Category Archives: Science And Society

A Victory For Political Correctness

All the mau-mauing by the faint-hearted women scientists and feminists has compelled Larry Summers to back down from his perfectly reasonable speculation on one of the causes of the numerical disparity between men and women in the professions of science and math. Too bad.

I hoped that he would say something like the following: “I’m sorry that my remarks were so misinterpreted by so many who should be more capable of calm, rational analysis. I hope that they’ll go back and read them again. I also regret that this incident has shown so many in academia to be antithetical to the spirit of debate and free inquiry. Perhaps, though, this can be a lesson for us all, and used as a basis to discuss the broader issues of how dissenting speech has been shut down on campuses all over the nation.”

Alas, it was not to be. Sadly, he basically retracted instead. I hope that when he left the press conference, he at least muttered, under his breath, “E pur si muove…”

Works For Me

I’ll be that a lot of mothers, wives and girlfriends are going to be emailed copies of this story:

“We know that mites can only survive by taking in water from the atmosphere using small glands on the outside of their body.

“Something as simple as leaving a bed unmade during the day can remove moisture from the sheets and mattress so the mites will dehydrate and eventually die.”

More Crushing Of Dissent

Errrr…except that the dissenter is getting his story out in the Washington Post. I’m always amused by these major newspaper stories about the brave dissenters who think that they’re being oppressed, and that the public isn’t getting the “truth.”

But the article contains a couple of key nuggets:

“I’m strictly trying to understand the Earth as a planet,” said Hansen, who started his career studying the clouds around Venus but switched in 1978 to climate modeling.

Great. Go for it. But what makes you think that renders you a policy expert, particularly on matters that affect the national and global economy?

John Marburger, the president’s Science Advisor is quite pithy on this point:

“I take his work seriously. His work has had a big impact on this administration’s climate-change policy,” Marburger said. “But he’s not an economist. The fact that he’s a good scientist does not necessarily make him the best person to formulate policy that would affect the economy.”

That’s what most people in the policy debate miss. Kyoto and CO2 reduction enthusiasts complain that the people making the decisions don’t understand the science. But what makes them experts on all the other aspects of policy that would be affected by their nostrums?

Et Tu, David?

I hate to resurrect the ID debate just when it’s finally dying down, but in a disappointing column from the usually smart David Warren, he makes the following false assertion:

“Evolutionism” is the prevailing speculation, that by minute alterations in traits, in continuing response to environmental pressures, an isolated group within a species “evolves” to the point where its members can breed with each other but no longer with others, and — presto! — you have a new species. But the “presto” has never been observed in nature, and there is a universal paucity of transitional forms. The speculation may even seem plausible, but remains an act of faith. It isn’t science, because it isn’t falsifiable: there is no way to test if it might be wrong.

There are many ways in which to test if if might be wrong, and so far it passes all tests (DNA relationships, location in strata, etc.)–I’m aware of none in which it’s failed (e.g., the classical pre-Cambrian rabbit). To say that there are no transitional forms is not only false, but meaningless, because all forms (other than perhaps ourselves, since we now control our own evolution) are transitional forms.

I really have no idea where he came up with this, and I don’t have time to go into this in depth right now, but these assertions are just flat out wrong.

[Update on Monday morning]

While a comment in this post doesn’t necessarily apply to David Warren, and it wasn’t made in this post, I thought I’d respond here to keep it near the top of the page. Cathy Young (of Reason fame) asks:

Why on earth would you take seriously, and bother to respond to, the comments of someone who states upfront that he believes the Earth is less than 10,000 years old?

I respect religion, and I don’t think anyone should be mocked for believing in things that can be neither proved nor disproved (God, life after death, Christ’s resurrection, etc.). But why should people be entitled to any “respect” when they promulgate theories about the material (not spiritual) world that are laughably at odds with scientific evidence? It’s worth noting that all this talk about the need to respect even irrational beliefs is limited to beliefs that (1) have the cachet of tradition and (2) are shared by a large number of the population. No one is asking for respect for believers in astrology. Nor would any conservatives feel compelled to show “respect” for the opinions of radical environmentalists who argued the recent tsunamis were caused by Mother Earth’s anger at pollution and global warming.

I’m not sure what “take seriously” or “respect” mean in the context of this discussion. If by that you mean that they’re a legitimate point of view that I have to consider to be possible, I do that only in the limited postmodernist, Goedelian sense that anything is possible, and that there’s ultimately no way to prove the tenets of science. It doesn’t mean that I would spend any amount of time wondering whether or not I should change my opinions on them. But the problem arises in the statement “…I don’t think anyone should be mocked for believing in things that can be neither proved nor disproved (God, life after death, Christ’s resurrection, etc.). But why should people be entitled to any “respect” when they promulgate theories about the material (not spiritual) world that are laughably at odds with scientific evidence?”

The problem with proving and disproving things is that proof and disproof is relevant only to people who use those as tools to attain knowledge, or consider the scientific method to have value. I’m certainly one of the latter, as (presumably) Cathy is, but if you think that knowledge comes from a divinely inspired book, then proofs and disproofs are beside the point, and there’s no way to prove them wrong, even to someone who believes in proofs, but certainly not to them. The scientific method only works for people who believe in it. It can only be claimed to be “better” in the context of its own beliefs (e.g., materialism).

She makes a good point that the degree of respect afforded to a point of view seems to be function of the number of adherents to it (it’s been noted that there’s little difference between a cult and a major religion except the number of believers). That’s not a rational point of view from the standpoint of evaluating the belief system, but it is one from the standpoint of not involving oneself in religious wars that may be unwinnable because one is outnumbered. And of course, the West and the enlightenment are in fact at war with one of the world’s largest religions, at least in its most extreme form, many of whose beliefs (e.g., misogynism, indivisibility of church and state, intolerance of other religions), are in fact intolerable to us. Intolerance is the one thing that our modern society apparently won’t tolerate (unless it’s intolerance of Christians and Israel), and I suppose that makes sense when it comes in as extreme a form as Wahhabism.

I’m not sure that I have an entirely satisfactory answer for her, other than to recognize the practicality that a large number of good people do feel their faith threatened by some of the teachings of science (particularly when many of its practitioners and evangelists, such as Richard Dawkins, are so vehemently and needlessly anti-religious). I would hope that my view represents a reasonable compromise–that people of faith are entitled to believe whatever they wish, as long as they don’t impose it in a science classroom, and in turn, scientists should be less dogmatic about their own views as representing reality, rather than simply being the consequence of a belief in objectivity and materialism.

More On ID

Well, as I feared, I did set off a debate about Intelligent Design, which wasn’t my intent, but was inevitable (unless I allowed no comments on the post). Hugh hopes that I’ll respond to this post.

As I said, I’ve discussed this in depth previously, and I suspect that Professor Reynolds (John Mark, not Glenn) is reading some things into my comments that I don’t intend.

I understand that this is not a science discussion, but a science (and philosophy) metadiscussion. That is, a discussion about how to discuss it.

I (unlike many scientists and evolutionists) recognize that science is a philosophy in itself, and one that is faith based. I don’t know if anyone followed my link to my previous discussions on this topic, but it would have been helpful if they had. Particularly if they continued to follow the links back to this post and this one.

For instance, I wrote:

The problem with creation theories is not that they’re inconsistent with the evidence–they are totally consistent, tautologically so, as Eugene [Volokh] says. The problem is that they tell us nothing useful from a scientific standpoint. In fact, there are an infinite number of theories that fit any given set of facts. I can speculate not only that all was created, but that it was created (complete with our memories of it) a minute ago, or two minutes ago. Or an hour ago. Or yesterday. Or the day before. Or, as some would have it, 6000+ years ago. Each is a different theory (though they all fall into a class of theories) that fit the observable facts. They are all equally possible, and all (other than some form of naturalistic evolution) untestable.

And furthermore, they offer no hope of making predictions for the future. After all, if a creator can whimsically create a universe in whatever manner he wishes, including evidence that he didn’t do it, how can we know what he’ll choose tomorrow? Orrin Judd likes to make much of the fact that many evolutionary psychologists believe that free will is an illusion, but if that’s the case in a naturalistic world, how much more so must it be with a whimsical creator, who can not only make us as he chooses, but unmake, and remake us on the same basis, whenever he chooses?

Of course, the argument to that is that the scriptures say that God grants us free will, which may be true, but once again, it isn’t science

…I have faith in the scientific method, but I can’t prove it’s the best way to achieve knowledge to anyone who doesn’t. Unlike many who believe that the scientific method is the correct one, I admit that this belief is based on faith.

To me, the argument of evolution versus…well, other unspecified (and unscientific) explanations is not about true and false–it is just about science versus non-science. If I were to teach evolution in a school, I would state it not as “this is what happened,” but rather, “this is what scientists believe happened.”

In other words, I don’t want to indoctrinate people what to believe–I just want to make sure that when they take a science class, that they’re getting science, and not a religion dressed up as science. Whether they want to accept science is up to them…

…Unfortunately, the debate can tend to degenerate quickly, on both sides. Many creationists view evolutionists as godless propagandists, with the agenda of poisoning the minds of their children against their faith. Some evolutionists (particularly devout atheists), don’t recognize that their own belief system is faith based, and believe that it really is an issue of right versus wrong.

I don’t believe that people who believe in creationism are stupid, or mad–they just have a different belief system. The only thing that I object to (and justifiably frustrates people like [biologist] Paul Orwin) is when they try to argue the issue, when they clearly don’t understand evolution, and don’t want to take the time to learn about it (other than, perhaps, wrongly, from creationist screeds). This isn’t a matter of intelligence or sanity, but ignorance (which can fortunately be readily cured).

If one is going to critique a scientific theory, it is only polite to become educated on it (which means reading the works of its proponents–not just strawmen written by its opponents). Otherwise, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, by asking questions that have been answered many times, and often long ago.

With regard to my statement that science is a philosophy that rests on faith, I wrote the following:

Belief in the scientific method is faith, in the sense that there are a number of unprovable axioms that must be accepted:

1) There is an objective reality
2) It obeys universal laws
3) Its nature can be revealed by asking questions of it in the form of experiments
4) The simplest explanation that fits the facts is the one that should be preferred

There are other tenets, but these are the main ones.

I’m not saying that Professor Reynolds is ignorant of evolution, and I apologize for simply snipping so much old stuff rather than responding directly with new prose, but it’s frustrating to rewrite things I’ve written in the past, and it’s important for him to understand that I am not arguing the truth of his or my beliefs–I am only arguing about what the name of the class in which they are taught should be.

He claims that the boundary between science and non-science is not the clear bright line that I claim it to be. He also claims that not all scientists are Popperians.

Perhaps. I can only speak to my own view of what constitutes the scientific method, which I believe (notwithstanding my heresy about it relying on faith in the form of unprovable axioms) is reasonably mainstream among practicing scientists.

My own gripe about science education in this country is that it’s not taught as a philosophy of how to attain knowledge, but rather it’s simply taught as a compendium of “facts” that must be learned. Given that it starts out with this fundamental misunderstanding (promulgated, unfortunately, by many incompetent science teachers), it’s not surprising that many take umbrage at the teaching of “facts” that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.

So if science is a religion (in the sense of a belief system, which I think it is), then is it a legitimate subject for public schools? As I’ve said previously, this is largely a symptom of a much larger problem–the fact that we have public schools, in which the “public” will always be at loggerheads about what subjects should be taught and how. But given the utility of learning science (something that I employ every day, whenever I troubleshoot my computer network, or figure out what kinds of foods are good or bad for me), I think that it is an important subject to which everyone should be exposed. But if I were teaching evolution, I would offer it as the scientific explanation for how life on earth developed, not a “fact” or “the truth.”

The problem arises when some scientists, blind to their own faith and its tenets, come to believe that their beliefs represent Truth, and that those who disagree are fools and slack-jawed yokels. And with that, I come full circle in once again agreeing with Hugh that the media does a disservice to the debate when it doesn’t respect the beliefs of those who feel that their children are being indoctrinated away from their faith.

[8:15 PM EST update]

In response to Carl’s comment (see comments), I’ll republish a post from early in this blog’s life, almost three years ago:

Several years ago (probably more than a decade), I saw a special on my local affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System (so named because that’s who pays for it–not, in a manner similar to National “Public” Radio, because it’s necessarily of any particular benefit to them) called something like “The National Science Quiz.”

It consisted of a bunch of multiple-guess questions that were in fact, facts, as opposed to theories. For example, they asked something like, “How many hairs, on average, are on a square inch of the human head?”

I threw something (it’s been too long to remember what, and being a skinflint, and not one to destroy a television that I will have to pay to replace, I’m sure that it was relatively soft) at the TV.

“This is not science!” I yelled at it, ineffectually. “Very few scientists would know the answer to that question (though they would know where to look it up, if it had any relevance to a scientific inquiry). Not only is this not science, but it’s the reason that many people get turned off to science, and it’s why very few people understand anything about science!”

Science is not a compendium of “facts.” Science is about how we turn unrelated, boring facts into useful knowledge. Science is a method, not an encyclopedia. That’s why I get upset when someone says that “evolution is a fact.” Not just because it’s untrue, but because it misses the point entirely.

Science is a means of inquiry. It cannot be learned by simply memorizing a set of dry unconnected facts, but that’s what is implied by the “science quiz” described above, and much of what passes for science education in primary schools (and even more frighteningly, in many colleges and universities).

When I was in college, physics was my favorite subject.

Why?

Because I have a lousy memory (one, but by no means the only, reason that I never seriously considered going into medicine). Because I could pass the tests without memorizing a vast compendium of “facts,” (which I couldn’t manage in biology, or even chemistry, which I still don’t consider a true science, but it may become when physical chemistry reaches a sufficient degree of sophistication and maturity–perhaps it already has in the intervening decades). I could pass the tests by simply taking the few basic laws, and applying the basic rules of logic and mathematics to them, even rederiving more advanced laws if necessary, rather than having to memorize them.

What’s my point?

Learning physics wasn’t about remembering what the atomic weight of a given element was, or how many wombats lived in a given state of Australia at a given point in time. Learning physics was about learning some basic principles, and applying them to more general problems. That’s what all science should be about.

But instead science, when it’s taught at all (often by primary-school teachers who don’t understand it themselves), is taught as a body of knowledge, a set of known facts, rather than as a method of inquiry. The emphasis is not on thinking, but on memorization. Science, properly taught, opens the mind to a vast array of topics, even beyond science. Science, as it’s generally taught, is pure drudgery. It’s little wonder that most kids are turned off to the subject by the time they enter high school.

It’s also little wonder that the phrase, “it’s only a theory” has such power when attacking evolution. After all, science is about facts, right? And if evolution is “only a theory,” then it’s not a fact, and we need not believe it.

So those defending evolution must take one of two tacks–to claim (mistakenly, as occurred on the web site that Iain cited) that evolution is a “fact,” or to take the more difficult, but in the long run, much more valuable road, by performing a rectification of names. That is why I kill so many electrons to make this point, in multiple posts.

Of course testing theory against empirical data is crucial to understanding how the process works, but my concern is that the system is out of balance. If Carl believes that it’s currently all theory, that’s clearly as wrong as it being all fact (and given the educational system and educational degrees in general, I suspect that much of the “theory” being taught is wrong as well).

The IDers Rear Their Heads Again

Hugh Hewitt discourses on the introduction of ID in the public schools, alongside evolution. At the risk of setting off another evolution debate here, while his point about the MSM making ID defenders out to be gap-toothed sibling-marrying Bible thumpers is well taken, he’s quite mistaken on the general policy issue. He’s viewing this through the eyes of a lawyer, but that’s not how science works:

My limited expertise is not with the interaction of ID and evolutionary theory, though it seems to me quite obvious that the hardest admission to wring from a evolutionist enthusiast is that while even conclusive proof of evolution wouldn’t deny the existence of God, no such proof has yet been offered.

Of course no such proof has been offered. Proof of the validity of the theory (and there’s nothing about that word that should shake our confidence in evolution or any other scientific theory) of evolution does not, and cannot, exist. And that’s true not only for evolution, but for gravity, quantum chromodynamics, and any scientific theory that one wants to consider. Proving that theories are correct simply isn’t how science works.

How science works is by putting forth theories that are disprovable, not ones that are provable. When all other theories have been disproven, those still standing are the ones adopted by most scientists. ID is not a scientific theory, because it fails the test of being disprovable (or to be more precise, non-falsifiable), right out of the box. If Hugh doesn’t believe this, then let him postulate an experiment that one could perform, even in thought, that would show it to be false. ID simply says, “I’m not smart enough to figure out how this structure could evolve, therefore there must have been a designer.” That’s not science–it’s simply an invocation of a deus ex machina, whether its proponents are willing to admit it or not. And it doesn’t belong in a science classroom, except as an example of what’s not science.

I’ve made my position on this subject quite clear in the past. ID, and creationism in general should be able to be taught in the public schools. Just not in a science class–they need to be reserved for a class in comparative religions. Of course, I don’t think that public schools should even exist, but that’s an entirely different subject.

The point is that ID isn’t science–it’s a copout on science and the scientific method, and as I said in my post a couple years ago, creationists attempting to get their views into science class, whether explicitly as the 6000-year-old solution or dressed up as science, as in ID, is a failure of their own personal faith in their own beliefs. They seem to think that if science doesn’t validate their faith, then their faith is somehow thereby weakened, and that they must fight for its acceptance in that realm.

But that’s nonsense. Faith is faith. It by definition requires a suspension of disbelief. If their faith hasn’t the strength to withstand science, then they should reexamine their faith, not attempt (one hopes in futility) to bring down a different belief system that is entirely orthogonal to it.

[Update at midnight eastern time]

Hugh responds:

I do believe in Intelligent Design –in Christianity, actually– but the point of my posts yesterday was not to wade into those battles, but to underscore the Washington Post’s lousy reporting on the controversy in Dover, Pennsylvania.

That’s, of course, beside the point. I already agreed with him about the abysmal nature of the reportage on this issue. But whether or not he believes in ID isn’t the issue. The ultimate issue is what should be taught in science classes (regardless of whether the school is public or private). I’d be interested in his thoughts on that, in light of the discussion here.

I’d particularly like to see his thoughts on it considering that he’s essentially admitted that ID is tantamount to Christianity, which, last time I checked, was not a branch of science…

Circumstantial Theories

Ann Coulter has an amusing column in which she shreds Bob Shrum, the architect of perennial losing demagogic political campaigns, and Mark Geragos. Like her, I’m amazed that the guy can even get clients, let alone charge them millions of dollars, given his record. The only winning case of his that I can think of is Susan McDougal vs. the Mehtas.

But she makes an interesting point that many people don’t understand:

…even Geragos and Sherman would never sneeringly dismiss evidence in a murder trial as “circumstantial evidence.” Only nonlawyers who imagine they are learning about law from “Court TV” think “circumstantial evidence” means “paltry evidence.” After leaping for the channel clicker for six months whenever the name “Scott Peterson” wafted from the television (on the grounds that in a country of 300 million people, some men will kill their wives), I offer this as my sole contribution to the endless national discussion.

In a murder case, all evidence of guilt other than eyewitness testimony is “circumstantial.” Inasmuch as most murders do not occur at Grand Central Terminal during rush hour, it is not an uncommon occurrence to have murder convictions based entirely on circumstantial evidence. DNA evidence is “circumstantial evidence.” Fingerprints are “circumstantial evidence.” An eyewitness account of the perpetrator fleeing the scene of a stabbing with a bloody knife is “circumstantial evidence.” Please stop referring to “circumstantial evidence” as if it doesn’t count. There’s a name for people who take a dim view of circumstantial evidence because they don’t understand the concept of circumstantial evidence: They’re called “O.J. jurors.”

It occured to me as I read this that “circumstantial evidence” is to the legal world what “theory” is to the scientific. The most reliable evidence, far more than eyewitness testimony, is circumstantial, and theories are the stuff that science is made of, but one would never know that to hear them denigrated by creationists. In fact, the evolution debate is a perfect example of exactly what Coulter is describing here, in which the circumstantial evidence for evolution via natural selection is overwhelming, but much of the nation are OJ jurors, because no one has caught a dog in the act of having kittens.

Just as few murders occur, as she says, during rush hour in Grand Central, the vast majority of the fossil record is lost to us as well (though there’s enough to see “transition species,” since all species are transition species). But since that’s only “circumstantial evidence” of something that’s only a “theory,” it’s unlikely that we will ever find enough evidence to satisfy people who don’t even understand how science works, or want to. And in light of that, here is a brave and admirable man.

Colling… finds a place for God in evolution by positing a

Good Riddance

The Kyoto Treaty is effectively dead.

The conventional wisdom that it’s the United States against the rest of the world in climate change diplomacy has been turned on its head. Instead it turns out that it is the Europeans who are isolated. China, India, and most of the rest of the developing countries have joined forces with the United States to completely reject the idea of future binding GHG emission limits. At the conference here in Buenos Aires, Italy shocked its fellow European Union members when it called for an end to the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. These countries recognize that stringent emission limits would be huge barriers to their economic growth and future development.

Another myth about “enlightened and progressive Europe, leading the world” falls.

Read this, too:

…climate scepticism is gaining ground in Western Europe. It is even becoming respectable. Many organisations, often cum websites, provide ample information about the views of the climate sceptics, thus breaking the de facto information monopoly of the pro-Kyoto scientists belonging to the ‘established climate science community’.

Good. Now maybe we can have a rational discussion about politically and economically realistic solutions.

No Imagination

This is an interesting breakthrough in organ preservation–wood frogs that freeze solid in the winter, and then thaw without apparent damage in the spring. They’re attempting to apply it to donor organs.

Scientists say they don’t see any immediate potential for putting an entire human body in a science fiction-style deep freeze…

Well, it seems like a significant step in that direction to me.