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  #1  
Unread August 14th, 2006, 10:41 PM
Carey N Carey N is offline
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Default Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

This is a satisfying rant about the state of affairs in public science education - probably most of you have read it already, but if not . . . .

NY Times Article
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  #2  
Unread August 15th, 2006, 12:02 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

When it comes to the age of things, the ignorance, and/or intellectual dishonesty/lack of rigor, and/or denial, of the young earth creationists is readily discernable, and their young-earth POV is obviously and laughably erroneous to anyone with merely a superficial understanding of geology and cosmology. So it’s hard for me to get too upset over a Kansas school board chairman/veterinarian who also happens to believe that God created the universe 6,500 years ago. (He apparently “compartmentalizes,” as they say.)

Additionally, what many of these folk are actually fighting is the blatant atheism that many neo-Darwinian proponents, e.g. Dawkins, insist biological evolution mandates. So, IMO, it’s pretty much a bullshit debate. Besides, I’d guess that the veterinarian/school board chairman referred to in the article probably has the highest regard for the importance of basic math and science, which is really where so many American kids are failing, and which is really the scientific/mathematical “illiteracy” that we need to be concerned about; not whether they’ve bought into the Dawkins neo-Darwinian view of a directionless evolution.

I’d say there’s lots of ignorance, and/or disingenuousness, and/or agendas on both sides of this issue. A blatant example on the pro Darwinian side is in the article itself when the author, regarding what he says is a “remarkable misunderstanding of the nature of the scientific method,” and that we use “evidence from the past in formulating hypotheses,” asserts that, “This is how we distinguish theories that work, like evolution or gravitation.”

But lumping “evolution” and “gravitation” into so-called “theories that work” is a disingenuous, misleading non sequitur—“evolution” and “gravity” are different things. The reality is simply that the available evidence indicates that life, like everything else in the universe, evolved over time—“evolution,” essentially, is simply a fact, and the actual question/issue is by what mechanisms life evolves. E.g., selection pressures imposed by the environment appear to be a factor. Gravity, OTOH, is a basic force of nature, and Newton’s laws of motion and gravity and Einstein’s general relativity are superb theories of gravity that provide equations that make (extraordinarily accurate) predictions, and that are obviously falsifiable.

Last edited by Fred H.; August 16th, 2006 at 09:23 AM.
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  #3  
Unread August 15th, 2006, 05:47 PM
Carey N Carey N is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

Quote:
what many of these folk are actually fighting is the blatant atheism . . .
Highly doubtful - they are fighting any notion that (they perceive) even remotely conflicts with their own beliefs. Among many with whom I've spoken, I have never encountered a single biology teacher who a) is remotely as hostile toward religion as religious zealots are toward evolution, or b) feels compelled to teach "atheism" in the classroom. Teaching evolution and teaching the view that there is no God are two completely different animals (This misconception is what drives the 'religiously enthusiastic' people in Kansas insane). I have, on the other hand, found many strong proponents of evolution (by natural selection) who still more or less independently maintain their own religious beliefs. Ken Miller is an excellent example.

Second, when the author compared gravitation to evolution, he was referring to the sense in which evolution is a flat fact, just like gravity. Many of the school board members who oppose evolution in the classroom actually believe that evolution (regardless of the mechanism) didn't/doesn't happen at all. Such a position is just as ludicrous as believing the world to be flat, or that there is no gravity.

Last edited by Carey N; August 16th, 2006 at 01:06 AM.
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  #4  
Unread August 16th, 2006, 09:19 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

Actually Carey, you have “encountered a biology teacher who is as hostile toward religion as religious zealots are toward evolution” and "feels compelled to teach 'atheism'"— Mr. Selfish Gene himself, Richard Dawkins, the highly credentialed Oxford zoologist and one of your most famous Darwinian gurus and spokesmen—recall his teachings:
Quote:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Regarding your sentiment that the author of the article was merely “referring to the sense in which evolution is a flat fact just like gravity,” I suggest you carefully reread what he actually, explicitly wrote: “This is how we distinguish theories that work, like evolution or gravitation.” See that?—theories, like evolution and gravity? (Is it just me or do you perhaps need to work a bit on your intellectual honesty and/or rigor?)
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  #5  
Unread August 16th, 2006, 11:12 AM
Carey N Carey N is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

1) Richard Dawkins's primary contributions to the field, such as 'Selfish Gene', made few reference to religion, which were not in a negative light. Granted, Dawkins has spoken quite aggressively against religion in other contexts, but to assume that his views are concordant with those of all (or even most) other evolutionary biologists, or with the everyday teachers in real science classrooms, is deeply inaccurate. In fact, many evolutionists resent his behavior - not necessarily because they embrace religion themselves, but because the evolution and religion don't usually belong in the same conversation, and certainly not in the same classroom.

2a) Whether or not he was referring to evolution in general, or to evolution by natural selection in particular, is not easy to discern because he used the word "theory". Either way, his message is correct. That evolution occurred is a fact. That the theory of natural selection works is undisputed among people who actually study this subject (and other people who don't study this subject professionally but are willing to honestly address it), both theoretically and empirically.

2b) Think again about gravitation. That gravity exists is indisputable, just like evolution. As to what causes gravitation - we have only theory, albeit very strong and well-supported theory. Guess what? The state of affairs with natural selection is similar: it is a theory regarding what causes adaptive evolution to occur, and it is supported by a massive amount of evidence. I think the NY Times author's comparison is pretty tight.

Last edited by Carey N; August 16th, 2006 at 04:31 PM.
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  #6  
Unread August 16th, 2006, 05:23 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

Quote:
Carey: Think again about gravitation. That gravity exists is indisputable, just like evolution. As to what causes gravitation - we have only theory, albeit very strong and well-supported theory. Guess what? The state of affairs with natural selection is similar: it is a theory regarding what causes adaptive evolution to occur, and it is supported by a massive amount of evidence. I think the NY Times author's comparison is pretty tight.
OK, sure, let’s think again about gravitation.

The question is not what “causes” gravitation, but more what gravitation is and do we understand it enough so as to predict it’s affect/effect—Newton said it was a “force” (and most of us still think of it that way), and his theory predicted planetary positions/orbits to, I think, maybe 6 or 7 decimal places. However, under Einstein’s general relativity, and his foundational principle of “equivalence,” gravitation is no longer regarded as a “force,” as was Newton’s gravity, but rather gravitation manifests itself as space-time curvature.

And using Einstein’s general relativity equations, Hulse and Taylor (received Nobel in 93) were able to predict and affirm the accuracy of the orbits of a double neutron star system to better than a trillionth percent precision (14 decimal places). As Penrose notes, Hulse and Taylor's work "makes Einstein’s general relativity, in this particular sense, the most accurately tested theory known to science."

Evolution OTOH, is really nothing more than a term that more or less encapsulates our observations from the available evidence—that life, over time, well, “evolves.” But then everything in the universe “evolves,” so BFD.

Of course now you mention “natural selection,” and I suppose that it does seem that various environments do impose selection pressures, similar perhaps in some ways to how various human breeders select for various traits in whatever they happen to be breeding; and it does seem that this so-called natural (unconscious) selection (as opposed to the “artificial conscious selection of human breeders) results in the selection of traits that are the most adaptive, the fittest. And sure enough, we always observe, over the long haul, that the fittest survive and reproduce, and the rest don’t—and we know that the ones that survive are the fittest b/c otherwise they’d not have survived.

And although I find the circularity of that “natural selection” somewhat troubling, you, as you’ve noted elsewhere, insist that the “apparent circularity [of natural selection] just isn't important at all.”

So I suppose that’s why you naively believe that natural selection is somehow comparable to an actual superb theory, like say gravity as explained by Einstein’s general relativity, which actually is “the most accurately tested theory known to science." Fine.
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  #7  
Unread August 16th, 2006, 06:30 PM
Carey N Carey N is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

Okay . . . by extension from this last post, I must ask what you think would actually qualify as a theory of evolution on par with Einstein's general relativity. Do you think that there is a set of tractable equations that could be used to predict the composition of earth's biota years from now? No, there isn't. The growth of a simple logistic population in isolation, much less the entire planet's biological composition, can be impossible to predict ten generations in the future.

A problem here seems to be that one needs more basic biology in order to think of the ways in which natural selection is a powerful unifying concept.

To take a basic example: how would you explain the existence of vestigial structures, without invoking natural selection as a process that steers populations along the shortest possible route to an adaptive peak?


Quote:
I suppose that it does seem that various environments do impose selection pressures
Yes, many other people suppose the same thing . . . you go on to say that you find the circularity of natural selection troubling. How do you find it troubling? How could the presence of adaptations be better explained, in your opinion?

Last edited by Carey N; August 16th, 2006 at 09:57 PM.
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  #8  
Unread August 16th, 2006, 11:20 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

Quote:
Carey: To take a basic example: how would you explain the existence of vestigial structures, without invoking natural selection as a process that steers populations along the shortest possible route to an adaptive peak?
Hey, even though “natural selection” is circular and ultimately doesn’t really predict or truly explain all that much (sort of like “emergence”), it currently seems to be about all you Darwinian biologists have come up with, and it does seem to be somewhat instructive, at least in a circular kind of way, so I guess I’d explain them their “vestigial structures” about the same way I’d explain testicles/ovaries on the issue of a mare and a jackass—shit happens, sometimes shit gets selected, and sometimes we’re just left with needless shit.

As I’ve noted previously, Ernst Mayr has acknowledged that, “biology is not the same sort of thing as the physical sciences,” and that the “philosophy of biology has a totally different basis than the theories of physics.” So maybe we won’t see a whole lot coming out of the “philosophy of biology,” that provides the predictive power, understanding, and coherence of the discoveries and theories that come out of the physical sciences, especially if those doing biology are actually convinced that their natural selection is in any substantial way comparable to, say, Einstein’s superb general relativity/theory of gravity.

I’d say that Darwinians need to be a bit more modest and circumspect regarding what they think they actually know and what the available science and the evidence actually tells us regarding the origin and evolution of life (and the universe too for that matter), and regarding the limitations and occasional circularity of their various theories/explanations/assumptions; and thereby avoid half-ass notions like “evolution”—or natural selection for that matter—being comparable in any substantial way to the superb theory of gravitation; and maybe also avoid making arrogant assumptions and decrees like Mr. Selfish Gene Dawkins’s, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose [blah, blah, blah].”
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  #9  
Unread August 16th, 2006, 11:51 PM
Carey N Carey N is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

This was my question, which you ignored (because you don't have an answer, I suspect - but please, prove me wrong):
Quote:
Originally Posted by Carey
Yes, many other people suppose the same thing . . . you go on to say that you find the circularity of natural selection troubling. How do you find it troubling? How could the presence of adaptations be better explained, in your opinion?
You certainly bark a whole lot about the insufficiency of natural selection, and yet you can offer not even a hint of something else to take its place.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Fred
shit happens, sometimes shit gets selected, and sometimes we’re just left with needless shit.
The words of a true polymath. Bravo.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Fred
what the available science and the evidence actually tells us regarding the origin and evolution of life (and the universe too for that matter)
If biologists are so delusional, then why don't you enlighten us about what "the evidence actually tells us regarding the origin and evolution of life"? If you address one part of this post, it should be this. Don't just rant again about the conceptual circularity of selection. Everyone acknowledges that natural selection is an algorithm, not a set of deterministic equations. The living world is too complicated to allow for prediction of future states with great precision. Get over it.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Fred
Mr. Selfish Gene Dawkins’s, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose [blah, blah, blah].”
Stop referencing Dawkins; he's not an unconditional spokesperson for the rest of evolutionary biology. His explication of the way in which selection operates was very important, but his views on religion, the universe, etc. are mainly media affairs, and don't relate to the science of evolution.

Last edited by Carey N; August 17th, 2006 at 10:02 AM.
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  #10  
Unread August 17th, 2006, 04:57 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Battle Against Scientific Illiteracy

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Carey: Everyone acknowledges that natural selection is an algorithm, not a set of deterministic equations.
I don’t know that I’d necessarily “acknowledge that natural selection is an algorithm.” In the context/tone in which you’re using the term here, do you mean a so-called “non-deterministic algorithm,” as opposed to a “deterministic algorithm? You seem to be opening up a can of worms that we probably don’t want to get into. Anyway, I thought your POV was that things are deterministic, although unpredictable by us humans due to various limitations (and also except that we humans do seem to have amount of free will)?

Regarding what "the evidence actually tells us regarding the origin and evolution of life," well, here it is, again:

We sapient beings find ourselves in a universe that began about 14 billion years ago, apparently from a singularity, with inexplicably low entropy. Life on Earth seems to have begun around 4 billion years ago, but for most of that time not much seemed to be “evolving” except for single cell stuff and some algae . . . until the “Cambrian Explosion,” a little over ½ billion years ago, when lineages of almost all animals we see today, rather suddenly, appeared . . . and today, somehow, voila, we sapient beings find that we exist.

Why the sudden explosion and why we sapient beings? Well, for one thing, only b/c of the extraordinary 'specialness' of the Big Bang and the absurdly low entropy of the universe that we sapient beings find ourselves in, a universe where where such "Cambrian explosions" and sapient beings are even possible, and perhaps even inevitable, depending on one’s views regarding determinism.

But beyond that, who Knows? As noted at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/li...034_02.html—
Quote:
Interpretations of this critical period are subject of lively debate among scientists like Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University and Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University. Gould emphasizes the role of chance. He argues that if one could "rerun the tape" of that evolutionary event, a completely different path might have developed and would likely not have included a humanlike creature. Morris, on the other hand, contends that the environment of our planet would have created selection pressures that would likely have produced similar forms of life to those around us -- including humans.
And so there you have it—some Darwinians say the explosion and sapient beings are the result mostly of chance, while some contend that the explosion and sapient beings are here b/c our planet would have created selection pressures to make it so (although exactly why our planet would necessarily be predisposed to behave that way doesn't seem to be too clear)
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