiracies the site is fond of promoting. Due to the drug companies we will never know. The claim here as that medical research can only happen if it is funded by large drug companies and that obviously there would be no interest in in this because there would be no profit. Or, it may just be that there are other problems with this proposed treatment? David Gorski over at Science Based Medicine has written about the science of using vitamin C many times over the years.

As it turns out, a good bit of peer reviewed work has been done and the conclusion is that there is not currently evidence that vitamin C is effective. In his most recent article that deals specifically with intravenous vitamin C delivered in high doses he writes:

A good drug for cancer is, at the very minimum, active at low or reasonable concentrations against the cancer cells being targeted, and vitamin C fails miserably on that count. Worse, there are at least indications that in some cases vitamin C might interfere with chemotherapy.

He goes on to offer a detailed critique of the study, the kind one might expect from an actual expert in the field:

So what we have here is a small clinical trial with a 19% dropout rate that wasn’t even blinded. It reported zero difference in overall survival (both were, as one would expect for ovarian cancer at this stage, abysmal), and zero statistically significant difference in time to relapse/progression. In all fairness, there would have had to have been an enormous effect to produce a statistically significant effect on survival or progression in such a small study, but these are the two “hard” endpoints that would be least affected by the lack of blinding, although one notes that time to progression could be affected by lack of blinding when the definition depends on interpreting scans.

The entire article is an excellent read which provides many of the details that might be fleshed out by a skeptical reading of such studies.

What we have here is a great example in the differences in quality of information. The first is a website that often sources from mainstream media, in this case the BBC, and often just copy/pastes text from releases. The writers don't understand the science and purposely (I suppose it could be accidental in some cases but I am inclined to think it intentional given the frequency) take it out of context to support conspiracy theories and agendas. The second is an expert in the field that actually digs into the study (as well as the long history of related studies on the subject) and offers a scientifically relevant critique of the work. It is an excellent example of the contrasting quality of information.

Unfortunately, it is the conspiracy-minded tripe that is shared on Facebook tens of thousands of times. Why? My hunch is that it is an easy, entertaining read. But it's not just that. Some people enjoy a good (or evil) conspiracy and they want to believe (to quote Fox Moulder) that there are easy cures to what might one day cause their death. Wishful thinking is convenient and comforting. Why do the difficult work of researching sources, why take the time to tediously read through longer, more difficult articles that fail to provide clear cut answers that reassure us and calm our fear? Because the truth is better than the delusion even if it is not comforting. Ultimately, real knowledge and understanding are more valuable to our survival as individuals as well as a species. Understanding ourselves and our Universe not only allows us to make better decisions but also provides us with a greater appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us.

My intent is to provide a series of posts, “The Skeptic Toolkit” which will explore a variety of resources and techniques freely available to anyone interested in learning to be a better skeptic. Stay tuned.

 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

YouTube Channel

I set up a YouTube channel a few years ago but never made it a point to post much. A couple months back it was pointed out to me that one of my YouTube videos had gotten quite a few views, 29,000+, and that perhaps I should invest more time in developing my channel. so, this is me putting in some time creating more video updates.

The funny thing is that I actually enjoy putting them together, its just something I need to work into my routine. I'm hoping to assemble 2 - 3 each month. Here are the first two, both are gardening updates. We've been busy with baby goats, spring gardening as well as putting up a raspberry trellis and a small duck pond.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Atheist Morality

It’s a fairly common opinion in the U.S., which is predominately Christian, that religion or a belief in a god is a requirement of morality. A recent Pew poll continues to support this notion.

Of course this is not the case. No, not even close. But it is what believers tend to believe and it IS an interesting question: where do we get our morality? For the religious, it comes from a holy book such as the Bible and is often presented along with a threat of hell for the sinner or a promise of eternal life for the repentant. Of course it gets a bit confusing as most Christians also believe in the forgiveness of sins in the act of accepting Jesus - so go ahead and behave badly, just accept Jesus before you die and you’re good to go. Makes for some pretty loose morality I’d say. Now, I’m just speaking here of Christians. Other faiths do not necessarily provide such an easy ticket into whatever version of an afterlife they are promoting.

Before we go any further let’s have a look at the definition of how morality is defined:
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary:
morality |məˈralətē, mô-| - noun (pl. moralities) principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. 
• a particular system of values and principles of conduct, esp. one held by a specified person or society: a bourgeois morality. 
• the extent to which an action is right or wrong: behind all the arguments lies the issue of the morality of the possession of nuclear weapons.
I see no mention here of religion as a requirement for morality. From Wikipedia:
Morality (from the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are “good” (or right) and those that are “bad” (or wrong). The philosophy of morality is ethics. A moral code is a system of morality (according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc.) and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with “goodness” or “rightness.” Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. opposition to that which is good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles. An example of a moral code is the Golden Rule which states that, “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”
I think it is fairly obvious that morality is relative depending on different sources as well as interpretations. But we’re not just talking about the source or framework of morality are we? We are also talking about actual human behavior and the notion that only those that believe in a higher power can or will behave in a moral way. One aspect of this seems to be that the threat of eternal damnation should serve as a deterant even as the promise of an eternal heaven serves as an enticement. Of course, for many Christians, actual conduct is irrelevant as long as one accepts Jesus before dying. As an atheist I’d suggest that human morality, both the structure of recommended behavior as well as the actual behavior, is far too important to leave to religion. I would suggest that our morality requires a level of rational thought and understanding of evolving complex systems and that to rely on outdated and unproven religious beliefs rooted in confused texts and superstition is nothing short of folly.

Let me put it another way. Any morality rooted in contradictory and confused texts written by men worshiping an unproven supernatural power should not be the basis for a modern morality that guides human behavior in era of science and rationality. Such texts are, simply, not up to the task. What is needed today (and what has been needed for a very long time) is a living morality that is being actively questioned and fine tuned by the humans of today. In this regard I would suggest that it is to atheists that we might look for a new, updated morality that is based on an understanding of reality as informed by the best minds of our times. This is not to say that such a morality is to be the sole province of atheists but that it is past the time that we stop pretending that superstitious belief systems can be the primary foundation for what is considered good human behavior. In fact, the longer we cater to such belief systems the more likely we are to cause irreparable damage to our planet. Let’s explore some examples.

A common emphasis of faith-based belief systems is the idea of eternal life after death. Depending on which interpretation of the New Testament you might prefer, such eternal life takes place in heaven or on a new earth. Regardless of that, in such a worldview long-term life on Earth becomes far less important.   Our dealings with our environment, with the ecological systems of our planet, are one area of morality that might be considered not only important but critical to our survival. What kind of morality do we get from religions that not only emphasize an unproven afterlife but which explicitly state that that life is more important than the current one? What kind of relationship can we expect with our planet’s life support systems when the guiding morality explicitly states that a new Earth will be provided?

The problem of faith-based belief systems is the resistance they provide against critical, rational thought. In the U.S. there is a long standing conflict between many Christians and those that advocate science literacy. It manifests in a variety of ways, most notably in the “debate” over evolution and creationism. The “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the Universe is another. On the issue of human-caused climate change and what might need to be done to address the problem, we see a situation in which the public, lacking the scientific literacy needed to understand the available information, has demonstrated a very confused reaction. While this confusion is not the direct result of any specific religious influence, it might well be presented as an example of what happens when a superstitious population, lacking in basic scientifc literacy, is presented with a very serious and complex social-ecological problem that can only be understood in scientific terms. Without the skills and knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of information (and the sources) being presented on the internet and in the corporate media, public opinion has swayed back and forth year to year.

Ask a few adults you know about the cause of seasons on Earth and many will not know the correct answer. This is basic science knowledge and yet many do not understand. According to a recent National Science Foundation poll, 25% of Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun but think the opposite is true. These are just the basics of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately we also see a general lack of understanding of the scientific method or of how science works on a larger scale via peer reviewed publishing. Unfortunately it’s not just average citizens that are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge and process but also many elected representatives that make important decisions on funding and regulation. Currently less than 2% of U.S. Congressman have a background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Perhaps this helps to explain why so little has been done to solve problems such as climate change?

A society which has the capability of sending spacecraft to the edges of its solar system is one which is obviously capable of leaving behind superstition and embracing complex, rational thought. A society which has remotely landed a variety of rovers on other planets is a society which is capable of developing advanced technology and has, at the very least, some portion of the population which is dedicated to scientific endeavors. Of course it is also true that science is the tool that is often used for ethically questionable ends. Asking how we might develop this or that technology is not enough. We should also be asking why we should be developing such technologies. Bioengeneering is one area of scientific development which has met with a great deal of resistance across the planet. Whether the issue is the genetic engineering of the food supply or some other application of the technology, the ethics are not yet settled. Who do we turn to when we are uncertain of the ethics of certain technological development or the ethics of the goals of some areas of scientific pursuit? Is there a difference between science that is conducted by a corporation such as Monsanto and that conducted by a publicly funded university? Science is a tool and can be used in many ways. Are we to turn to the religious texts of history to guide us in such discussion and decision making?

I propose that there really is no need for debate on this topic. Human society has outgrown moral frameworks based on unproven historical texts that are little more than superstition. Such frameworks are not just a hinderance to our understanding of the Universe around us but also an obstacle to our ability to adjust to new social ecological problems. What is needed today is a living, rational morality which is informed by reasoned discussion and debate guided by the most current information provided by peer reviewed science.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmic Dance

A few weeks back I wrote about viewing the supernova in M82. It was first observed around the same time that an article was circulating about the continuing and drastic decline of Monarch butterfly populations. I had both the supernova and the threat to the Monarch on my mind when I sat down to write about my observation of M82 but I couldn't quite make the connection I wanted to make. A few days ago the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, in describing the earlier generations of star birth and death, comes close to articulating what it was I was pondering:

This happened in the Milky Way billions of years ago, and those elements from some long-dead star made their way into you. Your bones, your teeth, your blood, your very DNA have elements in them forged in the heart of a mighty star that violently tore itself to bits so that eventually you may live. It is a transformation on a literally cosmic scale.

I should hope the metaphorical metamorphosis is obvious enough. The only constant in the Universe is change, and much of it is a cycle. Birth, life, death, restructuring, and rebirth. That is also the theme of much of human art, from paintings and movies to myths and great novels.

Some say science is cold, dealing unemotionally with hard data. But that’s far from the reality. Humanity and life are reflected in the stars, and the Universe itself is poetry.

The thoughts I'd had were specific to the harsh reality of extinction on Earth. The Monarch is not there yet but it's numbers have declined drastically. Other species are also in decline and extinctions happen every day. In fact, according to the Center for Biological Diversity we are now experiencing the 6th mass exctinction event of the planet, loosing dozens of species a day:

It’s frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century .

Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans. In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming. Because the rate of change in our biosphere is increasing, and because every species’ extinction potentially leads to the extinction of others bound to that species in a complex ecological web, numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming decades as ecosystems unravel.

For most of my adult life I've gone through a cycle of depression connected to or caused by my awareness of what we are doing to the planet and our fellow species. I will never accept what our species has done, is doing, to our planet but I have found a certain peace in the understanding that the Universe will go on regardless. Our fragile planet and the life on it has an end date. In 600 million years our sun will have have increased in luminosity significantly and the carbon cycle plants depend on will shift causing mass die-off of plant life and animal life. By the time the sun transitions from a main sequence star (4.5 bililon years from now) life on the planet will have long since disappeared. Such is the case for all life supporting planetary systems in the Universe. All stars have a limited lifespan.

The Monarchs will end. Humanity will end. Our planet, our solar system and our Sun will all have an end. So it goes. The cosmic dance will continue... for awhile anyway. What can we do but live our lives in the best possible way? I for one will try to live with a respect for the fragility of life on this Pale Blue Dot and with an understanding that the star stuff that makes up my body and this planet will one day be pushed forth into the Cosmos.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Supernova!

Animation showing SN 2014J

Around January 19th a new supernova was detected in the night sky. Dubbed SN 2014J, the supernova is visible from the northern hemisphere in M82, a galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major. Consider, M82 is 12 million light years away so this explosion actually happened 12 million years ago but it has taken the light that long to travel the distance between our galaxies. 12 million years ago our Earth was in what is now called the Serravallian stage of the Miocene geological epoch. While humans did not yet exist at the time of the explosion the Earth was populated by a diversity of life including apes which were widespread.

I set out to observe the new-to-us supernova the first clear night after it's announcement. I've looked at M82, also called Bode's Nebulae or the Cigar Galaxy, many times. It's one of my favorites and I am familiar with it. It is an elongated galaxy with more visual definition than most galaxies. In dark skies with a telescope of 8" or greater it is possible to see the mottling of dust and gas. I saw the supernova immediately as it appeared to be a tiny star in the lower part of the galaxy. To a casual observer it would not appear to be much other than a small and faint star not unlike many of the smaller and fainter stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. But this is not a star in our galaxy.

Let me offer some perspective. Our Milky Way is an estimated 100,000 light years in diameter. Most of the stars we see with the unaided eye are 10,000 light years or less in distance. The most distant we can see unaided is about 15,000 light years away. Most of what we see is a good deal closer than that. Now, to reiterate, this supernova is 12 MILLION light years away and yet we can see it as a distinct point of light. That must have been one magnificent event and when it happend humans did not yet exist on Earth. But our curious species does exist today and we have been around long enough that we have telescopes to observe as well as the science needed to understand it. When the light from this event reached us we were ready for it.

Astronomers classify this kind of supernova as a type Ia. Essentially, when stars the size of our sun have exhausted their hydrogen and helium fuel (after 10 billion years or so) they collapse in on themselves to something much smaller and more dense. We call this kind of collapsed star a white dwarf and they have a mass comparable to that of the Sun, but a volume comparable to that of the Earth. At this point the star is no longer undergoing the nuclear fusion of gas but is just radiating lots of heat into space and will do so for trillions of years. However, if the white dwarf had a companion star it might, thanks to gravitation, begin pulling off gas from that star. If this goes on long enough the white dwarf will form an accretion disk of gas around itself and as the gas accumulates it builds in pressure and density due to the increasing weight which raises the temperature of the core. When the star nears a size of about 1.44 solar masses a period of convection begins and then ignition. Because white dwarfs do not regulate the fusion process as normal stars do, ignition results in runaway fusion reaction. Much more detail about the process is available via this page at Wikipedia.