Friday, February 08, 2013

The Proper Role of Scientific Societies

Scientific societies are made up of groups of scientists who band together for various legitimate purposes such as organizing meetings, publishing journals, promoting their speciality, and lobbying for funds. The credibility of a society depends on its area of expertise. They lose credibility when they take positions on issues outside of their discipline.

That's why many of us have been opposed to the accommodationist positions of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and other societies. These societies have no special expertise in epistemology/philosophy or religion yet they openly proclaim that science and religion are compatible. They should be neutral on that question. A (slight) majority of Sandwalk readers agree, according to a poll I took a few years ago [What Should Scientific Organizations Say about Religion?].

I wasn't alone in adopting this position. Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers also think that scientific societies should keep their nose out of areas that are outside of their mandate. We are united when it comes to opposing accommodationism.

That's why I was so disappointed to see PZ Myers praising a press release from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). Here's what PZ says in SICB opposes "drill baby drill".
I’s always gratifying to see a scientific organization step up and use their collective expertise to make a clear statement on a political and economic issue.
Let's look at the press release to see if this scientific society is simply reporting on scientific evidence related to the areas of expertise of it's members.
6 February 2013

From the Presidents of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology

An open letter to President Barack Obama,

Members of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology are biologists from throughout the U.S. with the broadest possible perspectives—from microbes to whales, from molecules to ecosystems. The undersigned current and past presidents of the Society have watched with increasing dismay the deterioration of the life support system of our planet, threatening all life as we know it. It has long been known that one product of burning fossil fuel, carbon dioxide, is a powerful greenhouse gas, and more recently that this gas has been associated with drastic climate variations in Earth’s past. Consequently, it is no surprise that prodigious worldwide burning of fossil fuel is creating large-scale climate change with increasing disruption of life on the planet. While many in the western developed nations still enjoy relative prosperity – despite the horrific storms experienced in the U.S. in recent years – it is in poor nations around the world that the impacts of climate change are currently most destructive. Pacific Island nations are disappearing beneath the tides as sea level rises. Desertification is destroying agriculture in northern Africa and massive floods have devastated Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand in the last two years.

It is too late to avoid substantial disruption, but further damage can be reduced if we act immediately to keep remaining fossil fuel deposits in the ground, out of the air and sea. A most immediate decision is yours: whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. More important than the fact that the pipeline itself will endanger aquifers and life along its length, the pipe will deliver the dirtiest, most CO2-producing petroleum source known to the refineries of the Gulf Coast. Additionally, the Athabasca tar-sands mine is destroying vast regions of northern Alberta that have been home and hunting and fishing grounds for First Nations peoples for thousands of years.

Even before fossil fuels are burned, releasing climate-altering greenhouse gases, the extraction phase itself produces environmental disasters, including toxins in water supplies due to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, degradation of watersheds by mountain-top coal mining, and the loss of marine life from offshore drilling. Permits for all of these activities lie in the hands of agencies of your administration.

Alternative sources of energy are at hand. We do have the individual and collective intelligence and technology to see the urgently needed transition through to better times. What we require is sufficient political will on a global scale to meet the challenge. The U.S., for the last three federal administrations, has been a major impediment to ratification of international climate treaties. Clearly, the future demands that we – through your administration – reverse this pattern and join with leaders of other nations to ratify agreements that will quickly and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. President: you are arguably the most powerful person in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the globe. To be clear: change will come, one way or another. Your task is no less than to steer the course of history away from its current devastating trajectory toward a sustainable existence for humankind.

Signed by: ...
I understand that these scientists are concerned about the effect of global warming on the health and survival of modern species. I can even forgive over-the-top rhetoric like "deterioration of the life support system of our planet, threatening all life as we know it." However, the policies that we put in place to reduce CO2 emissions have to balance many different factors. These scientists have no special expertise in politics, economics, and international relations. They are in a position to pronounce on the possible effects of continuing global warming and even on the possible effects of a major pipeline leak. They have no particular expertise in the technology and the probability of a leak. Furthermore, when it comes to specific proposals such as whether to build a pipeline, invest in solar energy, shut down coal mines, build nuclear power plants, or regulate auto emissions, they are not in a position to judge which alternatives are the most desirable. They are free to express their personal opinions on whether President Obama should okay the building of the pipeline but they should not pretend that their opinions are more significant just because they are biologists.

This is another case of a scientific society stepping outside of its legitimate boundaries and I'm disappointed that PZ Myers doesn't see this in the same way he sees the accommodationist issue.

P.S. The authors of this letter addressed it to the wrong person. They should have sent it to Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada. The Conservative government is committed to extracting oil from the tarsands. It will try to ship the oil to China if the pipeline to the USA is not built.


  1. Accomadationism is itself a negative term accusing religion as being proved wrong by science.
    This is just not true.
    This gives ammunition to critics of claimed scientific evidence in certain subjects that it is hostile to religion and therefore the right for rebuttal.

    If science is taking on God/Genesis/Christianity then we can take on these certain subjectsthat claim to have evidence against us.
    Where is the evidence??

    1. I have repeatedly asked believers for just one bit of evidenve that god(s) exist.

      So far nobody has provided any undisputed evidence at all. Wanna give it a shot?

      It is not scientific to claim you have knowledge without evidence to support that claim. This is especially true when your claim is extraordinary. Therefore, science as a way of knowing is incompatible with the belief in god(s).

    2. How do theists know the laws are fine tuned for life and not fine-tuned for a specific rock laying in the ground outside my apartment?

      There's a large granite rock lying in the ground outside. It probably weighs several hundred kilos. Consider it's exact shape, mass, elemental chemical composition, the unique structural, spatial arrangement of atoms that make it up. Consider how it's unique surface feaures reflects light. No other object in the universe has the very specifc and unique surface features of that rock, and so reflects light exactly like that.

      There is no other rock, indeed no object of any kind, exactly like it, in the entire universe. Sure, there may be other rocks, but no rock exactly like this one.

      Consider the unique chain of events that had to happen for that specific and unique rock to exist, exactly the way it is, in it's specific location in the ground, in Denmark, right outside my window. Consider that, if you changed any of the laws and constants of nature by the tiniest, almost infinitesimal amount, that specific rock would be very different and placed somewhere else, or maybe even not exist at all. Even the atoms that make it up require the laws as they are now.

      The eons of geological time, the the specific sequence and combination geochemistry and enormous pressures required. Could the constants of nature have been fine-tuned to make the rock? It's too improbable to have arrived by chance, after all. Clearly, life is just a byproduct of the desire of the ominpotent being to make laws that would result in that specific rock.

      This is the exact same argument theists are making, all the same variables and constants. If the laws were different, that rock would not exist.

      They're smuggling in their conlusion "life is special" in their premise, by insisting it wouldn't exist if the laws and constants were different, but the same is true for any other object in the universe. Consequently they can't conclude the laws were fine-tuned for life without conceding it must also be fine-tuned for sand, rocks, gas, dust and a specific mountain near the polar regions on the planet venus. In which case they can't argue life is the objective goal of the values of the constants, in which case they can't argue fine-tuning even had too take place, because the constants had to have some value, and it obviously follows we (and everything else dependent on those constants, which is everything else) would only exist in a universe where the constants are what they are.

      To us, life is important, we're life after all. But who says that's important, other than us living things?

      How do theists know that the constants were fine tuned for life? They obviously don't. From the standpoint of what the universe most readily produces, life certainly doesn't seem to be the objective.

      So are we now to think the universe was made entirely with that rock in mind? Theists would, I assume, argue no. But then what makes them think it was made for life instead? Well they feel important, to them. But life-forms as we know them are basically just another type of object in the universe among trillions that, like the rock, wouldn't exist with a different set of laws.

      Everything in the universe is contingent on the laws being what they are, there's no good reason to think life is the goal of the constants, especially when we don't know if life can exist under different laws. The fine tuning argument is question begging, pure and simple.

    3. Oh, I see Luther removed his post declaring the fine-tuning argument as evidence for god.

    4. @Larry
      The universe we inhabit appears to have been fine tuned for life to an extraordinary degree. This is the kind of thing that led real scientists like, eg, Fred Hoyle, to say it looked like a super-intelligence had monkeyed with physics. This is undisputed. Therefore we have indisputable evidence for the existence of a super-intelligence capable of monkeying with physics (ie God(s). This is not proof (although proofs exist - see Goedel - and see below) - since, like absolutely every other piece of evidence there is, there may be other explanations for this - especially if one has no qualms about running roughshod over Occam's hairbrush (or whatever it is) and introducing multiple unobserved/unobservable phenomena to account for it - eg, infinitely many universes.
      The interesting thing about infinitely many universes though (and this is where the proof comes in), is that in one of them some entity must exist that is worthy of being called a God. Unless of course, that is, you have some argument such that God(s) cannot possibly exist. You need to show this because one of the things an infinity of universes entails is the manifestation of ALL possibilities many times over.

      So: either one universe and a God to tune it, or infinite universes and in some of them God(s). Take your pick. Either way God(s) exist.

      I thank you.

    5. This is the kind of thing that led real scientists like, eg, Fred Hoyle, to say it looked like a super-intelligence had monkeyed with physics. This is undisputed. Therefore [...]

      Whoah there, Neddy. This is undisputable evidence that it looked to Fred Hoyle like a super-intelligence had monkeyed with the laws of physics.

    6. @Rumraket
      I re-posted it with a slight amendment. You miss the point in your objection. The point is not that the universe was fine-tuned for life, but that the fine-tuning, whatever it was for, is such that it is very fine indeed and does allow self-reflective life to exist when there is no reason we know of (other than a God tuning it) why it should be like this. This is undisputed by scientists. And this is a puzzle that needs an answer. And, as my argument shows. the currently available answers both entail God(s) in some form.

    7. @Miller
      I deal with the other possibilities as well. The argument being: let's assume Hoyle was right - God(s), and let's assume Hoyle was wrong - God(s). So, pending some new explanation: God (s) exist.
      Moreover, if what Larry meant by "undisputed" was 'something to which nobody can can say "no"', then that is an impossible, and disingenuous, challenge. People are always free to say no. People are always free to say "I dispute this". Short of torture, then, is no way round this simply fact. Thus indisputable evidence is an impossible burden for any claim.

    8. @Luther
      Any combination of laws and constants would be "very fine indeed". Whatever object you find, in any universe, would not exist if you changed the laws of that universe.

      You're using Douglas Adam's puddlethink. The water fits the hole, not the other way around. It's no surprise that life should find itself existing in a universe that allows it, it would be a surprise if life existed in a universe that didn't allow it. That would be evidence of supernatural intervention.

      Put it this way: If finetuning didn't take place, but life still had evolved and existed, how would the universe look different?

    9. @rumrakeT
      No, I'm not using that at all. I'm saying that your explanation for why the puddle fits the hole entails the existence of every single puddle and every single hole - some (at least one) of which will be God.

  2. An oldie but a goodie from Douglas Adams and it so clearly points out the incredible silliness of the fine tuning argument:

    Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"

    1. except that's not the fine tuning argument. The fine tuning argument is closer to a royal flush appearing at the top of a deck of cards, figuring out that it IS a royal flush, and then coming to the conclusion that it is quite unlikely that it would appear on top of a deck of cards that was haphazardly shuffled.

    2. Any combination of cards appearing on top of the deck is equally improbable. You're picking out a specific deck and declaring it special, just because that deck holds meaning to you.

      Put it this way: Say we could travel to other universes with other laws, and they didn't contain any life, just rocks, gas and dust, would you think they had been fine-tuned? Presumably not.

      But the constituents of that universe would be equally dependent on the laws of those universes, as life as we know it is contingent on the laws of ours.
      So what is it about life that makes you think it requires designers to design the laws to make it possible, but design is not required for any set of laws leading to the constituents of other universes, whether alive or not?

      The only thing you can offer here is that you think life is special and everything else isn't. Which is essentially question begging what you're trying to prove - that life is special and so requires special laws to make it.

    3. rumracket, you are missing the point of the fine tuning argument. Let's say there is a standard deck of cards, that, before it is wrapped in plastic, is arranged in sequence, such that each suit is ordered, beginning with spades, from the highest card in that suit to the lowest. Thus, naturally, the top of that deck, when taken out and before shuffling, would be a royal flush.
      Now, let's say the royal flush, in spades, figures out somehow that it is a royal flush. It figures out that it would be quite unlikely for it to appear in that precise configuration without having been ordered. It calls this ordering 'the laws of the universe'. Using these laws, it investigates the rest of the deck, and -sure enough- it discovers that the rest of the deck appears exactly as those laws predicted.
      It can now argue, if it chooses, that there is no need for anyone to have ordered the deck. It obeys the laws of the universe, and they just are what they are. No need for 'supernatural' ordering.
      But some of the cards may disagree and say that it is just too unlikely that those laws would be there without someone or something creating the laws. THAT is the law argument of fine tuning.

    4. sent without editing, apologies for the extra word in the last sentence.

    5. Fine tuning argument is flawed.

      If our universe is fine tuned, that means that "God" had no choice when he was creating it. He had to act according to some higher laws and that means he was not omnipotent (i.e he is not "God").

      Existence of such being does not follow from the fine tuning of our universe, therefore introducing this being doesn't solve any mystery - because questions remain: "what are origins of those laws". Also new question appears: "what is origin of that being".

    6. "Now, let's say the royal flush, in spades, figures out somehow that it is a royal flush."

      Any object in any universe would be a royal flush in the same way you think we are in ours. In a hypothetical different universe, there's another rare and special object dependent on the laws of that universe. Like the rock in the ground outside my apartment, it's unique in that universe. The same would be true for almost any set of laws, there'd be objects dependent on those laws that, if the laws were different, would not exist. Why would we assume design is require for life-as-we-know-it allowing laws, but not for, well, everything else imaginable?

      Once again all you can offer me in response to this question is to beg the question, to assume what you want to prove. That the rules for our universe are special just because they allow life as we know it. But who the fuck says that's special anyway, and why would that require design and not a different set of laws?

      It's nothing but question begging over and over again. You're still assuming what you are trying to prove, that because the laws lead to life they require a special explanation.

      The rock outside my window is disappointed you don't consider it a royal flush, despite the fact that it's unique in the universe. In an alternative universe, with a different set of laws, there'd be an object contingent on those laws. Is that object a royal flush too? Is the Large magellanic cloud a royal flush? How about the black hole in the center of M81, is that a royal flush? If you changed the laws, it wouldn't exist.

      You're the one not getting something here, you're not getting that everything that exists, regardless of what the laws and constants would be, would be contingent on those laws. It doesn't matter the values, there's nothing intrinsically more improbable about laws that allow life, compared to a different but specific set of laws that allow another kind of object to exist whether alive or not.

      Why is a specific object in a different kind of universe not a royal flush? There's an infinity of imaginable combinations of laws and constants, all are equally improbable. Any specific set will give rise to unique phenomena only allowed by that specific set, why assume it requires design just because the object in question is alive?

    7. Rumraket writes,
      "Any object in any universe would be a royal flush in the same way you think we are in ours."

      That is fine. I am not calling us 'royal flushes' to exalt the human race, just to point out how organized, and thus improbable, we are. You could say the same thing about a 'lowly' four of clubs. You could even say the same about one of the club shapes on the four of clubs, such as in the upper or lower corner. Suppose it was this club shape that figured out 'the laws of the universe'. It would still place itself exactly where you or I would expect to find it, knowing that it was specifically organized so as to be there.

  3. The only thing special about a royal flush, or in fact any ordering of a set of painted cards, is that some human or humans decides arbitrarily to think of it as somehow special. That is exactly Rumraket's point, which I think he has ably and clearly stated.

    The fine-tuning argument reminds me of a similar argument by a creationist I encountered on some blog: something to the effect that since humans are the most intelligent creatures on Earth, this is strong evidence that we were specially created by some god. I pointed out that there is a spectrum of intelligence among Earth's creatures (flaworms can memorize a maze, dogs are about as smart as a two- or three-year old human, chimpanzees are smarter than most five-year old humans, etc.) and that some creature had to be at the top of that spectrum. In other words, assigning special significance to that fact is the Lottery Fallacy.

    The other points about fine-tuning include:

    1) The scientific literature includes several papers showing that life similar to ours could exist under many other sets of cosmological parameters. One you could google is the "Weakless Universe", i.e., a universe without the Weak force would look much the same as ours.

    2) In fact, other parameters could make life much more abundant throughout the universe; ours is 99.999999% sparse of what we consider livable habitats.

    3) Who is to say that in vastly different universes, life might exist not as replicating chemical compounds, but as replicating energy fields? (Indeed, do you consider your gods/angels to be of our same form of life?)

    1. Re (3), the best scientists in the world say that our universe appears fine tuned, and while I am happy enough to dismiss what they say as nonsense, you are not.
      Anyway, you miss the entire point of the argument - the argument is not 'fine tuning therefore God'. The argument is fine tuning or infinity and either way God. So take your 'it only takes an infinite number of dealers to produce infinite royal flushes', my point is that with an infinite number of dealers (at least) one dealer will deal God. So unless you say God is impossible, God will have been dealt.

  4. Jim writes,
    'The only thing special about a royal flush, or in fact any ordering of a set of painted cards, is that some human or humans decides arbitrarily to think of it as somehow special. That is exactly Rumraket's point, which I think he has ably and clearly stated.

    No. The ONLY thing special about a royal flush, or in fact any ordering of a set of painted cards, IS that they are ordered. I.e., configured/arranged/organized.
    The more complex the arrangement, the more sound the argument that the orderer was mindful of the ordering.
    For example, if you came upon a deck of cards that was otherwise random, but had a royal flush at the top, you could be persuaded that it was randomly shuffled.
    However, if you came across a deck of cards where all 52 cards were laid out in sequence as I described above, you would not be convinced that it was randomly shuffled. You would need an infinite number of decks of cards in order to believe the one you were looking at was 'random', but in that case it wouldn't BE random.

    1. No. The ONLY thing special about a royal flush, or in fact any ordering of a set of painted cards, IS that they are ordered. I.e., configured/arranged/organized.
      To call our set of laws "organized/arranged" is to beg the question.

      The more complex the arrangement, the more sound the argument that the orderer was mindful of the ordering.
      Arrangement of what? We have a set of natural laws and constants, what's "ordered" about them? You're speaking gibberish here.

      For example, if you came upon a deck of cards that was otherwise random, but had a royal flush at the top, you could be persuaded that it was randomly shuffled.
      However, if you came across a deck of cards where all 52 cards were laid out in sequence as I described above, you would not be convinced that it was randomly shuffled.

      Please explain what about the laws and constants of our universe is analogous to having an entire set of cards arranged in sequence.

    2. What is taken to be "the theory of evolution" is, ultimately, just a set of things that look like letters seemingly arranged on stuff that looks like pages in a book. Ultimately, though, such a physical "arrangement" was bound to happen sooner or later and so there's no reason to believe that it actually is a theory with some meaning as opposed to simple being a random collection of marks that just happen to be there. The same obviously goes for all the sounds we, including you, take to be meaningful speech. No reason to see order where there is none.

    3. Rumraket, it is not 'gibberish', it is an analogy. I am not offering it as an exact correlate of the fine tuning argument. I am offering it as a much better correlate to the fine tuning argument than that of a puddle shaped body of water analogy that was given by another poster (and mentioned as well by you).

      To be clear, I personally am not convinced by the 'fine tuning' argument. I don't think of it as a slam dunk case for the existence of a creator. But I do consider it to be a valid, reasonable argument.

  5. Come on Larry, you've just been given evidence that God(s) must exist somewhere in the uni/multiverse and the best you've got is to hide away and say you laid down rules on your blog that the proof was offered by someone who was persona non grata.

  6. Anyway Larry, the prattlings of your half-witted lackeys notwithstanding, the evidence has been cited, and you are, once again, conspicuous only by your silence. So don't be posting tomorrow that nobody has met your challenge. And don't be pretending that this is just the fine-tuning argument, it isn't.

  7. On the topic of the post....

    It's rather surprising that the SICB would present themselves as experts on this issue when global warming, petroleum extraction, &c are more in the domain of geology. SICB doesn't seem to include geologists or earth science as part of it's ambit (which they list as " to further research, education and public awareness in the areas of organismal, functional and evolutionary biology.") and it isn't associated with any geological societies, even though it's associated with several other scientific societies (

    If something like the AGU or GSA or AAPG made society-approved statements supporting the XL pipeline, would their expertise cancel out SICB's? SICB also notes that the mining operations are disruptive for First Nation peoples, but SICB is not associated with sociological scientific socieities and probably counts relatively few sociologists, let alone sociologists who focus on American Indians.

    Seems that Global Warming is more an issue for social scientists and geologists of various stripes (including climatologists, &c) than for developmental biologists.