Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Lesson in the Process of Science.

I realize that I have been posting quite a bit about education and the evils of teaching creationism. These topics are a bit off topic for this blog but they are important in light of the fact that (a) this is an election year and (b) a new creationism propaganda film staring Ben Stein is about to be released.

This film and creationists in general claim that "big science" is stifling other viewpoints and that doing so is anti-scientific. However, this position has as much legs as the theory creationism itself(that would be none).

Allow me to illustrate how science actually works by considering another area that is not as emotionally charged as the origins of life. Let's consider physics and in particular Quantum Mechanics (QM). I am inspired to write this by a recent article in New Scientist titled Quantum Randomness may not be Random.

As most readers are probably aware, the meaning and interpretation Quantum Mechanics was hotly debated during the birth of modern physics (~1880 - 1930) . The two most famous individuals at the heart of this debate were Albert Einstein with his position best immortalized in the "God does not play dice" quote and Niels Bohr who argued for the abandonment of all notions of causality at the quantum level. Bohr's view point became known as the Copenhagen interpretation and it ultimately became the dominant viewpoint of physics and the one that the vast majority of physicists accept today. In fact, this interpretation of QM has the same status in physics as The Theory of Evolution has in biology.

The first point to be made is that during the evolution of modern physics there was certainly room for multiple viewpoints and these viewpoints were hotly debated. But these debates always followed a process of science which begins with the presentation of facts and uses logic and mathematics to reach conclusions. Of course, scientists are humans and a certain degree of emotion and bullying come into play as well but nothing is settled using these devices. They are only a back drop of the human saga that is science. However, this is not what is truly instructive.

Fast forward to 2008. Quantum Mechanics is the most successful theory in the history of physics and its equations are responsible for so much innovation in the modern world. Truly, QM has earned the right in physics to be untouchable dogma. Certainly any respectable physicist who would dare question the Copenhagen interpretation would be the laughing stock of his profession and his career would be ruined. Certainly the proponents of Creationism would have you believe that this is how science works. But they are wrong.

In the New Scientist article we learn that a respected physicist from Rutgers, Sheldon Goldstein, is trying to revive an older interpretation of QM called the Bohmian Model, after David Bohm. The details are not as important as the moral. Goldstein is not being mocked by physics (even though his views are squarely in the minority) because he and his peers question the dogma of QM on scientific grounds. He presents mathematical and logical arguments. When his peers raise objections he does not scream foul or prejudice but rather talks about possible experiments. He does not dismiss his peers arguments by arguing in circles nor does he draw on sources of mysticism that lie squarely outside of science. Goldstein and others can question Big Science while remaining well ground in the process that define the way science has always operated.

Creationist don't play by the rules of science but want the respect of scientists. They propose arguments which draw on misrepresentations of thermodynamics but when they are called out on this they jump to other arguments equally fallacious. It is not so much the argument of design that disturbs most scientists; its the lack of logical and consistent reasoning that pervades all of ID.

I doubt many proponents of ID read my blog but if there are any out there allow me to suggest the following analogy. Imagine a scientist walking into your church this Sunday and saying, "Listen all you Christians your whole process of worshiping Christ and interpreting the bible is wrong. You should interpret Mathew like such and such and Paul like this and that." Wouldn't you be furious? By what right does a heathen have in telling your preacher what the bible means. How dare he! Well I say to you, "How dare you! How dare you come into the house of science and tell it how it should be. By what right?!?. Please leave immediately! ... But if you'd like to drop a small monetary donation on the way out we'd gladly accept!

13 comments:

Offensive Christians said...

Sal,

Thanks for the post. I don't think your analogy is correct precisely for the reason you chose it. It doesn't have the emotional charge that origins science has. I don't t think questioning Darwin based on scientific concerns should be a crime. I know there are a lot of kooks out there (I suspect you think I am one:) but there are some ID and creationist scientists willing to submit their papers to peer review among other believing scientists. I've heard the argument that they can't publish in mainline papers because of bias and I'm predisposed to believe it in spite of your post.

I don't feel that I'm walking into the "house of science" by raising some concerns. I do accept that there is an equally dogmatic, even fundamentally religious, protection of Darwinism that denies opposing facts. I agree that many Darwinists are as protective and passionate about Darwin as religious folks are about "their" just-so stories. An a priori commitment to antisupernaturalism, not based on experimentation, but based on belief is not science, it is religion.

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." - Richard Lewontin, January 1997 in The New York Review.

OC
www.offensivechristians.com

Sal Mangano said...

Dear Offensive,

It always amuses me that there are folks who scoff at the "just so" stories of Darwinism but buy whole hog into the following "just so" stories:

- there is a divinity that, in addition to existing before the universe and creating everything we know, also forgives sins, impregnated a virgin with his son and performed other assorted miracles.

- there was this ark that survived a massive flood and on this ark were two of every creature that ever existed.

- there was this man who was actually the son of the prior mentioned divinity and he could walk on water, turn water into wine, cure leprosy and rise from the dead in three days.

- there is a devil who, despite the amazing powers of aforementioned divinity, is allowed to exist and generally screw up an otherwise righteous world.

The “just so” stories that come packaged with Darwinism don’t define Darwinism they just provide rational explanations about how certain things can come to pass. Every existing “just so story” of Darwinism could be demonstrated false with the theory of evolution left unscathed provide that the replacements work within the framework of selection, mutation, genetics, differential reproduction, etc. The same can not be said for the “just so” stories that define Christianity or any other religion.

There is rightly a higher bar for the acceptance of any research that proposes “design” partly because it is ultimately grounded in mysticism; but also because these papers force amazing premises without theoretical basis. For example, there are proposals that cherry pick from the laws of thermodynamics while demonstrating complete misunderstanding of these laws. There are papers that ask you to accept that the speed of light was a million times faster in the past in order to explain why the universe is not really as old as scientists believe. There are arguments that effectively state, “I can’t imagine who such and such a biological structure could have evolved so clearly it must be designed”. Please send me any paper that you believe rises to the standards of science and I’d be happy to discuss it on this blog.

I see that your website laments "the decay" that exists in the world today. Well, one can reasonably ask, in a country and world overwhelmingly dominated by god fearing folk, "just who is responsible for this decay?" Please be happy that you live in a country where you have the freedom to teach your offspring what ever nonsense you would like them to believe. Just do that in church and the home and not in science class.

-Sal

Sal Mangano said...

I also encourage readers to read the whole article by Lewontin that Offensive quotes from. I don't agree with many of Lewontin's points and I may blog on this in the future but the arguments are a lot more balanced than Offensive probably realizes. One must also understand the backdrop of Lewontin's career to place his opinions in proper context.

Offensive Christians said...

Sal,

Thanks for the response. I can see that we're not going to get anywhere discussing this stuff. I'm willing to consider your arguments and read what you have to post. You seem like a very smart guy and I'm sure I could learn a lot from you. Its just that you seem so bitter and you seem to attribute your bitterness to my belief system.

I'm sorry if you've had run ins in the past with dogmatic Christians who perhaps weren't really living what they say they believe. I'm a sinner don't get things right all the time, either. I'd just like to ask you how you'd evaluate scientific critiques of macroevolution? I agree that tinkering with premise that poorly developed scientific arguments should get little time either in our brains or in anyone's school. I'd just like to see a standard that you'd accept for questioning Darwin.

I'm not so sure about the status of macroevolution if you drop out say, life from non-life. There's a big assumption that needs to be made. Somebody posted a comment on my blog regarding an experiment that supposedly created life from non-life but I haven't had a chance to read the link yet. Have you heard of this?

I am also not so sure that the majority of "God fearing" folk you wrote about actually live their lives in the way my God teaches them to live. I wish they/I would always do the right thing. Nevertheless, I am very grateful I live in this wonderful country as I am sure you are too.

Thanks Sal, for your time and response,

OC
www.offensivechristians.com

Sal Mangano said...

I am sorry that you mistake my passion for bitterness. Rather, consider me an "Offensive Atheist" to borrow part of premise of your own site.

I am glad to have a proponent of ID and faith as a reader of my blog. All are welcome and I rarely stifle comments as you can plainly see.

Offensive Christians said...

Sorry about the bitterness thing. I realized that I kind of blew off that premise when I continued to ask you questions. Thanks again for providing a forum for these types of discussions.

OC
www.offensivechristians.com

Zeke F. said...

Great article! It was refreshing.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

"I realize that I have been posting quite a bit about education and the evils of teaching creationism. "

Interesting choice of words.

Why do you care if creationism is taught? I know you think it is false. And that seems to be a good enough reason for me. But I do not understand why that is a good enough reason for you. Your disgust borders on the transcendent which I think is what you disbelieve.

Sal Mangano said...

credo,

I don't object to teaching ID simply because it is false. At any point in time there is always going to be something that is taught in school that is partly false simply because knowledge is always incomplete.

I object to ID because its proponents must discredit or misconstrue much that we know is true or very nearly true in order to get their foot in the door. I am not just talking about evolution but things like thermodynamics, geology, cosmology, paleontology, genetics, etc. To undermine all of science in the name of "equal time for all opinions" is a very dangerous state of affairs for a country that needs to educate its children to remain relevant in this world.

-sal

Credo In Unum Deum said...

I object to ID because its proponents must discredit or misconstrue much that we know is true or very nearly true in order to get their foot in the door. I am not just talking about evolution but things like thermodynamics, geology, cosmology, paleontology, genetics, etc. To undermine all of science in the name of "equal time for all opinions" is a very dangerous state of affairs for a country that needs to educate its children to remain relevant in this world.

My question is: Why is that a problem? Who cares if they lie about scientific data? Who cares if they misconstrue? You can't have it both ways, my friend. Either there are objective moral principles (which require a God) or there are not. Your supercilious indignation is rather interesting given your distaste for transcendental morality. I would much rather think that you would not be offended by their misuse of the data, but that you would just acknowledge it and say, "Well, that is not how we do it nowadays. Our current conventions do not allow for that kind of thing." But really there is nothing "evil" or "wrong" with what creationists do (allowing that they all are as bad as you say). So again, I ask is your problem that these folks aren't following the current custom for doing research? OK. I can go with that. But evil? Wow. That necessarily implies good. Which necessarily implies law, and if it is to be objective (which you are assuming by issuing that daring word), it necessitates a Law Giver. Damn. But that is what you deny. I much more appreciate the atheist that admits that while he doesn't like child abuse, he cannot say that it is really evil or wrong. Internal consistency for a worldview is a good (functionally and logically speaking) thing.

Sal Mangano said...

Credo,

You say,

"My question is: Why is that a problem? Who cares if they lie about scientific data? Who cares if they misconstrue?"

This shows you are either extremely ignorant about how the world works or believe that I am that ignorant. Either way I see no point in debating with you further.

For the rest of you following along at home, I think you understand that I use words like "evil" in a metaphorical way and not in any biblical sense.

I mean for christ sake, isn't that obvious! :-)

Credo In Unum Deum said...

Doesn't have to be biblical... Why can't it be ethical? Not sure where the biblical thing came from... not asking you to believe the Bible. Though, for Christ's sake, it would be nice.

I know how the world works, and I know you know how it works. I am pointing out that how your theory says it works and how you act like it works are not consistent. While it may be easier to just grandstand and bellow a condescending laugh and dismiss the whole topic shows a certain disdain for Reason and that is unfortunate. A reply that says you don't have time for creationist thugs and their dimwitted pseudo-arguments (I haven't argued for creation) for the existence of god would also be disdainful of Reason. I don't expect that you will approve this for the blog, but I suppose your reading it will suffice. Your current tactic of belittling an opposing view reminds me of Evangelical Fundamentalists who find it utterly ridiculous that anyone could have a different opinion than they do. Different religion, same old tactical games.
As a Catholic, I believe that Reason is the supreme guide over all things here relating to what is natural. Even God must not be irrational. You seem to think that reason is arbitrary and I reject that affront to glorious Reason and I defend Her!

Sal Mangano said...

Credo,

I'll get back to you in some future post on these topics. I suspect my readers are not benefited nor entertained by us duking it out in the bowels of the comments. At least I know that I am getting bored.

-Sal