Transterrestrial Musings  

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay

Alan Boyle (MSNBC)
Space Politics (Jeff Foust)
Space Transport News (Clark Lindsey)
NASA Watch
NASA Space Flight
Hobby Space
A Voyage To Arcturus (Jay Manifold)
Dispatches From The Final Frontier (Michael Belfiore)
Personal Spaceflight (Jeff Foust)
Mars Blog
The Flame Trench (Florida Today)
Space Cynic
Rocket Forge (Michael Mealing)
COTS Watch (Michael Mealing)
Curmudgeon's Corner (Mark Whittington)
Selenian Boondocks
Tales of the Heliosphere
Out Of The Cradle
Space For Commerce (Brian Dunbar)
True Anomaly
Kevin Parkin
The Speculist (Phil Bowermaster)
Spacecraft (Chris Hall)
Space Pragmatism (Dan Schrimpsher)
Eternal Golden Braid (Fred Kiesche)
Carried Away (Dan Schmelzer)
Laughing Wolf (C. Blake Powers)
Chair Force Engineer (Air Force Procurement)
Saturn Follies
JesusPhreaks (Scott Bell)
The Ombudsgod
Cut On The Bias (Susanna Cornett)
Joanne Jacobs

Site designed by

Powered by
Movable Type
Biting Commentary about Infinity, and Beyond!

« More Katrina Commentary | Main | Nice Try, But No Cigar »

Junk Science In The Classroom

Jay Manifold says we should teach the controversy. Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne write that we shouldn't "teach both sides," because one side is wrong. Well, in terms of science, that's certainly the case. And here's an interesting essay by John Poulos, who wonders why many Christians can believe in spontaneous order in the free market, but not in biology:

And what's true at the personal level is true at the industrial level. Somehow there are enough ball bearings and computer chips in just the right places in factories all over the country.

The natural question... is who designed this marvel of complexity? Which commissar decreed the number of packets of dental floss for each retail outlet?

The answer, of course, is that no economic god designed this system. It emerged and grew by itself, a stunningly obvious example of spontaneously evolving order. No one argues that all the components of the candy bar distribution system must have been put into place at once, or else there would be no Snickers at the corner store...

[Both of the latter links via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at September 08, 2005 07:51 AM
TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference this post from Transterrestrial Musings.

I would lean towards teaching controversy - as he said, at least they would learn that they need to decide for themselves.

I think you're wrong when you say that in terms of science one side is wrong - I think we can really safely say that both sides are wrong! Unless someone has been talking directly to God again (on either side!)

Posted by David Summers at September 8, 2005 08:43 AM

Has anyone checked with Shirley McLaine lately?

Posted by Mac at September 8, 2005 09:53 AM

I tend to fall back to evolution with God in charge, but it seems to me that there is a basic flaw in Paulos' comparison of the industrial supply network and evolution: while no intelligence may have been in charge of its overall development, intelligence was present all through its development in reacting to market conditions (see a need, meet it). At every level, someone saw a demand and decided to create the supply.

Just sayin'.


Posted by Scott at September 8, 2005 11:34 AM

Teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in the classroom as a substantive scientific theory should be absolutely out of the question. However, Why not let them "teach the controversy" in the same way they currently teach Lamark's theory of evolution (at least when I last took biology): as an unscientific theory which simply cannot be substantiated by the facts on the ground. This would help provide students with a deeper understanding of how eveloution works, and give them the ability to recognize and reject junk science.

Regardless, while Poulos' analogy seems plausible at first, it has a huge flaw in it. The free market is a human invention, and it is thus an intelligently designed system. While there is no single god that has designed it, there have been, and still are, many designers who are at once PART of the system and designers OF the system. The first people who ever traded one good for another had a huge hand in designing the system, as did the first person to domesticate an animal, let certain agricultural fields lie fallow, devised a division of labor, implemented an assembly line, etc. The free market's greatest strength is the fact that it is designed and operated by many intelligent people, rather than just a few. That is why it works so well.

All of the changes that have taken place within all of the free econonomies of the world, have done so because different intelligent designers, who had an intimate understanding of the system, implemented a new design. One could argue that an economic version of "natural selection" allowed for those designs to spread throughout the system, and I would agree with that. But the original design modifications were deliberate, not random. Our current free market economy is therefore, by definition, an intelligently designed system, even if it was not all designed at the same time and by a single "god".

I believe it's true that our free market system works well because of the evolution of human intelligence. But the analogy that Poulos outlines would suggest that modifications to our economies are not by design, but are rather, completely random. In other words, human intelligence and the success of the free market are mutually exclusive. Does anybody here really buy that?

Nice try, but bad analogy. Poulos might as well have been arguing for ID rather than against it.

Posted by kayawanee at September 8, 2005 11:37 AM

Scott, so you saw that too, huh? You're a more effecient capitalist than I am though. You were able to explain in one small paragraph, what it took me an entire essay to convey!

Posted by kayawanee at September 8, 2005 11:56 AM


Thanks. Think of it as the Cliff Notes version.

Posted by Scott at September 8, 2005 07:08 PM

You do realize that individual intelligneces order economic systems, don't you? ID, as expressed by Dembski and others makes no claims to the nature of the designer. A group of intelligences doing the designing would be just as relevant as one intellignece.

Posted by Jon Jackson at September 8, 2005 09:11 PM

so, what is intelligence?

You say that the economic system has been designed by a lot of small narrow-field _intelligent_ beings on the basis of "see a need, meet it" -functionality.

In evolution that becomes "live next to an ecological niche, adapt to it".

Does intelligent design thus become closer evolution? I wonder if the ID theorists can give so much way as to say that that the whole thing could have been done by multiple intelligent designers. Give a finger to the devil, and it'll take your hand! :)

Posted by meiza at September 9, 2005 07:11 AM

You say that the economic system has been designed by a lot of small narrow-field _intelligent_ beings on the basis of "see a need, meet it" -functionality.

The Clinton administration

Posted by Mac at September 9, 2005 08:30 AM

To the Christian Right that is willing to accept spontaneous order in the free market but not in biological systems must be added the Secular Left - particularly the part composed of environmental extremists - that accepts spontaneous order in biological systems but not in economic ones.

Dawkins once acknowledged that economic systems were isomorphic with biological ones but then, in a distinctly unscientific way, said that it would be wrong to not intervene in the economic ones. Why would this be? Fact is, when Dawkins strays into the area of politics/economics, he sounds rather like a fundamentalist Christian.

I think my 11th Law of the Universe is that all dogmas are created equal - equally bad.

Posted by Paul Hager at September 9, 2005 08:47 AM


You stated: "In evolution that becomes 'live next to an ecological niche, adapt to it'."

In terms of natural selection, what you say is true. This is why I included that in my post where I noted:

"One could argue that an economic version of "natural selection" allowed for those designs to spread throughout the system, and I would agree with that. But the original design modifications were deliberate, not random."

While I don't want to minimize your statement about adaptation, the primary drivers of evolution are "natural selection" and "random mutation". Adaptation is key to the natural selection process (i.e. the survival of organisms who have the ability to adapt (via good DNA) will survive).

But adaptation does not affect the modification of DNA. If it did, then Lamark's theories, debunked by Darwin himself, might have been correct. Rather, it only permits those random modifications to survive, procreate, and possibly dominate the niche it occupies. Random mutation, with regard to the free market system, is missing. There is nothing random about the design implementations we've seen in our economic system. These modification are quite intentional.

This can create some confusion, but it is important to recognize the difference between a system which is AFFECTED BY and is the RESULT OF biological evolution and a system that OPERATES AS biological evolution.

The free market is the RESULT OF, and it is AFFECTED BY, biological evolution. Its process, however, does not OPERATE AS biological evolution.

That's why I suggested that Poulos' analogy was flawed.

Posted by kayawanee at September 9, 2005 10:37 AM

yes, the analogy has some flaws but has some right principles - it shows that extremely complex interconnected systems can arise without central planning. The exact low level methods are not that important in my view, although they of course should be noted.

Come to think of it, that is also somewhat true about the brain. The number of genes is only measured in tens of thousands, while a human has over a hundred billion brain cells. They must be assembled on the fly and tested and whatnot with just some simple principles and as a result... the whole system just works. That is very remarkable, I would think everyone who has kids would be amazed by that.

The whole "complex from simple" phenomenon is what the scientific area of cybernetics is researching, and they haven't got yet very far on understanding all that mathematically. But evidence of it happening in the real world all the time on all scales is overwhelming.

Posted by meiza at September 9, 2005 11:07 AM

I must add, emerging complexity is a very counter-intuitive phenomenon.

The guys researching artificial mathematical (non-linear) sigmoid neurons in the sixties made a conjecture that adding layers to a neural network wouldn't do anything interesting.

Well, later with computers they were easier to simulate and guess what - interesting phenomenon started to happen - adding layers does generate different behaviour.

It's an example of a counter-intuitive emergent behaviour that definitely happens.

the preprocessor caught the word *nline from non*inear...

Posted by meiza at September 9, 2005 11:14 AM

It's fine to be in awe of emerging complexity such as the brain, but you can't disregard the fact that it comes from specific initial conditions (very specific if we accept chaos theory which there seems no reason to doubt.)

Because the complexity seems wondrous we have a tendency to look at that(the magicians left hand) while not giving enough consideration to the initial conditions (the magician right.) Those specific conditions defy randomness. Gradualism doesn't cut it and punctuated equalibrium is more of a joke. It just doesn't make sense to say given enough time the ball will roll uphill. It won't and more time is not the answer.

Evolution has a known possible mechanism (unknown to Darwin.) Once you know the mechanism it is analyzable with mathmatical methods. Those analysis are within the realm of science and certainly debatable. That is a scientific debate and no amount of poo-poohing or authoritive voice can silence that debate.

[rant on]
What should be taught in public schools is a different issue. Me, I'm a Readin', 'ritin' and 'rithmatic sort of guy. In grade school it's the methodology of science that should be taught, not the conclusions. Teaching conclusions is propaganda, regardless of where you fall in the debate. Most kids in grade school aren't prepaired for too much critical thinking, mainly because their brains ain't fully cooked yet. But they can be taught to reason and see flaws in reason... those are the fundamentals that should be taught. Then they wouldn't put up with the crap that goes as journalism these days.

[rant off]

Posted by ken anthony at September 9, 2005 07:33 PM

The kids and even adults can't possibly verify all kinds of claims they are being fed.

Take anything you learned at school or work or you read in the morning paper - it's not very soundly based. The workload would make it impossible to learn even the simplest thing.

It's just so that one has to somehow select what to teach and it's better to teach the right things that are as close as possible to reality. The process of what is teached is always going to be somewhat arbitrary but hey, we're not living in a perfect world. You can't make it perfect.

So teach the scientific method, but _also_ teach that the earth is round, that you can avoid sexual diseases by using a condom or by not having sex. Teach evolution and natural selection, teach that pi is not exactly three, etc etc..

Human life and intelligence is limited, and one has to cut some corners. That's just how it goes.

Posted by meiza at September 10, 2005 06:17 AM

Meiza, you stated:

"yes, the analogy has some flaws but has some right principles - it shows that extremely complex interconnected systems can arise without central planning. The exact low level methods are not that important in my view, although they of course should be noted."

Your first sentence is EXACTLY right. We've all seen this many times. VERY large systems that are centrally planned, whether they be command economies, or bureaucratic monstrosities like FEMA, are fraught with flaws. Maybe there is great wisdom in The old cliche: "Two heads are better than one."

But I have to take issue with second sentence, which attempts to minimize the importance of modifications (whether random or intentional) to the system. Both the modifcation and the spread of that modification throughout the system are of EQUAL importance. Evolutionary transition CANNOT occur if modifications aren't being made, nor could it happen if those modifications weren't becoming dominant because of natural selection. If either the mutation/modification process or the selection process were removed from the equation, transition within the system would NOT occur.

So I must disagree with your view that the low level methods are not that important. The acceleration of change is irrelevent if no change actually occurs. This equation says it all:

0 * x = 0

Zero times "x" is still zero, no matter what the value of "x" happens to be.

Posted by kayawanee at September 10, 2005 06:51 AM


"'s better to teach the right things that are as close as possible to reality."

But what reality? Many that oppose the existence of any god (and the bible opposes worship of gods that were lifeless excrement covered pieces of rock or wood... the set of which includes meteors with domes built over them) they simple assume there is no god and any other possibility is unthinkable and wrong.

The waters get muddied when you add the argument of, 'Does a creator exist?' Whether a creator exists or not is a conclusion. Regardless of the IDers motives (the assumption being that the agenda is to put the creator front and center... a reasonable conclusion I would say) the fundamental question is, is the mechanism of evolution in fact so. It's a legitimate question.

I would say learn calculus and statistics first (something my college physics professor always lamented is that his students came to college without enough math to take his course.) Some critical reasoning skills and some cosmology wouldn't hurt either. Genesis 2:4 clearing uses the hebrew word for day to refer to an era which includes the creative 'days.' Nowhere does the bible contradict a solar system 5 billion years old, or a universe 3 or 4 times that age. It simply claims in came to be sometime in the past.

Posted by ken anthony at September 10, 2005 06:51 AM

The marketplace is indeed an evolving and complex system. You see a lot of smarts in it which were not preset on start, which is what the ID concept is about. Those here which say that because the market has people inside it means it must be ID as well are turning the ID concept into something utterly meaningless. Not that it had a lot of meaning in it to begin with.

Current ID theory presupposes some entity, outside the system, which designed everything in advance. This is indeed akin to a central planner in a command and control economy.

Our current market based economic system works quite differently. The idea is to let things evolve on their own. Any evolving traits considered to be harmful are then repressed by external pressure (taxes, jail, death penalty, etc). Traits considered to be good are encouraged by external pressure (subsidies, tax cuts, etc).

There is external control, but it is soft control, rather than hard control.

Posted by Gojira at September 10, 2005 08:04 AM

Another thing: ID theory is utterly useless as science because it provides no insight into the mechanisms of evolution and speciation, which is what matters if we are to achieve control over Nature in this area.

Man has been in a constant struggle with Nature to increase his fitness to survive in this harsh environment. Some seem to think we are fit enough. This is not so. You just have to watch the effects of Katrina or the Asian Tsunami to see how feeble our current amount of control over Nature really is. If Man is truly to be able to master its own environment, we need to do better than this.

To me, our greatest challenges are first how to get cheap and plentiful energy for all, next to spread out of this rock to prevent any major disaster from wiping us all out.

Posted by Gojira at September 10, 2005 08:14 AM

to kayawanee:
Yes, there needs to be an low-level process of "progress" or whatever, otherwise the high-level "progress" doesn't happen.

The low level progress could be a totally or partially blind try-until-you-succeed process or a planning process. It doesn't hurt that much if the process is a really low yield one, if the number of tries is very big.

I actually think a lot of that happens in the company world, take a look at the huge amount of small shops that try to survive at some spots. Sometimes a shop works and is successful, sometimes it doesn't get customers or is slightly in the wrong place or something else goes wrong and it must close it's doors. Maybe try to think or even hire consultants to figure in advance if a shop would do well there, but you can never take into account all the factors.
The businesses that happen to be working, are there still after ten years and form a part of the macroeconomic system. Maybe they even grow to bigger companies, open other shops and transform a lot on the way, or move or whatever suits the situation.

Sure, a lot of it is planned in the company world but a lot of it isn't.

That happens even with specific product design. You have some customer niche that is free, and you do different versions of your product and bang your head against the problem until then one product is succesful on the market. If you ask ten people in the company why the product is like what it is, you get ten very different answers. I've heard such stories about how hard it is to find out afterwards why a designed product is like what it is. The story with the most glamour and heroism gets printed in the company history. The unsuccessful products run over by a competitor's solution are barely mentioned.

To ken anthony:
I'm sorry to say but those questions about god or bible are quite irrelevant in my mind when talking about evolution or if it should be taught in schools. Evolution is quite close to the truth of what is happening and has happened in the world, has reasonable evidence and should be taught in schools.

Posted by meiza at September 10, 2005 08:22 AM

Post a comment

Email Address: