Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Intellectual laziness over intelligent design, etc

Here are science news excerpts with my comments in square brackets:

Intellectual laziness over intelligent design The Sunday Times - Comment, Dr Matthew Chalmers, Institute of Physics, September 11, 2005. ROD LIDDLE does his best to knock scientists off their pedestals while taking care not to side with the "deadbeat" promoters of intelligent design (Comment, last week). But he goes one step too far. By suggesting that it is reasonable to discuss ID as a possible alternative to evolutionary theory in school science lessons he has sadly fallen into the same trap of so many others in this recent non-debate. The reason why intelligent design should not be taught in science classes is blindingly simple: it isn't science. Does Liddle also think that A-level biology should include a short module on the virgin birth as an alternative to sexual reproduction, or perhaps a homework assignment about life after death? After all, millions of people believe in those. The only people who think that science is based on a series of unquestionable facts or, as Liddle puts it, a "quasi- religious fixation with certitude" are those who have never done any scientific research. Much of this misunderstanding is the fault of scientists themselves for not doing enough to promote science outside their exclusive club. But they are not the only ones to blame. Intelligent design is at best religious-right extremism; at worst, intellectual laziness. And with today's school-leavers facing genuine and unprecedented scientific, ethical and philosophical issues, such as stem cell research, human cloning and climate change, it has never been more vital that we stop entertaining such regressive, derisory fodder. ... [This tissue of fallacies was in response to a comment by a Ron Liddle who said "I am about 99.99% convinced that intelligent design or creationism is an incorrect explanation for the development of life on earth. ... But it is a view that has been popularly believed for at least 2,000 years years: why not allow it to be analysed scientifically within the classroom? For an afternoon, at least". However, Chalmers sets him straight that anti-design can only survive by denying that its alternative, design (e.g. ID), "isn't science." But this is simply false.

First, as leading philosopher of science Larry Laudan pointed out, attempts to set up principled "demarcation criteria" for what is, and is not, "science" have failed, and "we ought to drop terms like `pseudoscience' and `unscientific' from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us [and] our focus should be squarely on the empirical and conceptual credentials for claims about the world", i.e. "is it true"?, rather than "is it scientific"?:

"Through certain vagaries of history, some of which I have alluded to here, we have managed to conflate two quite distinct questions: What makes a belief well founded (or heuristically fertile)? And what makes a belief scientific? The first set of questions is philosophically interesting and possibly even tractable, the second question is both uninteresting and, judging by its checkered past, intractable. If we would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like `pseudoscience' and `unscientific' from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us. As such, they are more suited to the rhetoric of politicians and Scottish sociologists of knowledge than to that of empirical researchers. Insofar as our concern is to protect ourselves and our fellows from the cardinal sin of believing what we wish were so rather than what there is substantial evidence for (and surely that is what most forms of `quackery' come down to), then our focus should be squarely on the empirical and conceptual credentials for claims about the world. The `scientific' status of those claims is altogether irrelevant." (Laudan L., "The Demise of the Demarcation Problem," in Ruse M., ed., "But is it Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy," Prometheus Books: Amherst NY, 1996, p.349)

Second, see again this quote by the eminent French biologist Pierre Grasse:

"Take, for example, regulation of the coagulation of blood, a highly complex phenomenon to which biologists seem to have given little thought. Its normal cause is the opening of a vein, artery, or capillaries; the blood brought into contact with the lip of the wound (damaged tissues) becomes the site of chain reactions ending in the formation of a clot. This is only possible because there preexist in the blood reaction agents or their precursors whose end effect is to coagulate certain proteins of the blood plasma. The organism, ready for all eventualities, bears within itself in the latent state its own protective system. Genes control the elaboration of coagulants, proteins, and enzymes. Such a process forms a single whole; a lack of a substance arises, an enzyme is affected, and the system will not work. One does not see how it can have been formed by successive chance effects supplying a protein or an enzyme in any random order. Besides, we know that the effects of mutations on the system are disastrous and form the lengthiest chapter in blood pathology. The system has become functional only when all its components have come together and adjusted themselves to one another. The Darwinian hypothesis compels us to postulate a preparatory period during which selection acts upon something that does not, physiologically speaking, yet exist. Under the necessary conditions of the postulate, the action can only have been prophetic!" (Grasse P.-P., "Evolution of Living Organisms: Evidence for a New Theory of Transformation," Academic Press: New York NY, 1977, p.152. Emphasis in original)

where in 1973 Grasse effectively made the same `irreducible complexity' argument for the blood-clotting cascade that Mike Behe independently arrived at in 1996. So to sustain a claim that Mike Behe's "irreducible compexity" argument for the vertebrate blood-clotting cascade is "not science", the Darwinists would have to show that Grasse's effectively identical claim was also "not science". But since Grasse was: 1) described by Gould as "the great French zoologist Pierre-Paul Grasse" (Gould S.J., "An Urchin in the Storm," 1987, p.234); 2) "for thirty years, held the chair for evolution at the Sorbonne" (Koestler A., "Janus," 1983, p.177); and 3) Grasse's opponent Dobzhansky wrote of him:

"Now, one can disagree with Grasse but not ignore him, he is the most distinguished of French zoologists, the editor of the 28 volumes of `Traite de Zoologie', author of numerous original investigations and ex-president of the Academie des Sciences. His knowledge of the living world is encyclopedic ...." (Dobzhansky T.G., "Darwinian or `Oriented' Evolution?" Review of Grasse P.-P., "L'Evolution du Vivant," Editions Albin Michel: Paris, 1973, in "Evolution," Vol. 29, June 1975, pp.376-378, p.376)
that is not going to succeed. The longer the Darwinists continue this "ID is not science" mantra, the more the public will draw the obvious conclusion that "the Darwinists ... are afraid to encounter the best arguments against their theory" and that "A real science does not ...rely on enforcing rules of reasoning that allow no alternative to the official story. [but] would welcome the critics to an academic forum for open debate" (Johnson P.E., "The Wedge of Truth," 2000, p.141. My emphasis).]

Exploding Star Is Said to Be Oldest Ever Observed, Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2005. John Johnson Jr. ... In the equivalent of spotting a bonfire at the dawn of time, NASA's orbiting Swift satellite has detected the most-distant exploding star - a cosmic suicide that took place just 500 million years or so after the creation of the universe, scientists say. Located 12.6 billion light years from Earth, the explosion shows that giant stars formed earlier than previously thought. "This is the first direct evidence of very early stars," said Neil Gehrels ... "It tells us when the dark ages of the early universe were coming to an end."... The explosion occurred when the universe was about 7% of its current age, about 13.7 billion years. ... Astronomers Detect Most Distant Explosion Ever,, Ker Than, 12 September 2005. ... A team of international researchers announced today the detection of the farthest space explosion ever recorded, breaking the previous record by 500 million light-years. Known as gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), the eruptions are giant flares of energetic gamma-rays that can last from less than a second to several minutes. .... GRBs signal the explosion of very massive stars that have collapsed into black holes and are the most explosive events to happen in the Universe since the Big Bang. "It's luminosity is such that within a few minutes it must have released 300 times more energy than the Sun will release during its entire life of 10,000 million years," said Guido Chincarini ...Astronomers believe short GRBs that can last for only fractions of a second are generated when two massive objects, like black holes or neutron stars or even whole galaxies, collide, releasing tremendous amounts of radiation in the process. The longer bursts, which can last for several minutes, are thought to be the final energetic emissions of massive stars that first undergo tremendous explosions called supernovas before condensing into black holes. Researchers calculate cosmic distances by measuring the extent to which light from distant stars are "shifted" towards the red part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The higher the redshift, the greater the distance. The new GRB has a redshift of 6.29, meaning that it occurred when the universe was less than a billion years old. The previous most distant GRB had a redshift of 4.5. "This is uncharted territory," said Daniel Reichart ... "We are finally starting to see the remnants of some of the oldest objects in the universe" ... [Note the language in the first article: "after the creation of the universe"!]

Analyzing the Circuitry of Stem Cells, The New York Times, Nicholas Wade, September 13, 2005. How are the 25,000 genes of a human cell controlled and orchestrated? How does a stem cell in the embryo develop into a mature cell of the brain or heart or liver? A possibly deep insight into all these questions has been gained by mapping the top-level circuitry that controls the human embryonic stem cell. Scientists ... have reconstructed the top level of the controls that govern a human embryonic stem cell. .... In front of most genes is a sequence of DNA known as a promoter region. When the right transcription factor, a protein, lands on the promoter, the DNA of the gene is transcribed into RNA. This is the first step in generating whatever protein the gene specifies. But that has left wide open the question of the higher levels of control. The cell has not one but 25,000 genes to deal with. In each type of cell, a majority of these genes must be kept permanently switched off since their products would interfere with the cell's specific role. Other genes must respond instantly to signals arriving from the outside environment. This requires a higher level of control. But given that the cell has no central management or computer, where does this higher level of control reside? Richard Young ...investigated this question. Starting with yeast, he found three years ago that many of the yeast cell's transcription factors act on the promoters that control other transcription factor genes. This interaction between transcription factors seemed to serve as the cell's higher level control system. He has now applied the technique to human cells, starting with embryonic stem cells. The cells, he and colleagues say in the current issue of Cell, are controlled by a triumvirate of three transcription factors, known as oct4, sox2 and nanog. The three factors interact with one another to maintain joint activity. They also control a large set of promoter sites that govern genes involved in the cell's major developmental pathways. The control is exerted jointly to a surprising extent, since two or sometimes three members of the triumvirate are required at the promoter sites. They do not turn genes on, however; they keep them inactive. They inhibit genes that lead to the embryo's first developmental steps, the formation of the endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm layers of tissue, as well as other major pathways. ... Dr. Young says he believes that the repressive controls exerted by the oct4 troika must somehow remain in place, even after the troika has been retired, on all but one of the main developmental paths, depending on which cues a cell is receiving from its environment. ... [Isn't the `blind watchmaker' wonderful! :-)]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

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