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How to save Endangered species through mathematics?

It’s now possible to predict how likely an endangered species is to go extinct, with mathematical models acting as windows into the future. These models help scientists foresee how a population is likely to react to changes in the environment and therefore how likely it is to die out.

As the sixth mass extinction event rumbles on, this represents a powerful tool in the arsenal of conservationists. However, accurate information about species in the wild is still crucial to inform these models and divine the fate of wildlife populations.

A species’ risk of extinction depends on how many individuals in its populations can reproduce and how long they can survive. To design management programmes that can prevent extinction, it’s essential to understand how survival and reproductive rates change within a population as the environment changes.

How rates of survival and reproduction within a population change with age for different species. Fernando Colchero, Author provided

We know that the number of individuals surviving and reproducing – known collectively as a species’ demographic rates – vary each year in response to environmental conditions. These include the availability of food and water, rainfall or extreme temperatures.

As global temperatures increase and disrupt local weather, how variable these environmental conditions become will increase the extinction risk for many species.

To predict if a population is likely to go extinct, we need to predict how changes in these environmental conditions will affect the population’s demographic rates and how the number of individuals in the population will change annually.


Models can take the likelihood of individuals in the population to survive and reproduce at different ages, and “shock” them in the same way the environment does.

It would be impossible to directly model how species respond to changes in rainfall or other conditions in the environment, as different species thrive under different conditions.

However, these “shocks” in the model – which disturb a species’ survival and reproductive rates – reproduce the random nature of the environment. By running the model many times to generate multiple outcomes, we can calculate what percentage of the populations will go extinct as the environment changes, and how long it will take them to die out.

How models are getting smarter

In our recent study we found that simplifying the information used to construct these models can distort the predictions. Survival and reproductive rates vary in individuals as they age and each species has a very particular trend associated with their age.

Until recently, researchers and wildlife managers assumed it was enough to represent these rates as constant as individuals age. This would assume that juveniles and adults all respond uniformly to changes in the environment.

However, in our study we showed that reducing a population into general age classes can greatly distort the population’s predicted growth rate and our understanding of a population’s chances of avoiding extinction.

Grouping individuals into general age classes can give the illusion that a population’s chances of extinction are slim when in reality, it will fast go extinct.

Previously, models had wrongly assumed that all age classes respond to change the same way. Fernando Colchero, Author provided

We also found that it’s important to consider trade-offs between survival and reproduction. A good year for reproduction may result in a bad year for survival. This is because more energy invested in reproducing means there’s less left over for the healthy upkeep of the body. Despite increasing evidence of these trade-offs in nature, models tend to ignore them.

We showed that ignoring these seemingly minor issues can harm a model’s accuracy in predicting the fate of populations in their natural environment. This reduces their capacity to anticipate the impacts of climate change, invasive species or habitat loss.

There is still hope for many endangered species, but preparation needs to be made. For this, we need to continue developing more sophisticated models with more accurate information about each species and their environment. With reliable foresight, we can give them the fighting chance they need in an uncertain future.

What kind of diet make you lives the longest? Meat or Vegetarian?

Our ability to live a long life is influenced by a combination of our genes and our environment. In studies that involve identical twins, scientists have estimated that no more than 30% of this influence comes from our genes, meaning that the largest group of factors that control how long a person lives is their environment.

Of the many possible environmental factors, few have been as thoroughly studied or debated as our diet. Calorie restriction, for example, is one area that is being investigated. So far, studies seem to show that restricting calories can increase lifespan, at least in small creatures. But what works for mice doesn’t necessarily work for humans.

What we eat – as opposed to how much we eat – is also a hot topic to study and meat consumption is often put under the microscope. A study that tracked almost 100,000 Americans for five years found that non-meat eaters were less likely to die – of any cause – during the study period than meat eaters. This effect was especially noticeable in males.

Some meta-analyses, which combine and re-analyse data from several studies, have also shown that a diet low in meat is associated with greater longevity and that the longer a person sticks to a meat-free diet, the greater the benefit. Not all studies agree, however. Some show very little or even no difference at all in longevity between meat eaters and non-meat eaters.

What is clear is evidence that meat-free diets can reduce the risk of developing health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer. There is some evidence to suggest that vegan diets possibly offer added protection above a standard vegetarian diet. These findings are far easier to interpret as they report the actual event of being diagnosed with a health problem rather than death from any cause.

So can we confidently say that avoiding meat will increase your lifespan? The simple answer is: not yet.

The problem with longevity

The first thing that is clear is that, compared with most other creatures, humans live for a very long time. This makes it very difficult to run studies that measure the effect of anything on longevity (you’d have difficulty finding a scientist willing to wait 90 years for a study to complete). Instead scientists either look back at existing health records or recruit volunteers for studies that use shorter time periods, measuring death rates and looking to see which group, on average, was mostly likely to die first. From this data, claims are made about the effect certain activities have on longevity, including avoiding meat.

There are problems with this approach. First, finding a link between two things – such as eating meat and an early death – doesn’t necessarily mean one thing caused the other. In other words: correlation does not equal causation. It may appear that vegetarianism and longevity are related but a different variable may explain the link. It could be that vegetarians exercise more, smoke less and drink less alcohol than their meat eating counterparts, for example.

Nutrition studies also rely on volunteers accurately and truthfully recording their food intake. But this can’t be taken for granted. Studies have shown that people tend to underreport calorie intake and overreport healthy food consumption. Without actually controlling the diet of groups of people and measuring how long they live, it is difficult to have absolute confidence in findings.

So should I avoid meat for a long and healthy life? The key to healthy ageing probably does lie in controlling our environment, including what we eat. From the available evidence it is possible that eating a meat-free diet can contribute to this, and that avoiding meat in your diet could certainly increase your chances of avoiding disease as you age. But there’s certainly also evidence to suggest that this really might work in tandem with avoiding some clearer risks to longevity including smoking.

Does endurance exercise suppresses the immune system?

Does endurance exercise suppresses the immune system?

It is commonly believed that some forms of exercise, such as endurance events, suppress your immune system and leave you at risk of infections, like the common cold. However, our latest review of the evidence suggests that this is probably not true. In fact, exercise seems to boost the immune system.

The idea that endurance exercise suppresses the immune system stems from research in the 1980s and 1990s. In these studies, competitors of endurance running events, such as the Los Angeles Marathon, were asked if they had symptoms of infections in the days and weeks after the race. Many did, leading to the idea that endurance exercise increases infection risk.

An overlooked problem in many of these studies was that symptoms of “infections” were not confirmed in a lab, so it wasn’t known if they were genuine illness symptoms. More recent studies have shown that most symptoms reported after marathons are not real infections. Instead, the symptoms are caused by other factors, such as allergy.

These earlier studies put the cause of the increased risk of “infection” down to a suppressed immune system. Indeed, exercise does have a profound effect on immunity, but we now know that these changes have been misinterpreted.

Exercise causes immune cells to change in two ways. Initially, during exercise, the number of immune cells in the bloodstream increases dramatically. Some cells, like natural killer cells, which deal with infections, increase tenfold. Then, when exercise finishes, some immune cells in the bloodstream decrease in number substantially, sometimes falling to lower levels than before exercise started for several hours.

Many scientists interpreted this fall in immune cells after exercise to be immune suppression. But we now know that fewer immune cells in the bloodstream for several hours after exercise does not mean that these cells have been lost or destroyed. Instead, they move to sites in the body that are likely to become infected.

One example is the lungs, because faster and deeper breathing during exercise increases the chance of inhaling something infectious. So a low number of immune cells in the bloodstream in the hours after exercise is not immune suppression. Instead, immune cells, primed by exercise, are looking for infections in other parts of the body.

Another reason scientists thought that immunity was compromised after exercise was because some studies reported lower levels of antibacterial and antiviral proteins in saliva after marathons. These proteins, such as immunoglobulin-A (IgA), are the first line of defence against bacteria and viruses entering the body through the mouth and nose. However, many studies at the time did not consider technical problems with the measurement of IgA. For example, IgA levels change in saliva whether you have exercised or not, due to psychological stress, diet, oral health and even a “dry mouth”. But most studies did not consider these factors.

Nowadays, most scientists investigate the benefits of exercise on immunity. For example, studies in humans have shown that exercising a few minutes before a flu jab or other vaccination, improves how well the vaccine works. Other studies with laboratory animalshave shown that exercise can help the immune system detect and kill cancer cells. And, as recent research shows, regular exercise can even slow ageing.

Minimising infection risk at a marathon

Although a strenuous exercise bout itself will not increase the likelihood of catching an infection, other factors might. First, attending any event where there is a large gathering of people, increases your chance of infection. Second, public transport, particularly airline travel over long distances, where sleep is disrupted, may also increase your infection risk. Other factors, like eating an inadequate diet, getting cold and wet, and psychological stress, have all been linked to a greater chance of developing infections.

To minimise your risk of becoming unwell during or following a mass sporting event, like a marathon, it is important to maintain good hygiene. Wash your hands or use antibacterial and antiviral hand gel, avoid touching your mouth, eyes and nose, don’t share water bottles and minimise contact with people who may have an infection.

Timeline United States Immigration Policy

Chinese immigrants undergo an interrogation at Ellis Island. Bettmann/Corbis

Chinese immigrants undergo an interrogation at Ellis Island. Bettmann/Corbi

Quota System Upheld

As the Cold War deepens, the U.S. government consolidates its immigration and naturalization laws into one comprehensive federal policy. The McCarran-Walter Act ends policies stemming from the late nineteenth century designed to exclude Asian immigrants. However, the bill upholds the ethnicity-based quota system for new immigrants that favored white Europeans, revising limitations to admit one-sixth of 1 percent of each group already in the United States. President Harry Truman vetoes the bill, citing discrimination against Asian immigrants and decrying the “absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law.” Congress overrides him to pass it.

Three undocumented Mexican immigrants held under arrest. Gamma-Keystone/Getty

Three undocumented Mexican immigrants held under arrest. Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Eisenhower Launches ‘Operation Wetback’
The postwar period causes a swell of illegal immigration to the United States from Mexico, with an estimated three million undocumented Mexicans in the country working mostly in agricultural jobs at significantly lower wages than what American workers receive. Under growing public pressure to act, the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacts a nationwide sweep of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the southwestern United States. The sweep, officially termed “Operation Wetback,” authorizes 1,075 Border Patrol agents, along with local law enforcement, to target barrios in California, Arizona, and Texas.

Refugees read about unrest in Hungary as they arrive by boat in New York City. AP

Refugees read about unrest in Hungary as they arrive by boat in New York City. AP Images

Hungarian Revolution Fails

Hungary’s failed revolt against Soviet control triggers an outpouring of refugees. The Eisenhower administration uses a provision in the McCarran-Walter immigration act authorizing the admission of aliens on a temporary basis under emergency conditions. Eisenhower employs parole powers—presidential authority to take unilateral action in emergencies—included in the immigration act to admit around thirty thousand Hungarian refugees. By 1960, more than two hundred thousand Hungarian immigrants are accepted into the country, and Eisenhower’s use of parole powers marks a precedent used in later decades to grant tens of thousands of refugees from around the world asylum in the United States.

A U.S. Marine carries a Cuban refugee ashore. Bettmann/Corbis/AP

A U.S. Marine carries a Cuban refugee ashore.Bettmann/Corbis/AP

Cuban Exodus

Fidel Castro and his guerrilla forces overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba in January 1959 and set up a new communist order, resulting in a mass exodus of Cubans to the United States as political refugees. The first wave includes political supporters of Batista, as well as members of Cuba’s elite and middle class, who largely settle in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. The United States eventually enacts the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act to allow permanent resident status to Cuban refugees who arrive after 1959. About one million Cubans emigrate to the United States between 1959 and 1990.

Braceros pick chili peppers on a California farm. AP

Braceros pick chili peppers on a California farm. AP ImagesQ

Sunset on the Bracero Program

Amid mounting pressure from labor activists and welfare organizations, the U.S. government lets its Mexican guest worker program expire after twenty-two years. The Bracero program, instituted in a bilateral agreement in 1942 amid anticipation of a labor shortage in World War II, gave contracts to Mexican workers to be employed in the U.S. agricultural sector. During its operation, about 4.5 million contracts were signed for workers to come to the United States. Although the program stipulates that braceros are entitled to certain provisions—including equal wages to native workers, free housing, affordable meals, and insurance—these rules are broken by many employers. Many of the farm workers are reported to receive a fraction of the wages of American laborers. Lee G. Williams, the last director of the program under the Department of Labor, refers to the system as “legalized slavery.” The end of the Bracero program results in an acceleration of illegal immigration across the border.


President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1965 Immigration Act at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Yoichi Okamoto

Leaving the 1920s System Behind

In the midst of the civil rights movement, the government shifts federal immigration legislation away from the quota system and 1920s standards, deemed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as “un-American in the highest sense.” The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act [PDF] instead sets up a system of preferences, placing an emphasis on family reunification. President Johnson, signing the bill at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, declares that the legislation “is not a revolutionary bill and does not affect the lives of millions.” However, the bill—through the family preference that allows naturalized U.S. citizens to sponsor relatives to emigrate to the country—sets the course for dramatically altering the demographics of the country.

A Soviet Jewish refugee family in Moldova due to receive a U.S. immigration visa in 1979. Nathan Benn/Ottochrome/Corbis

A Soviet Jewish refugee family in Moldova due to receive a U.S. immigration visa in 1979. Nathan Benn/Ottochrome/Corbis

Jackson-Vanik Pairs Trade With Emigration

In response to rising calls to assist Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, Congress moves to enact a human rights-oriented amendment to the Trade Act of 1974. The Jackson-Vanik amendment requires non-market economies to provide free emigration to trade with the United States under “favored nation” status. The amendment receives strong support in Congress and eventually allows for the emigration of more than five hundred thousand people—many Soviet Jews, Christians, and Catholics—to the United States until its repeal in 2012.

More than 7,000 refugees on a South Vietnamese Navy ship arrive at Vung Tau port in South Vietnam. AFP/Getty

More than seven thousand refugees on a South Vietnamese Navy ship arrive at Vung Tau port in South Vietnam. AFP/Getty Images

Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act

Southeast Asia is racked with turmoil in the 1970s as the Vietnam War winds down, the Khmer Rouge seizes control in Cambodia, and Laos falls under the control of the Pathet Lao. After Saigon is captured by the People’s Army of Vietnam, the Gerald Ford administration enacts the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act [PDF] to help about 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees. The move receives broad support among civil rights advocates, religious groups, and organized labor, and the number of Southeast Asian “boat people” immigrating to the United States swells by the early 1980s. This new influx, largely brought in by executive parole power, prompts the government to consider a broad overhaul of the nation’s refugee admission system.

A resettled Cambodian refugee family stands outside their home in Pennsylvania. Paul Vathis/AP

A resettled Cambodian refugee family stands outside their home in Pennsylvania. Paul Vathis/AP Images

U.S. Refugee Policy Aligns With International Standards

As Southeast Asian refugee numbers mushroom, Congress crafts a bill to systematize U.S. refugee policy, which has relied on ad hoc use of presidential parole power. President Jimmy Carter signs the Refugee Act of 1980, an amendment to the 1965 immigration act that raises the limit of refugee visas granted from 17,500 to 50,000 per year, exempting these numbers from the overall immigration ceiling, and formally establishes the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Additionally, the law modifies the definition of “refugee” to give it more of a universal scope and make it consistent with the UN Refugee Convention, a move that addresses long-standing criticism of the United States’ preference for admitting refugees from communist countries.

President Ronald Reagan signs the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Tim Clary/Corbis

President Ronald Reagan signs the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Tim Clary/Corbis

Immigration Reform and Control Act

Congress approves the Immigration Reform and Control Act to address the estimated three to five million undocumented immigrants in the country. The policy officially mandates employers to affirm the immigration status of their employees and outlaws the practice of knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants, although the administration’s enforcement of penalties remains lax. Additionally, the law grants legal status for certain seasonal workers and unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the United States before 1982. However, the IRCA’s most significant legacy is its provision to give undocumented immigrants arriving before 1982 the opportunity to apply for permanent residence before May 1988, a measure that eventually grants legal status to 3 million people, of which 2.3 million are Mexicans. Illegal immigration continues to flow after the IRCA’s passage.

Immigrants stand in line outside the INS office. Fred Prouser/Reuters

Immigrants stand in line outside the INS office. Fred Prouser/Reuters

A Bid for High-Skilled Immigrants

Looking to focus on legal immigration pathways, President George H. W. Bush signs the Immigration Act of 1990, which expands the 1965 act to allow for an increase in the overall number of immigrant visas granted. While family reunification-based immigration remains a preferential category, priority is also extended to high-skilled and educated workers. The act creates five categories of employment-based (EB) visas as well as the temporary H1B visa for college-educated foreigners, and sets a cap on the number of unskilled workers emigrating into the country. The law also creates a diversity lottery to distribute visas among those from underrepresented countries. After the legislation is passed, the number of annual immigrant visas granted spikes from five hundred thousand to seven hundred thousand.

An artist's representation of coffins inscribed with the number of immigrants who died each year while attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. Reuters

An artist’s representation of coffins inscribed with the number of immigrants who died each year while attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. Reuters

Launch of Operation Gatekeeper

Bill Clinton’s administration launches Operation Gatekeeper to stave off illegal immigration across the border between San Diego and Tijuana, known for unauthorized border crossings from Mexico. Clinton doubles the number of Border Patrol agents along the southwestern border and authorizes $50 billion to build a fourteen-mile security fence, shifting unauthorized crossings eastward toward deserts and mountains. Shortly after its launch, the government declares it a success, but critics denounce it as a “militarization” of the border, and human rights groups connect it with the deaths of more than five thousand people who attempt to cross the more treacherous eastern terrain in California and Arizona over the next fifteen years.

Cuban-American demonstrators protest in Miami, Florida, over the fate of Elián González. Reuters

Cuban-American demonstrators protest in Miami, Florida, over the fate of Elian Gonzalez. Reuters

A ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Policy for Cuba

The disintegration of the Soviet Union results in a loss of Soviet economic support to Cuba, resulting in a spike in the number of Cubans fleeing to the United States in the early 1990s. In 1994, Fidel Castro threatens to allow for a mass exodus if Washington does not take action against the illegal boat departures from Cuba. Both countries sign migration accords in 1994 and 1995 stating that the U.S. Coast Guard would no longer allow Cuban migrants intercepted at sea and without credible asylum claims; however, those who made it to U.S. soil would usually be allowed a path to citizenship. The policy is highlighted during the 1999 case of five-year-old Elian Gonzalez, found in coastal waters after his mother and ten others die attempting to cross to the United States. Relatives in Miami are denied custody of Gonzalez and he is subsequently returned to his father in Cuba.

Undocumented students attend a graduation ceremony for "Dreamers" at UCLA. Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Undocumented students attend a graduation ceremony for “Dreamers” at UCLA. Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

DREAM Act Introduced

To address the issue of the estimated 2.1 million minors who are brought illegally to the United States as children, Congress introduces the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a policy that would carve out a path to citizenship for these young immigrants if they meet certain conditions, including graduating from a U.S. high school or serving two years in the military. The act goes through several revisions and languishes in Congress through the next decade, prompting states to enact their own versions of the DREAM Act to provide in-state tuition for these immigrants. In 2012, President Obama announces a deferred action program that bars this group of immigrants from deportation, and pledges to make the DREAM Act a part of comprehensive immigration reform.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge assists a foreign airline passenger getting fingerprinted at an airport security checkpoint. Tami Chappelle/Reuters/Corbis

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge assists a foreign airline passenger getting fingerprinted at an airport security checkpoint. Tami Chappelle/Reuters/Corbis

9/11 Attacks and Immigration Changes

In response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passes the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which overhauls the organization of the federal government’s immigration functions. The act dissolves the Immigration and Naturalization Service and creates the Department of Homeland Security, which overtakes all immigration matters. DHS splits immigration services to divide enforcement functions—handled by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency—from naturalization and visa functions. The George W. Bush administration makes border security a top priority, strengthening screening and security measures at airports, allowing agents to more easily detain and deport immigrants with suspected ties to terrorism, and instituting more stringent visa application procedures. The government also enacts a program—suspended in 2011—requiring men from predominantly Muslim countries to pre-register and undergo additional screenings while traveling to and from the United States.

Protestors hold a banner during an immigration rights demonstration against raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Jose Luis Magana/AP

Protesters hold a banner during an immigration rights demonstration against raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Jose Luis Magana/AP

Secure Communities Program Pilots

At the tail end of George W. Bush’s presidency, the administration pilots a program that targets undocumented criminals by allowing local law enforcement to share data with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The program, Secure Communities, is implemented first in Boston and six counties in North Carolina and Texas, with the intention of expanding nationwide by 2013. After President Barack Obama’s election in November, he expands it, with nearly 1,600 jurisdictions enrolled by late 2011. Secure Communities becomes increasingly controversial as critics accuse it of casting too wide a net in apprehending undocumented criminals—deporting large numbers of low-level offenders and eroding trust in local communities. Tensions between local and federal authorities also abound over what are seen as conflicting messages from the Department of Homeland Security over whether the program is voluntary or mandatory.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer addresses the press outside the U.S. Supreme Court following oral arguments over SB1070. Jason Reed/Reuters

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer addresses the press outside the U.S. Supreme Court following oral arguments over SB1070. Jason Reed/Reuters

Arizona Triggers State Activism on Immigration

Frustrated by a perceived lack of federal action to regulate immigration, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signs SB1070, a restrictive immigration law that makes it illegal to hire, house, or transport undocumented immigrants. It also permits law enforcement to check the immigration status of people during routine stops (known as the “papers, please” measure), prompting fears from civil rights advocates of increased racial profiling. The law is met with nationwide controversy, and at least seven other states attempt to push through their own versions of SB1070. The U.S. federal government files a lawsuit against the state of Arizona, citing federal jurisdiction on immigration matters, and the case is eventually brought before the United States Supreme Court. The court hands down a mixed ruling in 2012, which upholds the controversial “papers, please” provision but strikes down several of the law’s key measures.

Obama Defers Deportation for Youth

Under orders from President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security begins delaying deportation and granting work visas (for two years) to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. More than one million “childhood arrivals” are estimated to be eligible for the so-called deferred action program, often referred to by its acronym DACA. In order to qualify, an individual must have a clean criminal record, lived in the country for at least five years, and be a student, high school graduate, or military veteran. The demographic is similar to that of the DREAM Act. Republican governors and legislators widely criticize the move as an abuse of office intended to curry favor with Hispanic voters.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators attend a press conference on a plan for immigration reform in 2013. Jason Reed/Reuters

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators attend a press conference on a plan for immigration reform in 2013. Jason Reed/Reuters

A Renewed Push for Comprehensive Reform

President Obama’s 2012 presidential reelection, aided by strong support from Hispanic voters, brings with it a renewed willingness in Congress to tackle comprehensive immigration reform. Such efforts had faltered since a 2007 compromise bill by Senators John McCain (R–AZ) and Ted Kennedy (D–MA) failed to secure a vote. In early 2013, a bipartisan group of eight senators releases a framework for legislation to createa pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the country, streamline legal immigration, enhance border security, and implement employer enforcement. The sweeping overhaul bill passes the Senate but fails to move forward in the Republican-led House.

Immigrants and community leaders rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Immigrants and community leaders rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Deportation Relief Programs Prompt Legal Battle

More than two dozen states, most led by Republican governors, sue the Obama administration for failing to enforce the nation’s immigration laws after the president announces his intention to expand DACA and create another program, known as DAPA, to provide relief to the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The White House says the programs are similar to those of past administrations and are necessary given congressional gridlock on immigration reform. Roughly four million people are estimated to be eligible. In early 2015, a federal judge blocks the programs until the case can work its way through the courts. A Supreme Court decision is expected in the summer of 2016.

Migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015 after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015 after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey.Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

United States Responds to Global Migrant Crisis

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announces plans to increase the number of refugees admitted into the country annually from seventy thousand to a hundred thousand by 2017. The move comes amid conflict in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, which has sparked the largest global migration crisis since World War II. The White House pledges that among them would be at least ten thousand Syrians fleeing the four-year civil war, which has displaced more than eleven million people.

President Donald J. Trump signs an executive order on new immigration restrictions.

President Donald J. Trump signs an executive order on new immigration restrictions. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump Orders Immigration Restrictions

A week after entering office, President Donald J. Trump signs an executive order on terrorism prevention that suspends the refugee program for 120 days, bans Syrian refugees indefinitely, and decreases the cap on refugee admissions to fifty thousand. It also bans nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from traveling to the United States for ninety days. Thousands protest the so-called travel ban in cities, particularly at airports, where dozens of foreigners are detained by immigration officials. In February, a federal judge imposes a nationwide restraining order on the ban. The Trump administration revises the executive order the following month, removing Iraqis from the travel ban, among other modifications, but the new order remains blocked due to further legal challenges in federal courts.

Protesters hold signs against President Trump's limited travel ban, approved by the Supreme Court, in New York City.

Protesters hold signs against President Trump’s limited travel ban, approved by the Supreme Court, in New York City. Joe Penney/Reuters

U.S. Supreme Court Allows Partial U.S. Travel Ban

President Trump’s revised travel ban takes effect three days after the Supreme Court stayed lower courts’ injunctions, but the court specified that the ban cannot be imposed on any person who has a “credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity” in the United States. The Trump administration issues guidelines that define permissible familial relationships as parents, spouses, minor and adult children, and siblings, including half, step, and in-law relationships, while siblings-in-law and grandparents are subject to the ban. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in full in October.

Is mathematics truly a language?

Is mathematics truly a language?

Mathematics is called the language of science. Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei is attributed with the quote, “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.” Most likely this quote is a summary of his statement in Opere Il Saggiatore:

[The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

Yet, is mathematics truly a language, like English or Chinese? To answer the question, it helps to know what language is and how the vocabulary and grammar of mathematics is used to construct sentences.

What Is a Language?

There are multiple definitions of “language.” A language may be a system of words or codes used within a discipline. Language may refer to a system of communication using symbols or sounds. Linguist Noam Chomsky defines language as a set of sentences constructed using a finite set of elements. Some linguists believe language should be able to represent events and abstract concepts.

Whichever definition is used, a language contains the following components:

  • There must be a vocabulary of words or symbols.
  • Meaning must be attached to the words or symbols.
  • A language employs grammar, which is a set of rules that outline how vocabulary is used.
  • A syntax organizes symbols into linear structures or propositions.
  • A narrative or discourse consists of strings of syntatic propositions.
  • There must be (or have been) a group of people who use and understand the symbols.

Mathematics meets all of these requirements. The symbols, their meanings, syntax, and grammar are the same throughout the world. Mathematicians, scientists, and others use math to communicate concepts. Mathematics describes itself (a field called metamathematics), real-world phenomena, and abstract concepts.

Vocabulary and Syntax in Mathematics

The vocabulary of math draws from many different alphabets and includes symbols unique to math. A mathematical equation may be stated in words to form a sentence that has a noun and verb, just like a sentence in a spoken language. For example:

3 + 5 = 8

could be stated as, “Three added to five equals eight.”

Breaking this down, nouns in math include:

  • Arabic numerals (0, 5, 123.7)
  • Fractions (1⁄4, 5⁄9, 2 1⁄3)
  • Variables (a, b, c, x, y, z)
  • Expressions (3x, x2, 4 + x)
  • Diagrams or visual elements (circle, angle, triangle, tensor, matrix)
  • Infinity (∞)
  • Pi (π)
  • Imaginary numbers (i, -i)
  • The speed of light (c)

Verbs include symbols including:

  • Equalities or inequalities (=, <, >)
  • Actions such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division (+, -, x or *, ÷ or /)
  • Other operations (sin, cos, tan, sec)

If you try to perform a sentence diagram on a mathematical sentence, you’ll find infinitives, conjunctions, adjectives, etc. As in other languages, the role played by a symbol depends on its context.

Mathematics grammar and syntax, like vocabulary, are international. No matter what country you’re from or what language you speak, the structure of the mathematical language is the same.

  • Formulas are read from left to right.
  • The Latin alphabet is used for parameters and variables. To some extent, the Greek alphabet is also used. Integers are usually drawn from i, j, k, l, m, n. Real numbers are represented by abc, α, β, γ. Complex numbers are indicated by wand z. Unknowns are x, y, z. Names of functions are usually f, g, h.
  • The Greek alphabet is used to represent specific concepts. For example, λ is used to indicate wavelength and ρ means density.
  • Parentheses and brackets indicate the order in which the symbols interact.
  • The way functions, integrals, and derivatives are phrased is uniform.

Language as a Teaching Tool

Understanding how mathematical sentences work is helpful when teaching or learning math. Students often find numbers and symbols intimidating, so putting an equation into a familiar language makes the subject more approachable. Basically, it’s like translating a foreign language into a known one.

While students typically dislike word problems, extracting the nouns, verbs, and modifiers from a spoken/written language and translating them into a mathematical equation is a valuable skill to have. Word problems improve comprehension and increase problem-solving skills.

Because mathematics is the same all over the world, math can act as a universal language. A phrase or formula has the same meaning, regardless of other language that accompanies it. In this way, math helps people learn and communicate, even if other communication barriers exist.

The Argument Against Math as a Language

Not everyone agrees that mathematics is a language. Some definitions of “language” describe it as a spoken form of communication. Mathematics is a written form of communication. While it may be easy to read a simple addition statement aloud (e.g., 1 + 1 = 2), it’s much harder to read other equations aloud (e.g., Maxwell’s equations). Also, the spoken statements would be rendered in the speaker’s native language, not a universal tongue.

However, sign language would also be disqualified based on this criterion. Most linguists accept sign language as a true language.

Key Points

  • In order to be considered a language, a system of communication must have vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and people who use and understand it.
  • Mathematics meets this definition of a language. Linguists who don’t consider math a language cite its use as a written rather than spoken form of communication.
  • Math is a universal language. The symbols and organization to form equations are the same in every country of the world.
Religion vs Science

Religion vs Science

As the West becomes more and more secular, and the discoveries of evolutionary biology and cosmology shrink the boundaries of faith, the claims that science and religion are compatible grow louder. If you’re a believer who doesn’t want to seem anti-science, what can you do? You must argue that your faith – or any faith – is perfectly compatible with science.

And so one sees claim after claim from believers, religious scientists, prestigious science organisations and even atheists asserting not only that science and religion are compatible, but also that they can actually help each other. This claim is called “accommodationism.”

But I argue that this is misguided: that science and religion are not only in conflict – even at “war” – but also represent incompatible ways of viewing the world.

My argument runs like this. I’ll construe “science” as the set of tools we use to find truth about the universe, with the understanding that these truths are provisional rather than absolute. These tools include observing nature, framing and testing hypotheses, trying your hardest to prove that your hypothesis is wrong to test your confidence that it’s right, doing experiments and above all replicating your and others’ results to increase confidence in your inference.

And I’ll define religion as does philosopher Daniel Dennett: “Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” Of course many religions don’t fit that definition, but the ones whose compatibility with science is touted most often – the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – fill the bill.

Next, realize that both religion and science rest on “truth statements” about the universe – claims about reality. The edifice of religion differs from science by additionally dealing with morality, purpose and meaning, but even those areas rest on a foundation of empirical claims. You can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in the Resurrection of Christ, a Muslim if you don’t believe the angel Gabriel dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad, or a Mormon if you don’t believe that the angel Moroni showed Joseph Smith the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. After all, why accept a faith’s authoritative teachings if you reject its truth claims?

Indeed, even the Bible notes this: “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

Many theologians emphasize religion’s empirical foundations, agreeing with the physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne:

“The question of truth is as central to [religion’s] concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusory exercise in comforting fantasy.”

The conflict between science and faith, then, rests on the methods they use to decide what is true, and what truths result: These are conflicts of both methodology and outcome.

In contrast to the methods of science, religion adjudicates truth not empirically, but via dogma, scripture and authority – in other words, through faith, defined in Hebrews 11 as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In science, faith without evidence is a vice, while in religion it’s a virtue. Recall what Jesus said to “doubting Thomas,” who insisted in poking his fingers into the resurrected Savior’s wounds: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

And yet, without supporting evidence, Americans believe a number of religious claims: 74 percent of us believe in God, 68 percent in the divinity of Jesus, 68 percent in Heaven, 57 percent in the virgin birth, and 58 percent in the Devil and Hell. Why do they think these are true? Faith.

But different religions make different – and often conflicting – claims, and there’s no way to judge which claims are right. There are over 4,000 religions on this planet, and their “truths” are quite different. (Muslims and Jews, for instance, absolutely reject the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God.) Indeed, new sects often arise when some believers reject what others see as true. Lutherans split over the truth of evolution, while Unitarians rejected other Protestants’ belief that Jesus was part of God.

And while science has had success after success in understanding the universe, the “method” of using faith has led to no proof of the divine. How many gods are there? What are their natures and moral creeds? Is there an afterlife? Why is there moral and physical evil? There is no one answer to any of these questions. All is mystery, for all rests on faith.

The “war” between science and religion, then, is a conflict about whether you have good reasons for believing what you do: whether you see faith as a vice or a virtue.

Compartmentalizing realms is irrational

So how do the faithful reconcile science and religion? Often they point to the existence of religious scientists, like NIH Director Francis Collins, or to the many religious people who accept science. But I’d argue that this is compartmentalization, not compatibility, for how can you reject the divine in your laboratory but accept that the wine you sip on Sunday is the blood of Jesus?

Others argue that in the past religion promoted science and inspired questions about the universe. But in the past every Westerner was religious, and it’s debatable whether, in the long run, the progress of science has been promoted by religion. Certainly evolutionary biology, my own field, has been held back strongly by creationism, which arises solely from religion.

What is not disputable is that today science is practiced as an atheistic discipline – and largely by atheists. There’s a huge disparity in religiosity between American scientists and Americans as a whole: 64 percent of our elite scientists are atheists or agnostics, compared to only 6 percent of the general population – more than a tenfold difference. Whether this reflects differential attraction of nonbelievers to science or science eroding belief – I suspect both factors operate – the figures are prima facie evidence for a science-religion conflict.

The most common accommodationist argument is Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis of “non-overlapping magisteria.” Religion and science, he argued, don’t conflict because: “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”

This fails on both ends. First, religion certainly makes claims about “the factual character of the universe.” In fact, the biggest opponents of non-overlapping magisteria are believers and theologians, many of whom reject the idea that Abrahamic religions are “empty of any claims to historical or scientific facts.”

Nor is religion the sole bailiwick of “purposes, meanings and values,” which of course differ among faiths. There’s a long and distinguished history of philosophy and ethics – extending from Plato, Hume and Kant up to Peter Singer, Derek Parfit and John Rawls in our day – that relies on reason rather than faith as a fount of morality. All serious ethical philosophy is secular ethical philosophy.

In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the “truths” undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.

Brexit: A Profound level of political stalemate

Brexit: A Profound level of political stalemate

After the collapse of Theresa May’s efforts to push her withdrawal agreement through parliament, and the failed subsequent Conservative Party motion of no-confidence against her, two factors have been fairly well established. There appears to be no withdrawal agreement available that commands a majority in the House of Commons, least of all the current one. And both parliament and the Conservative Party lack the will to oust the prime minister. Not only is opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn reluctant to submit the motion required for parliament to hold a vote of no confidence because he does not think it would pass, but in addition, May is safe from another confidence vote from her party for a full year.

In short, Britain is now in a situation where the prime minister is relatively safe in her position but unable to move forward on the most important subject of the day. This is a profound level of political stalemate at a time when some form of forward motion is urgently required.

There are no immediate solutions available. The problems that led to this impasse run deep. However, two medium to long-term measures would at least help alleviate the risk of future stalemate and crisis.

One is reforming the way the UK elects its members of parliament. First past the post (FPTP, or “single member plurality”, as is the technical name) has a number of problems. Perhaps most damagingly, the distribution of votes is very poorly reflected in the distribution of seats. In 2015 UKIP scored an all-time high result of 3,881,099 votes, or 12.6%. Its parliamentary reward was one seat. In comparison, the SNP received 1,454,436 votes, or 4.7%. Its reward was 56 seats.

One SNP seat cost on average 25,972 votes, compared to, by definition, 3,881,099 votes for UKIP, or 149 times more than SNP seats. If those who have concerns about the UK’s international partnerships see their voices so blatantly ignored in general elections, it is perhaps not surprising that they welcomed the opportunity to vote Leave when the chance appeared. Although the UK did hold a referendum on electoral reform in 2011, and rejected it, the proposed Alternative Vote system would not have dealt with the problem of some parties gaining vastly more for their votes than others.

The current system is also forcing the two main parties to maintain what are blatantly very unhappy and dysfunctional political family units. Labour and the Conservatives have to contain within them people whose views diverge radically from each other. The sheer depth of the problem was painfully illustrated on the day of the confidence vote when two Conservative MPs apparently refused to feature in a TV interview together, live on air.

One Conservative MP described the situation in his party as something akin to Mad Max or Lord of the Flies. This situation is leading to damaging struggles over control of the leadership and wider organisation as different fractions vie for control. Labour’s internal battles over Corbyn as leader and the role of the grassroots Momentum group are further illustrations of this problem.

It seems clear that what is needed is a system of electing MPs that better reflects how people actually vote. This would help to channel concerns and objections about the political direction of the country in more meaningful and constructive ways to avoid festering dissent building up. It would also help split up the internally squabbling and dysfunctional parties, creating organisations more at peace with themselves ideologically.

A recent Ashcroft poll showed that when respondents were asked if they thought May’s Brexit deal honoured the result of the referendum and whether it was better than leaving without a deal or remaining, the answer “don’t know” was often the either first or second most popular choice.

If we are going to use referendums as a means to settle big political questions (and ideally we should not) then clearly the population needs to be sufficiently knowledgeable to make informed decisions. If citizens are to have healthy debates on future big decisions and electoral choices, political literacy needs to be given a much higher priority, both in formal education and beyond.

A recent House of Lord’s report stated that “citizenship education has a crucial role to play in helping to build active citizens”. It seems profoundly unwise to use referendums to answer big political questions if voters are not equipped to take such active role in decision making as a referendum allows. In addition, the same report noted that citizenship education, and arguably political literacy more generally, is central to encouraging “a thoughtful national narrative about Britishness”.

If the prime minister wants to succeed in bringing the country together post Brexit, which was a central theme in her speech to the Conservative Party conference, a “thoughtful narrative” about the political system that exacerbated this Brexit debacle seems a good place to start.

Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is quickly becoming an international concern. With 489 people diagnosed with the disease and 280 deaths, it is already the second largest Ebola outbreak in history (although still dwarfed by the 2014 West Africa outbreak). While the DRC has a good track record of responding to these outbreaks, the ongoing military conflict in the country is making the response much more difficult.

Healthcare workers have been attacked, vaccination campaigns halted and, most recently, experts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were recalled from an outbreak zone due to security fears. This is all despite the DRC hosting the UN’s largest peacekeeping force, MONUSCO (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo).

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the body responsible for maintaining international peace and security, acknowledged the situation in the DRC by issuing a resolution (resolution 2439) that calls for an end to the violence so that humanitarian groups can have better access to the region.

This is not the first time the UNSC has been involved in an Ebola outbreak. In 2014 it passed a resolution on the West African Ebola outbreak. This was the first and only UNSC resolution to acknowledge a health issue as a threat to peace and security. The resolution didn’t lead to military intervention, but it greatly improved the response in West Africa. The UNSC asked for resources and action, and the international community respondedpromptly.

This time, though, the UNSC response is much weaker. It condemns the killing of healthcare workers, calls for peace on both sides (which has been ignored) and calls on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to continue its leadership on Ebola, but does not say much else. With the violence continuing, the number of cases and deaths from Ebola rising, and the withdrawal of international health experts, it is likely that the UNSC will need to return to this issue – this time with a more robust response. But what form might this response take?

No easy options

One option is for the UNSC to do nothing. It could view the conflict as the responsibility of the DRC government, Ebola as the responsibility of the WHO and partner health agencies, and the mandate of MONUSCO being limited to traditional peacekeeping operations. Given the escalating situation, though, this option seems unlikely.

Another option is for the UNSC to draft another resolution, this time clearly linking the conflict in the DRC and Ebola. It would use stronger language than the last resolution to encourage an end to fighting and inspire the international response necessary to end the Ebola outbreak. A stronger resolution would reiterate the importance of the issue and draw international attention and resources to Ebola. However, without peace and security being assured, the international community is unlikely to send resources and people to the affected areas.

A more likely option appears to be expanding the role of the MONUSCO peacekeepers to take a more active role in protecting healthcare workers in the DRC so that healthcare workers can safely carry out their work. While the UNSC has moved away from authorising military-led peacekeeping missions, the fact that there is a peacekeeping force already in the DRC means an expansion of their mandate is more likely.

In particular, MONUSCO could create and maintain a corridor of safety when combatants are only engaged by peacekeepers if they enter this area. The UNSC created such a zone in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict as a form of humanitarian intervention so that water and aid could be delivered to civilians within the corridor.

Creating a safety zone around the Ebola outbreaks could allow healthcare professionals to carry out their work in safety and may inspire international assistance to flow into the area where it is so badly needed. While mission creep within peacekeeping operations is rightly subject to considerable criticism, if the situation in the DRC worsens, it may be the only option.

I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate

I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate

On July 26, Caitlyn Jenner premiered her new reality show I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate on the validity of the transgender identity. Which side of the debate one falls on correlates highly with one’s political position.

Liberal politicians like President Barack Obama tend to support Jenner and commend her on her courage.

On the other hand, conservative politicians like Mike Huckabee have mocked Jenner’s transition, some of them referring to her as mentally ill.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some conservatives support transgender individuals – indeed, Jenner herself identifies as a Republican – and some liberals deny that Jenner is a woman. But we think the conservative–liberal divide is prevalent enough to be worthy of attention.

Getting the facts straight

Those on the left and right seem to believe that they are motivated by a desire to get to the fact of the matter about what constitutes being a man or a woman. That is, they think that they are arguing for an unbiased account about what gender is.

One way they do this is by referring to anatomy. Many on the left argue that gender is “deeply rooted in one’s mind.” They cite psychologists like Columbia’s Derald Wing Sue, who argues that “Caitlyn Jenner is not identifying with being a woman because of (her) upbringing and cultural conditioning”; rather, her gender is biologically programmed into her.

Those on the right often argue that being a man or woman is simply being born with male or female sex organs or that people who are transgender are mentally ill. They cite studies showing that individuals who have undergone reassignment surgery are more likely to commit suicide than those who have not. The increased risk of suicide is thought to show that identifying as transgender is a consequence of depression and, therefore, not a genuine identity.

An intense debate

The debate around these issues is intense. Controversial writer (and cofounder of Vice) Gavin McInnes’ article “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural”, for example, has elicited over 5,000 comments.

As empirically oriented philosophers with research interests in what motivates individuals’ reasoning, we suspect that the debate is not motivated by a desire to get to the fact of the matter about gender. After all, when individuals disagree on other facts, such as (say) whether Napoleon won at Waterloo, we cannot predict people’s beliefs based on their political affiliation. Our view is that the intensity of this discussion is best explained by what psychologists call identity protective cognition.

Identity protective cognition is the tendency to selectively accept and dismiss information to support one’s identity.

This theory, developed by Dan M Kahan of Yale Law School, argues that beliefs about how society “ought to be” are central to one’s group identity. People discount information if it suggests their group’s picture of the ideal society is lacking.

For conservatives, the ideal society tends to be hierarchical. They want – perhaps subconsciously – resource distribution to depend on factors such as social class, race and sex. Status flows to men who work at well-paying jobs and women who stay at home and tend to the family.

Transgender individuals are dangerous to the hierarchy conservatives desire. They complicate the binary picture of division of labor within the traditional family. The existence of transgender individuals suggests that the assumption that underpins the legitimacy of the hierarchy – that people designated men and women at birth are naturally suited to particular gender roles – is false. So conservatives are motivated to deny the reality of transgenderism.

On the opposite side of things, research has shown that liberals tend to favor an egalitariansociety. They want resources to be divided more equally, and they do not want the division to depend on gender. Social status should not be determined by conformity to gender stereotypes.

In such a society, transgender identities must be legitimate. Otherwise, there is a risk of propagating the view that one has to fall neatly into one of two genders, a view that forces men and women into unequal social roles.

We believe that if the debate at hand is to make real progress, we need to recognize that it is not merely about whether Jenner is female. It is implicitly a debate about how we ought to structure society and people’s roles in it. It is a debate not just about what certain words mean; it is about what they ought to mean.

The holiness of God

The holiness of God is one of his attributes that carries monumental consequences for every person on earth.

In ancient Hebrew, the word translated as “holy” (qodeish) meant “set apart” or “separate from.” God’s absolute moral and ethical purity set him apart from every other being in the universe.

The Bible says, “There is no one holy like the Lord.” (1 Samuel 2:2, NIV)

The prophet Isaiah saw a vision of God in which seraphim, winged heavenly beings, called to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV) The use of “holy” three times stresses God’s unique holiness, but some Bible scholars also believe there is one “holy” for each member of the Trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person of the Godhead is equal in holiness to the others.

For human beings, holiness generally means obeying God’s law, but for God, the law is not external—it is part of his essence. God is the law. He is incapable of contradicting himself because moral goodness is his very nature.

God’s Holiness Is a Recurring Theme in the Bible

Throughout Scripture, the holiness of God is a recurring theme. The Bible writers draw a sharp contrast between the Lord’s character and that of humankind. God’s sacredness was so high that writers of the Old Testament even avoided using the personal name of God, which God revealed to Moses from the burning bush on Mount Sinai.

The earliest patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had referred to God as “El Shaddai,” meaning The Almighty. When God told Moses his name is “I AM WHO I AM,” translated as YAHWEH in Hebrew, it revealed him as the Uncreated Being, the Self-Existing One. Ancient Jews considered that name so holy they would not pronounce it aloud, substituting “Lord” instead.

When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, he expressly forbid using the name of God disrespectfully. An attack on God’s name was an attack on God’s holiness, a matter of grave contempt.

Ignoring God’s holiness brought deadly consequences. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, acted contrary to God’s commands in their priestly duties and he killed them with fire. Many years later, when King David was having the ark of the covenant moved on a cart—in violation of God’s commands—it tipped when the oxen stumbled, and a man named Uzzah touched it to steady it. God immediately struck Uzzah dead.

The Holiness of God Is the Basis for Salvation

Ironically, the plan of salvation was based on the very thing that separated the Lord from mankind: the holiness of God. For hundreds of years, the Old Testament people of Israel were bound to a system of animal sacrifices to atone for their sins. However, that solution was only temporary. As far back as Adam, God had promised the people a Messiah.

A Savior was necessary for three reasons. First, God knew human beings could never meet his standards of perfect holiness by their own behavior or good works. Second, he required a spotless sacrifice to pay the debt for humanity’s sins. And third, God would use Messiah to transfer holiness to sinful men and women.

To satisfy his need for a faultless sacrifice, God himself had to become that Savior. Jesus, the Son of God, was incarnated as a human being, born of a woman but retaining his holiness because he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. That virgin birth prevented the passing of Adam’s sin on to the Christ child. When Jesus died on the cross, he became the fitting sacrifice, punished for all the sins of the human race, past, present, and future.

God the Father raised Jesus from the dead to show that he accepted Christ’s perfect offering. Then to guarantee humans meet his standards, God imputes, or credits Christ’s holiness to every person who receives Jesus as Savior. This free gift, called grace, justifies or makes holy every Christ follower. Bearing Jesus’ righteousness, they are then qualified to enter heaven.

But none of this would have been possible without God’s tremendous love, another of his perfect attributes. Through love God believed the world was worth saving. That same love led him to sacrifice his beloved Son, then apply Christ’s righteousness to redeemed human beings. Because of love, the very holiness that seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle became God’s way to grant eternal life to everyone who seeks him.