Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Another View of Science

I received this email message from Arv Edgeworth. It represents a serious point of view held by a large number of people. He gave me permission to post it. I'll respond in the comments.
I'm not a scientist, nor a professor of science, nor a son of a scientist, but I do love science.  I have collected over 150 science textbooks, that run from 1934 to 2006.  I'm responding to your article: "Do Graduate Students Understand Evolution?"  My greatest concern isn't that students views of evolution are flawed.  My greatest concern is not just with the students, but with professors as well, not understanding the limits of science.  I'm concerned that most professors at universities could not tell you where their science ends, and their philosophical worldview begins.  I believe modern science has a blindspot.  Sad to say, real science isn't what it used to be.

As the old science joke says: "Tell me who is funding the research, and I'll tell you the result."  I believe there are certain assumptions that the majority of scientists start out with today, based on their philosophical worldview, not the scientific evidence.  They interpret all the evidence in light of their worldview, then use their interpretation of the evidence as proof that their worldview is correct. Starting with different assumptions will always result in different conclusions.  My concern is that the majority of students, scientists, and professors of science cannot separate what they know from what they just believe, and I doubt if they would recognize the difference.

The amount of speculation and opinion that is being passed off as fact today in the name of science boggles the mind.  Scientific inquiry is being stiffled as students are not truly being trained how to think, they are just being told what to think.  Students many times are being indoctrinated, not educated.

I'm sure you are enamored with evolution theory, but why are trillions of dollars in funding and research being spent on trying to prove this theory is true, and we still don't have a cure for cancer?  Or do we?  I guess that could be debated.  After all, there is a lot of money in it.  How many scientists just spent 17 years trying to put Ardi's bones together from fossilized pieces of bone that were squished to smithereens and so badly decayed that a single touch turned the bones to dust?  One group of scientists gave conclusions of ape characteristics and one group gave conclusions of human characteristics.  Must be a "missing link."  I'm sure you probably dislike that term.  Could each group have had presuppositions?  I'm sorry but I have a hard time justifying this nonsense, and for what?  I had a dog that spent its whole life digging in the ground for bones too, but I never thought the government should pay his salary.


28 comments :

  1. There are several different issues here.

    The most important point is one I agree with. Scientists often have a particular worldview that colors their interpretation of the data. We see that in the recent analysis of Ardi and we see it in the differing opinions of pluralists and adaptationists.

    It's normal for people in general—and scientists in particular—to have strong opinions and to promote them vigorously. The difference between science and other activities is that in science you have to convince your peers. In the long run you will only be successful if you have evidence and rationality on your side.

    Science is a way of knowing but it's a collective way of knowing. Science advances slowly by consensus. Bad ideas will be weeded out but only after they've been given a proper hearing.

    Really bad ideas have a short lifespan in the scientific community but, still, it takes a village to recognize an idiot.

    It's true that many scientists promote bad ideas and it's true that they somethimes indoctrinate their students with these bad ideas instead of teaching them how to think critically.

    Having said that, I think people like Andrew over-interpret the behavior of scientist as human beings. When it comes to major well-established facts like evolution and the basic outlines of the history of life there's no disagreement among scientists. The same applies to the main tenants of evolutionary theory.

    Those sorts of things have survived the winnowing process. That's why a "theory" in science is something that has proven to be robust and confirmed to such an extent that it can be provisionally accepted as a true model of how things work.

    The last point that Andrew makes concerns the value of knowledge seeking. He wonders why he should have to pay the salaries of people who are trying to understand how the universe works. I'm certain he would not be raising any objection if these same scientists were to prove conclusively that evolution is a farce and Intelligent Design Creationism is the only explanation.

    That's the problem with funding basic research. Sometimes the discoveries conflict with your pre-conceived notions of how things should work. It can be unsettling to learn that God might not have done it after all.

    That's no reason to put a brake on the quest for knowledge. Surely knowledge is better than ignorance and an advanced society should support learning and discovery no matter what the consequences?

    What's the alternative?

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  2. The last point that Andrew makes concerns the value of knowledge seeking.

    Another point I think should be made in response to this old chestnut, in addition to your excellent response, is that quite often discoveries of major practical value emerge from research that initially appeared to be purely curiosity-driven, and indeed could NOT have emerged by being aimed at directly. I was quite happy to hear Prof. Greider make this point very clearly to the press when interviewed about her Nobel-winning work.

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  3. While I agree with Larry, I think that the email raises an interesting point that I wonder about often: how do you decide which part of science to allocate our finite budget to? The ideal answer is "we give money to whoever has the better research program, for a certain definition of "better". That might be the fairest way, but in the eyes of many people, not the best. I happen to like research on exoplanets --but if I had cancer, I'd be the first one to say "f**k astronomers, I want that money to go into medical research".

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  4. "The amount of speculation and opinion that is being passed off as fact today in the name of science boggles the mind."

    Steve Gould has an essay in Hens Teeth and Horses Toes that touches on this point ('Quaggas, Coiled Oysters, and Flimsy Facts'). In it, he states something that is one of my favourite lines in the entire book:

    "Sturdy facts are pervasive patterns in nature, not individual peculiarities."

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  5. I'm sure you are enamored with evolution theory, but why are trillions of dollars in funding and research being spent on trying to prove this theory is true, and we still don't have a cure for cancer?

    What universe does this character live in, that basic "curiosity-driven" research is funded so much better than health-related research? I do not recognize that universe.

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  6. What universe does this character live in, that basic "curiosity-driven" research is funded so much better than health-related research?

    Why, the wingnut universe, of course. The one in which facts are stupid things

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  7. I'm sure you are enamored with evolution theory, but why are trillions of dollars in funding and research being spent on trying to prove this theory is true, and we still don't have a cure for cancer?

    Trillions of dollars? On trying to prove evolution? What color is the sky on the planet where fundegelicals live? I think if you put together all the money which is set aside for science research of all branches in the entire world, you might get a trillion a year. Of that, basically nothing is being spent on trying to "prove evolution" any more than money is being spent on mathematical research to prove the multiplication tables.

    (Is there any way we can get some of that money from planet fundie over here on Earth? The right wingers have screwed up the world's economies something terrible over the last couple of decades, and the money would come in very handy about now...)

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  8. When people question the value of basic research, I always like to point out that technological advances are predicated on the output of such research.

    One of the best examples, at least in physics, is a paper written by Albert Einstein in which he described a phenomena called stimulated emission of photons. At the time, it appeared to be something of only academic interest. However, I suspect that Mr. Edgeworth, in all probability, typed his email message to Prof. Moran on a computer that had either a CD or a DVD drive. Guess what, those devices utilize a laser, the theoretical basis of which was first described in Einsteins' paper.

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  9. The writer also seems to be doing the old, "kids these days are [something worse] than when I was a kid," routine by presupposing that scientists in the past were less ideologically driven than they are now.

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  10. Cancer is not one disease. There are lots of kinds of cancer caused by lots of different things. Ignoring the fact we can 'cure' numerous kinds of cancers today that we couldnt treat 20 years ago, the research done in my lab, which requires evolution, will one day help treat certain kinds of cancer.

    It also could help diagnose early, if not treat multiple sclerosis.

    It might have more implications that we are currently unaware of.

    My research, personally, requires evolution, and will lead towards a viable, logical HIV-1 vaccine. After some recent totally unrelated vaccine trials, Im more confident of that than ever.

    Furthermore, we have used evolution in studying HIV-1 that has given us insight into how our immune system works, which in turn, helps us treat other diseases... Like cancer.

    How many cures for cancer has evangelism given us?


    And as far as 'money' goes-- I wonder if he has a clue how much scientists actually make. How much we make relative to the years of education we have.

    To be perfectly frank, Mr. Edgeworth, Im a genius. I can, and do, do whatever I want. If I wanted to be a billionaire, I would have not chosen 'scientist' as my career path. Im 26, trying to cure HIV/AIDS and certain kinds of cancer, and I make ~$19,000 a year.

    How much do *you* make a year, Mr. Edgeworth?

    *frown*

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  11. I am reminded of the wonderful TV Series Connections, narrated by James Burke. For each episode he would trace the progress of one idea through history. I recall that he would take special delight in including research that had received a "Golden Fleece" award from U.S. Senator William Proxmire.

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  12. I recall that he would take special delight in including research that had received a "Golden Fleece" award from U.S. Senator William Proxmire.

    A tradition faithfully carried on by John McCain and Sarah Palin.

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  13. Abby nailed it right on the head - cancer isn't' a single disease, its dozens, if not hundreds, of separate diseases. And we've made tremendous progress in treating some forms of it - when was the last time you heard of someone dying of stomach cancer. 50 years ago it was among the most common kind of cancer.

    I think the underlying tone of this paper pretty accurately reflects a common public opinion - not just one of creationists. I don't think many people appreciate that basic research is needed before we can take more "directed" approaches to finding cures for diseases. After all, how do you figure out something is broken when you don't know how it works in the first place?

    I currently study apoptosis, and prior to that I did immunology. While I suspect many here make more use of evolutionary theory than I do, understanding it has played an important part in both projects. Even simple analysis like homology searches are predicated on a huge body of evolutionary knowledge.

    Larry aksa "What's the alternative?"

    We all know the answer to that - all humanity suffered through untold millennia of the "alternative".

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  14. "The amount of speculation and opinion that is being passed off as fact today in the name of science boggles the mind."

    This passage speaks to an ongoing conversation about the nature of science I have with a few friends of mine that are not science-minded. They so lack science fundamentals that it becomes impossible for them to fathom how science could possibly make a statement like "the universe is expanding." Then after you explain the doppler effect, they begin to understand its implications.

    I've even had conversations about Ardi with other molecular biologists incredulous of anthropologists' ability to discern mating habits from incomplete skeletons.

    I'd attribute the problem equally to ignorance and lack of imagination.

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  15. I've come across this rather short sighted argument in various forms - including in much different wording on our campus about natural vs. health sciences. Students come into health science fields in probably a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio because they are known careers. Resources get moved to support those students, leaving your biology program look like a pre-med/nursing/therapy program.

    How is this relevant? Without the "basic" research, how is medicine even a real academic field? What those that argue against basic research presuppose is that they can predict or know what research avenues are going to have eventual implications to applications like medicine. Of course they can't and it is research that basically nobody other than the government can fund sufficiently since the return on investment is unlikely and untimely.

    Additionally, where are we as a society if we don't understand the basics of the world around us? Ardi might have little eventual applications but aren't we richer for knowing about Ardi? Could we survive without my field of ecology? Probably, but it wouldn't be the same world.

    As for the idea that there are biases inherent to scientists that show up in their work; while there is some truth to that statement, science also has a great way to separate facts and ideology...which is exactly why many don't see the value in basic science.

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  16. Steve LaBonne says,

    Another point I think should be made in response to this old chestnut, in addition to your excellent response, is that quite often discoveries of major practical value emerge from research that initially appeared to be purely curiosity-driven, and indeed could NOT have emerged by being aimed at directly.

    That's just another way of saying that the only value in basic science is that it contributes to new technological advances.

    I'd like to avoid that argument altogether. We should value basic science in the same way we value the study of philosophy, history, and music.

    They all contribute to our knowledge of what's true and what's not.

    And that's a good thing all by itself. Anything else is just icing on the cake.

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  17. Well, several have pointed out that there are not trillions of dollars being spent on paleontology research, or even biomedical research. The other thing that needs to be said is that no serious scientist is trying to "prove" the theory of evolution. Current research related to evolution largely concerns the historical details (what happened during common descent) and mechanism (how evolution happened). This is not to say that we don't keep proving the theory of common descent over and over again. It's just that this typically happens when we're doing other things, like sequencing genomes.

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  18. Yes, everyone has presuppositions. But not all presuppositions are equal. Some presuppositions are necessary conventions, like definitions in science. You don't have to prove that the kelvin is 1/273.16 of the temperature of the triple point of water. You presuppose it and accept it by definition.

    Other presuppositions are ill-formed, often directly contradicting things for which we do have evidence, like the presupposition that the earth is 6000 years old.

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  19. Now, to be fair, my understanding is that one piece of research aimed at disproving evolution has had considerable success. Chap by the name of Mendel, though it's a bit of a conjecture exactly what he was aiming at. In terms of antievolution it came rather unstuck with the modern evolutionary synthesis about 80 years after the research, but in terms of science he was onto a winner!

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  20. That's just another way of saying that the only value in basic science is that it contributes to new technological advances.

    Not in my mind- I think your defense is the primary justification of curiosity-driven research. But I don't think it hurts to point out- to the people who pay the bills- that there are added benefits.

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  21. Based on what I learned about evangelist Dr. Arv Edgeworth at www.truthandscience.net/endorsements.htm
    my response to Edgeworth is

    Thank you Arv Edgeworth for your email; however, I have taken the liberty of correcting one of the many errors in your message:

    "The amount of speculation and opinion that is being passed off as fact today in the name of [religion] boggles the mind. Scientific inquiry is being stiffled as [people] are not truly being trained how to think, they are just being told what to think. [People] many times are being indoctrinated [by evangelists], not educated."

    Dogs bark, but I never thought the government should give them tax free status for barking.

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  22. My name is Arv Edgeworth, I'm not sure where you got Andrew from Larry.

    The trillions of dollars I spoke of was of course not in one particular year, but over the course of time. But I'm sure the liberals in Washington would be glad to print up that much if you need it. What's another trillion dollars to add to the national debt?

    Larry Moran said: "The difference between science and other activities is that in science you have to convince your peers."

    Let me see if I have this straight. A scientist who is a scientific naturalist, has to convince other scientific naturalists that scientific naturalism is true. That must be quite an undertaking.

    Macroevolution has not contributed one thing to the field of science. The fact that things can adapt and change, or even natural selection, is not questioned by anyone. If that is what you mean by evolution," then no one disagrees with you. That is also not proof that humans came from complex chemicals in primordial soup. Mm Mm good! If that is all that is implied by the term "evolution," most people would probably be evolutionists.

    Ardi's bones were selected from about 36 possible skeletons, all in tiny and fragile pieces,all mixed together, mixed in with pieces of mammal bones, etc. What do you think their purpose was in putting that one skeleton together? Wouldn't have anything to do with their philosophical worldview would it? But you honestly don't believe they were trying to find a "missing link?"

    I love real science and love every field of it and would deny no one any funding. Most of you are probably underpaid and I commend you for your dedication. The majority of the science that gets published seems to have to do with somehow proving man evolved from a bacteria, or an ape-like ancestor.

    Apes (chimps & monkeys, etc.) went in a different direction from humans supposedly. Neanderthals, Cro-Magnon, Australopithecines, and Home-erectus are now considered by most to be nothing different than modern humans. There is just about a complete gap between humans and the supposed ape-like ancestor. The assumption that man evolved from "him" is not based on actual evidence, but only that assuption made by scientific naturalists. Separating what we know from what we just believe is sometimes a difficult endeavor.

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  23. Real science takes no position on religion. It is supposed to be neutral, not anti. If someone says creation is a myth, or the Bible is false they are not functioning from a science perspective, but according to their purely naturalistic worldview. Real science would make no such claims.

    To ERV, I am a retiree that makes similar to what you do. I hope you get a raise. Knowing how something works is not proof it was not designed. I won't bother to give examples.

    It's funny when someone disagrees with the microbe to man scenario, it must be because they just don't understand how it works. Kind of smacks of intellectualism. I've read the books, I just disagree with your conclusions. Have you read Darwin's Origin of Species, or Hutton's Theory of the Earth, or Lyell's Principles of Geology? You may borrow my copies if you would like. I have a great collection of science textbooks as well, over 150 of them.

    The theory of common descent has never been proven. You are looking at the evidence through a filter, which is your worldview. Interpreting all the evidence in light of that worldview is not proof the worldview is accurate.

    If an interpretation supports your worldview you receive it as truth, otherwise you will automatically reject it, instead of question your worldview.

    It is kind of like looking at evidence that seems to indicate design and purpose, but rejecting there is any evidence for design and purpose. It is also similar to saying that any scientist that does not accept Darwinian evolution is not really a true scientist, therefore all scientists believe in evolution. If a scientist does reject evolution on scientific grounds, just find some way of discrediting their credentials. After all, the majority scientific opinion has to rule.

    Can anyone think of a real difference between scientific naturalism and secular humanism, which has been ruled a religion by the US Supreme Court?

    Hey Veronica, sorry about your bad opinion of evangelists. Know any personally? You are not in the habit of stereotyping are you?

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  24. "Macroevolution has not contributed one thing to the field of science."

    Incorrect. There is this little tool that geneticists / molecular biologists use every day, even when they are unaware that they are using evolutionary theory. It is called a BLAST search, and requires common descent of all life forms for it's function. I would assume this is macroevolution by your definition?

    http://blast.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Blast.cgi

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  25. Mr. Edgeworth, it's obvious that the "real science" you've read has done nothing for your understanding or knowledge of actual science. Just as one example among many, multiple protein sequence alignments based on "macroevolution" have identified conserved pathways of information transfer in PDZ domains, subsequently validated by structural dynamics and thermodynamics experiments. Because these domains are quite common in signaling proteins in human beings, we may be able to develop treatments for a variety of illnesses by exploiting the unique instances of these pathways in specific proteins. They were shown to us not by prayer or interpreting protein sequence in the context of Genesis but by applying our knowledge and understanding of evolution.

    I feel the difference between scientific naturalism and secular humanism should be obvious. Secular humanism involves a set of moral beliefs believed to follow from the non-existence or irrelevance of god. "Scientific naturalism" is only the assumption that reality can be described by universal natural laws. This is a sine qua non of conducting any kind of research. Moreover, it is a principle you yourself use constantly because it is the logical tool we all use for learning, even learning how to use our own bodies. Despite your consistent use of this logical tool you apparently do not view yourself as a secular humanist; this should suggest to you that the two are quite different. Secular humanism derives moral conclusions from the assumption of scientific naturalism, but naturalism on its own does not include or imply any moral laws, because it is a way of building a descriptive picture of the universe, not a proscriptive one.

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  26. Steve LaBonne wrote:
    But I don't think it hurts to point out- to the people who pay the bills- that there are added benefits.

    I would go further than that and say that primary research may well be the highest return investment humanity has ever known. The fact that it takes a long time to turn a profit does not change this, although it does make it easier for demagogues and ignoramusses to muddy the waters.

    Surely this is something we should be making every effort to impress upon bean-counters of every description?

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  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  28. Arv Edgeworth: "Real science takes no position on religion. It is supposed to be neutral, not anti. If someone says creation is a myth, or the Bible is false they are not functioning from a science perspective, but according to their purely naturalistic worldview. Real science would make no such claims."

    Science does not explicitly go and trash religion, no. However, it does and has come up with models that run contrary to certain "religious" claims about certain things, like with evolutionary theory and the development of life. Evolutionary theory was not designed specifically to trample over religion, it's what turned out to be the best available theory to fit the evidence. That it contradicts a literalist, fundamentalist Christian type of viewpoint is not a deliberate "conspiracy" or anything, but rather where the evidence led. As the evidence continues to mount for it and already forms an impressive mountain, it would seem extremely likely that the religious claims are wrong. Religion must be reasonable. If it does not square with reason, it is wrong. Real religion should create peace, love, and happiness, not war and destruction. And if you believe in God (I'd guess you do, since you seem to be advocating a "religious" point of view), you have to admit that God gave us rational faculties. Don't you think He/She/It would want us to use them? Hmm.

    Arv Edgeworth: "The theory of common descent has never been proven. You are looking at the evidence through a filter, which is your worldview. Interpreting all the evidence in light of that worldview is not proof the worldview is accurate.

    If an interpretation supports your worldview you receive it as truth, otherwise you will automatically reject it, instead of question your worldview."

    No, I'd question the world view. The problem is, so far, all evidence presented to "question" evolutionary theory has not held up when subjected to rigorous examination. Once questions and evidence suggesting them are posed, they need to then be put through rigorous method to see if they really challenge the theory that is being called into question, in this case evolutionary theory. So do you have any evidence that contradicts evolutionary theory, or any good reason why the current evidence for it is not adequate to prove it to a high degree of certainty?

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