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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

I think I'll skip this meeting

I just received an invitation to a meeting ...

On behalf of the international organizing committee, we would like to invite you to a conference to be held in Neve Ilan, near Jerusalem, from 4-8 October 2021, entitled ‘Potential and Limitations of Evolutionary Processes’. The main goal of this interdisciplinary, international conference is to bring together scientists and scholars who hold a range of viewpoints on the potential and possible limitations of various undirected chemical and biological processes.

The conference will include presentations from a broad spectrum of disciplines, including chemistry, biochemistry, biology, origin of life, evolution, mathematics, cosmology and philosophy. Open-floor discussion will be geared towards delineating mechanistic details, with a view to discussing in such a way that speakers and participants feel comfortable expressing different opinions and different interpretations of the data, in the spirit of genuine academic inquiry.

I'm pretty sure I got this invite because I attended the Royal Society Meeting on New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives back in 2016. That meeting was a big disappointment because the proponents of extending the modern synthesis didn't have much of a case [Kevin Laland's new view of evolution].

I was curious to see what kind of followup the organizers of this new meeting were planning so I checked out the website at: Potential and Limitations of Evolutionary Processes. Warning bells went off immediately when I saw the list of topics.

  • Fine-Tuning of the Universe
  • The Origin of Life
  • Origin & Fine-Tuning of the Genetic Code
  • Origin of Novel Genes
  • Origin of Functional Islands in Protein Sequence Space
  • Origin of Multi-Component Molecular Machines
  • Fine-Tuning of Molecular Systems
  • Fine-Tuning in Complex Biological Systems
  • Evolutionary Waiting Times
  • History of Life & Comparative Genomics

This is a creationist meeting. A little checking shows that three of the four organizers, Russ Carlson, Anthony Futerman, and Siegfried Scherer, are creationists. (I don't know about the other organizer, Joel Sussman, but in this case guilt by association seems appropriate.)

I don't think I'll book a flight to Israel.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day! These are my great-grandparents Thomas Keys Foster, born in County Tyrone on September 5, 1852 and Eliza Ann Job, born in Fintona, County Tyrone on August 18, 1852. Thomas came to Canada in 1876 to join his older brother, George, on his farm near London, Ontario, Canada. Eliza came the following year and worked on the same farm. Thomas and Eliza decided to move out west where they got married in 1882 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

The couple obtained a land grant near Salcoats, Saskatchewan, a few miles south of Yorkton, where they build a sod house and later on a wood frame house that they named "Fairview" after a hill in Ireland overlooking the house where Eliza was born. That's where my grandmother, Ella, was born.

Other ancestors in this line came from the adjacent counties of Donegal (surname Foster) and Fermanagh (surnames Keys, Emerson, Moore) and possibly Londonderry (surname Job).

One of the cool things about studying your genealogy is that you can find connections to almost everyone. This means you can celebrate dozens of special days. In my case it was easy to find other ancestors from England, Scotland, Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Poland, Lithuania, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia, and the United States. Today, we will be celebrating St. Patrick's Day. It's rather hectic keeping up with all the national holidays but somebody has to keep the traditions alive!

It's nice to have an excuse to celebrate, especially when it means you can drink beer. However, I would be remiss if I didn't mention one little (tiny, actually) problem. Since my maternal grandmother is pure Irish, I should be 25% Irish but my DNA results indicate that I'm only 4% Irish. That's probalby because my Irish ancestors were Anglicans and were undoubtedly the descendants of settlers from England, Wales, and Scotland who moved to Ireland in the 1600s. This explains why they don't have very Irish-sounding names.

I don't mention this when I'm in an Irish pub.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Is science the only way of knowing?

Most of us learned that science provides good answers to all sort of questions ranging from whether a certain drug is useful in treating COVID-19 to whether humans evolved from primitive apes. A more interesting question is whether there are any limitations to science or whether there are any other effective ways of knowing. The question is related to the charge of "scientism," which is often used as a pejorative term to describe those of us who think that science is the only way of knowing.

I've discussed these issue many times of this blog so I won't rehash all the arguments. Suffice to say that there are two definitions of science; the broad definition and the narrow one. The narrow definition says that science is merely the activity carried out by geologists, chemists, physicists, and biologists. Using this definition it would be silly to say that science is the only way of knowing. The broad definition can be roughly described as: science is a way of knowing that relies on evidence, logic (rationality), and healthy skepticism.

The broad definition is the one preferred by many philosophers and it goes something like this ...

Unfortunately neither "science" nor any other established term in the English language covers all the disciplines that are parts of this community of knowledge disciplines. For lack of a better term, I will call them "science(s) in the broad sense." (The German word "Wissenschaft," the closest translation of "science" into that language, has this wider meaning; that is, it includes all the academic specialties, including the humanities. So does the Latin "scientia.") Science in a broad sense seeks knowledge about nature (natural science), about ourselves (psychology and medicine), about our societies (social science and history), about our physical constructions (technological science), and about our thought construction (linguistics, literary studies, mathematics, and philosophy). (Philosophy, of course, is a science in this broad sense of the word.)

Sven Ove Hanson "Defining Pseudoscience and Science" in Philosophy of Pseudescience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.

Friday, March 12, 2021

The bad news from Ghent

A group of scientists, mostly from the University of Ghent1 (Belgium), have posted a paper on bioRxiv.

Lorenzi, L., Chiu, H.-S., Cobos, F.A., Gross, S., Volders, P.-J., Cannoodt, R., Nuytens, J., Vanderheyden, K., Anckaert, J. and Lefever, S. et al. (2019) The RNA Atlas, a single nucleotide resolution map of the human transcriptome. bioRxiv:807529. [doi: 10.1101/807529]

The human transcriptome consists of various RNA biotypes including multiple types of non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs). Current ncRNA compendia remain incomplete partially because they are almost exclusively derived from the interrogation of small- and polyadenylated RNAs. Here, we present a more comprehensive atlas of the human transcriptome that is derived from matching polyA-, total-, and small-RNA profiles of a heterogeneous collection of nearly 300 human tissues and cell lines. We report on thousands of novel RNA species across all major RNA biotypes, including a hitherto poorly-cataloged class of non-polyadenylated single-exon long non-coding RNAs. In addition, we exploit intron abundance estimates from total RNA-sequencing to test and verify functional regulation by novel non-coding RNAs. Our study represents a substantial expansion of the current catalogue of human ncRNAs and their regulatory interactions. All data, analyses, and results are available in the R2 web portal and serve as a basis to further explore RNA biology and function.

They spent a great deal of effort identifying RNAs from 300 human samples in order to construct an extensive catalogue of five kinds of transcripts: mRNAs, lncRNAs, antisenseRNAs, miRNAs, and circularRNAs. The paper goes off the rails in the first paragraph of the Results section where they immediately equate transcripts wiith genes. They report the following:

  • 19,107 mRNA genes (188 novel)
  • 18,387 lncRNA genes (13,175 novel)
  • 7,309 asRNA genes (2,519 novel)
  • 5,427 miRNAs
  • 5,427 circRNAs

Is science a social construct?

Richard Dawkins has written an essay for The Spectator in which he says,

"[Science is not] a social construct. It’s simply true. Or at least truth is real and science is the best way we have of finding it. ‘Alternative ways of knowing’ may be consoling, they may be sincere, they may be quaint, they may have a poetic or mythic beauty, but the one thing they are not is true. As well as being real, moreover, science has a crystalline, poetic beauty of its own.

The essay is not particularly provocative but it did provoke Jerry Coyne who pointed out that, "The profession of science" can be contrued as a social construct. In this sense Jerry is agreeing with his former supervisor, Richard Lewontin1 who wrote,

"Science is a social institution about which there is a great deal of misunderstanding, even among those who are part of it. We think that science is an institution, a set of methods, a set of people, a great body of knowledge that we call scientific, is somehow apart from the forces that rule our everyday lives and tha goven the structure of our society... The problems that science deals with, the ideas that it uses in investigating those problems, even the so-called scientific results that come out of scientific investigation, are all deeply influenced by predispositions that derive from the society in which we live. Scientists do not begin life as scientists after all, but as social beings immersed in a family, a state, a productive structure, and they view nature through a lens that has been molded by their social structure."

Coincidently, I just happened to be reading Science Fictions an excellent book by Stuart Ritchie who also believes that science is a social construct but he has a slighly different take on the matter.

"Science has cured diseases, mapped the brain, forcasted the climate, and split the atom; it's the best method we have of figuring out how the universe works and of bending it to our will. It is, in other words, our best way of moving towards the truth. Of course, we might never get there—a glance at history shows us hubristic it is to claim any facts as absolute or unchanging. For ratcheting our way towards better knowledge about the world, though, the methods of science is as good as it gets.

But we can't make progress withthose methods alone. It's not enough to make a solitary observation in your lab; you must also convince other scientists that you've discovered something real. This is where the social part comes. Philosophers have long discussed how important it is for scientists to show their fellow researchers how they came to their conclusions.

Dawkins, Coyne, Lewontin, and Ritchie are all right in different ways. Dawkins is talking about science as a way of knowing, although he restricts his definition of science to the natural sciences. The others are referring to the practice of science, or as Jerry Coyne puts it, the profession. It's true that the methods of science are the best way we have to get at the truth and it's true that the way of knowing is not a social construct in any meanigful sense.

Jerry Coyne is right to point out that the methods are employed by human scientists (he's also restricting the practice of science to scientists) and humans are fallible. In that sense, the enterprise of (natural) science is a social construct. Lewontin warns us that scientists have biases and prejudices and that may affect how they do science.

Ritchie makes a diffferent point by emphasizing that (natural) science is a collective endeavor and that "truth" often requires a consensus. That's the sense in which science is social. This is supposed to make science more robust, according to Ritchie, because real knowledge only emerges after carefull and skeptical scrutiny by other scientists. His book is mostly about how that process isn't working and why science is in big trouble. He's right about that.

I think it's important to distinguish between science as a way of knowing and the behavior and practice of scientists. The second one is affected by society and its flaws are well-known but the value of science as way of knowing can't be so easily dismissed.

1. The book is actually a series of lectures (The Massey Lectures) that Lewontin gave in Toronto (Ontario, Canada) in 1990. I attended those lectures.