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Thursday, November 18, 2021

"Has Science Killed Philosophy?"

This is a debate sponsored by the Royal Institute of Philosophy on the question "Has science killed philosophy?" It suffers from one of the main problems of the philosphy of science and that's an unreasonable focus on theoretical physics. What's interesting is that the question even arises because that suggests to me that there's some reason to suspect that philosophy might not be as important as most philosophers think.

Watch the debate and decide for yourselves whether philosophy is still useful. Frankly, I found it very boring. I didn't learn anything that I didn't know before and I didn't find the defense of philosophy compelling. The philosopher's best answer to the challenge is that their discipline has complete control over rational thinking so every time you are thinking seriously about something you are doing philosophy. Ergo, philosophy will never be killed by science.

What do you think of Eleanor Knox's description of the differences between your right hand and your left hand? Is she on to a deep metaphysical question that science can't address? Or is this an example of why scientists are skeptical of the value of philosophy?

All three panelists were asked to identify a modern philosopher who made a significant contribution to science. Alex Rosenberg immediately identified someone named Samir Okasha whom I've never heard of. Apparently, Okasha made a significant contribution to the levels of selection question in evolution. According to Alex Rosenberg, the philosophers that he listens to tell him that if anyone has settled these question it's Okasha. Perhaps he should listen to evolutionary biologists to get their view on the subject?

Monday, November 15, 2021

The first review of "Viral" is out and it ain't pretty

Michael Hiltzik is first off the mark writing for the Los Angeles Times: These authors wanted to push the COVID-19 lab-leak theory. Instead they exposed its weaknesses.

Hiltzik is one of the few science writers who know what they'r talking about.1 You should read his entire review—here are some excerpts to tempt you.

... “Viral” is a laboratory-perfect example of how not to write about a scientific issue. The authors rely less on the scientists doing the painstaking work to unearth the virus’ origin than on self-described sleuths who broadcast their dubious claims, sometimes anonymously, on social media. In the end, Chan and Ridley spotlight all the shortcomings of the hypothesis they set out to defend....

“Viral” is built on vague innuendo, dressed up with assertions that may strike laypeople as plausible but have long since been debunked by experienced virologists. An entire chapter, for example, is devoted to the “furin cleavage site,” a feature of the virus’ structure through which the enzyme furin makes the spikes on its surface — which it uses to penetrate and infect healthy cells — more effective.

The furin site was originally described by lab-leak advocates as so unusual that it could have been placed there only by humans. Virologists have since determined that the feature is not all that rare in viruses similar to SARS2, and in any case, it could have emerged through natural evolutionary processes well known to experts. Chan and Ridley place a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose gloss on these findings, writing that if the site “proves to have been inserted artificially, it confirms that the virus was in a laboratory and was altered. ... If, on the other hand, the furin cleavage site proves to be natural, it still says nothing about where the virus came from.” Why write about it at all, then?

Alina Chan's reputation is already about as low as it can get and now it looks like she's dragging Matt Ridely down with her. He was already part way there so he didn't have far to go.

The book is published by HarperCollins. Should American lawmakers look seriously at regulating the publishing industry for spreading misinformation since they're already investigating Facebook for the same crime?

1. See: Is the media finally realizing that they have been duped into promoting the lab leak conspiracy theory?.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Alina Chan teams up with Matt Ridley to promote the lab leak conspiracy theory

Harper is set to publish Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 in just a few days. The authors are Alina Chan, a postdoc at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Matt Ridley, a science journalist who has written several respectable books.

The book promises to reignite discussion of the lab leak conspriracy theory with a focus on Alina Chan's role in promoting it. In preparation, you should read this article about her: They called it a conspiracy theory. But Alina Chan tweeted life into the idea that the virus came from a lab.

Monday, November 08, 2021

The origin of SARS-CoV-2 and gain-of-function research

I'm currently discussing the meaning of "function" with a small group of scientists and philosophers and it's not easy to come up with an acceptable definition. Imagine how much more difficult it is to identify research that results in a gain of function!

Gain-of-function research has been in the news recently because there are a group of conspiracy theorists who accuse the scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology of conducting gain-of-function research on bat caronaviruses leading to the creation of SARS-CoV-2 which then escaped from the lab to cause the pandemic. Some of these conspiracy theorists even accuse the American NIH of funding this gain-of-function research.

How do you define gain-of-function research in a meaningful manner? That's the question posed by Amber Dance in a recent Nature article. (Amber Dance is a freelance science journalist.) The first reference below is the title and subtitle of the article that was published in the magazine and the second reference is the online version.

Dance, A. (2021) The Truth About Gain-of-Function Research: Granting new abilities to pathogenic microbes sounds dangerous, but what has the research told us? Nature 598: 554-555. [doi: 10.1038/d41586-021-02903-x]

Dance, A. (2021) The shifting sands of ‘gain-of-function’ research: The mystery of COVID’s origins has reignited a contentious debate about potentially risky studies and the fuzzy terminology that describes them. Nature 598: 554-555. [Nature website]

The only relevant gain-of-function research is the type specified by NIH as "gain-of-function research of concern" (GOFROC). This is research that makes a potential pathogen more likely to cause disease in humans. This is the kind of research that would be carried out in a lab devoted to biological warfare but it could also apply to some research that was carried out in the past, as described in the article. There is no evidence to support the accusation that scientists in China, or anywhere else, were doing such research on coronaviruses.

There are other kinds of research that involve constructing chimeric viruses in order to test whether they have the potential to cause a pandemic. This is perfectly normal, even necessary, research but conspiracy theorists have claimed that this is forbidden gain-of-function research. The article does a good job of explaining this research and why it's not a problem.

Image Credits: The coronavirus figure is from Alexy Solodovnikov and Wikmedia Commons.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

What's in your genome?: 2021

This is an updated version of what's in your genome based on the latest data. The simple version is ...

about 90% of your genome is junk