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Science!

On Tuesday, when people in my company gathered to listen to the inaugural address, one particular sentence caused a small number of us to applaud and cheer.

Actually, it was just a fraction of a sentence.

As soon as President Obama had said, "We will restore science to its rightful place," those of us in the science department cheered, much to the amusement of the folks in the other departments.

The sad truth is that science has been under attack in this country over the past few years. I don't really want to revisit all the attacks right now; for anyone interested, there are plenty of articles and books on the subject. I will remind people that in 2004, a group of scientists – including 20 Nobel laureates – issued a statement pointing out the distortion of scientific facts that had been presented to the American people by the government. These distortions had mostly been made with the sole goal of supporting government policies that would have made no sense in the light of scientific facts.

But that light is beginning to show through the cracks. In the article Scientists Welcome Obama's Words, the reporters note that the scientific community is hopeful for policies which acknowledge that science must come before policy.

And in other news, the Texas Board of Education has voted to remove discussion of evolution's '"strengths weaknesses" in their science standards. The phrase "strengths and weaknesses" is a code word among anti-evolutionists to try yet again to sneak religion into science class, and I'm delighted that Texas is finally doing the right thing....after twenty years.

Whenever I hear about suppression of science, or the attempts to sneak pseudoscience into science classes, I am always reminded of Richard Feynman's words as a member of the Challenger commission: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Unfortunately, people can be fooled, which is why we must always remain vigilant.

Comments

Er... but evolutionary theory /does/ have strengths and weaknesses, doesn't it? I feel as though I heard or read in just the last few days of a few situations in which experiences effect DNA of certain beings, causing changes among their offspring--a female beetle that has had to ward off predators produces offspring with a hard shell around their heads, whereas one of the same species who has /not/ had to ward off predators produces offspring with softer heads...

To me, that definitely raises questions about evolutionary theory, or at least suggests that plenty of qualifiers should be added to it. I admit I have not studied the theory in depth--I got out The Origin of Species once but didn't get around to reading it before it was due--but it's something worth being aware of, no?
The so-called weaknesses of evolutionary theory that the anti-evolutionists want taught are either distortions (such as claiming that the second law of thermodynamics means that evolution is impossible) or questions that were pondered and dismissed by scientists over half a century ago. (Evolution, general relativity, and quantum mechanics are the three most well-tested theories in all of science.)

The anti-evolution movement in this country basically has as its goal to introduce religion into science classes, and their own preferred religion at that. As a scientist and a member of a minority religion, I object to their goals and distortions.

As for the beetle example, I honestly haven't heard about it, so I really can't comment. But I will point out that evolution is usually a slow process, and while genetic mutation does occur on an individual scale, if anything that would just support the theory and not undermine it.
Ah, but the fascinating thing was that this wasn't a mutation: every female of this species will produce hard-headed offspring if they themselves have been threatened. It was fascinating to read about.

Regarding putting religion into the science books, I hear you. I guess I'm more interested in what genuine weaknesses might be.

I can't for the life of me remember where I read about the beetles, and a few other species who have similar tendencies, and to be honest I'd suspect myself of making it up or dreaming it, but it doesn't seem like the sort of thing I'd make up! The article even brought up Lamarck, but it doesn't sound much like his theory either. Now, one could of course say that it began as a mutation, and mothers who produce hard-headed offspring when they're threatened have more surviving offspring, but that's already getting quite removed from the simple, basic version.
I think what you're missing here is the history that came before the phrase "strengths and weaknesses." In the beginning, the anti-evolutions tried to ban evolution from being taught in schools, and they were actually quite successful for many years. Then, when evolution was taking its proper place in science classes, they tried to have "creationism" taught as well. The courts rejected it since it wasn't science, so they came up with the term "creation science," claiming that their idea was just as "scientific." That got rejected, so they moved onto "intelligent design," their claim that some intelligence can be scientifically proven to be behind evolution. But in discovery, it was found that their strategy was to use this idea to once again introduce their own religious belief into school science classes (look up the wedge document for more information on that). "Strengths and weaknesses" became their new code word.

Of course any theory ought to have its strengths and weaknesses explored. But the anti-evolutionists reject the fact that evolution's weaknesses have been probed for over a century and have been found to be almost entirely nonexistent. They're using the language to try to get their own religious beliefs taught as fact in public school, and that frightens me.
*nods* I was not aware of it in that much detail, but I did know the basics and did not intend to sound as though I was encouraging their side. I guess what I was trying to note was the difference between "Strengths and weaknesses" and strengths and weaknesses.
I have to say that I find it funny that the terminology used by the anti-evolutionists has had to evolve to survive... :-)
*grins* No it didn't! God made the word that way!
This phenomenon doesn't raise any issues with evolution. Evolutionary theory doesn't directly explain everything in biology, but it provides the over-arching framework to explaining how life arises and changes.

To draw a (loose) human analogy, a woman in a lot of high-stress situations (such as warding off predators) will have a lot of adrenaline. It's plausible to imagine that having an effect on the development of her child (to my knowledge this doesn't happen, but it's easy to imagine it).

The same thing could be going on with these beetles--a high-stress situation leads to chemical changes in the mother, with developmental ramifications for the offspring that will increase their fitness in the presumably hostile environment. The fact that we don't know what's going on is not a flaw in evolution, it's just a gap in our knowledge (the typical ID position is that these are equivalent).

The fact that it's consistent across the entire species means that it isn't some Lamarckian effect but rather an evolved response to environmental stress.
"The fact that it's consistent across the entire species means that it isn't some Lamarckian effect but rather an evolved response to environmental stress."

Aha! I hadn't thought of that, and I have a Master's degree in Science!

But you're right. If it's consistent across the species, that itself is evidence of natural selection.
Also, even if some Lamarckist mechanism exists (something I would not rule out), it's still a form of evolution, and doesn't support the creationist viewpoint in any way.
Oh, certainly not--I wasn't arguing for creationism. My own view on that topic, for what it's worth, is that while I am a believer in God, who am I to say that God's method of creating and developing life was not evolution? *shrugs* I don't know if that would be satisfying to people who are atheist or agnostic, but for me it works.
I think evolution is a beautiful theory, very elegant, very intuitive in its basic form at least, and really... well, lovely.
I am not arguing against evolution at all. I just found it interesting that there are questions regarding it, or refinements to be made to it, even now, and wanted to share.
>Aha! I hadn't thought of that, and I have a Master's degree in Science!

I hope everyone read that with the proper cadence and inflection....

...and remember, he knows more than you do.
Ah-ha!
http://www.newsweek.com/id/180103

Intriguing article--I'd be curious to hear your take on it.
Fascinating. However, my brief read of the article indicates that it's a question of how traits are inherited by offspring, and not an attack on the idea that evolution itself functions. Lamarck himself also accepted the inheritance of traits, but his model of how traits were inherited differed from Darwin's.

In short, the water flea example does nothing to discredit evolution, although it may indicate factors other than natural selection sometimes affecting the inheritance of traits.

(I remember when we studied Lamarck in class, that our teacher had an excellent example of something that discredited Lamarck's mechanism. If traits were passed down by simple changes in morphology, then Jewish boys at this point in time would be born pre-circumcised.)
An attack, no, but I did feel like it was adding something new and interesting. As you say, indicating factors other than natural selection.

In a way it may even tie in with the nature-vs.-nurture debate, though I think I've made myself look silly enough for one thread and am not especially in the mood to post thoughts on that without thinking about it long and hard!

And that's a cute example. ;-) My teacher went with the more standard giraffe example.

Speaking of my teacher, as I recall the book he selected for his class had the simple statement that, "Not everyone believes in evolution. People of some religions believe that all species were created by God." I didn't think much about it at the time, though of course I noticed it. Would that statement be something you'd object to, or are the statements you find troubling more thorough?
Would that statement be something you'd object to, or are the statements you find troubling more thorough?

That's a difficult question to answer. I mean, I believe in God, and I believe that evolution is the mechanism God set up to create species. But I don't believe that statement belongs in a science class.

You see, evolution isn't something one "believes" in. It's like saying that I "believe in" Newtonian physics, or Einstein's theory of gravity.

If you're interested in more on this topic, can I recommend the book "Finding Darwin's God" by Kenneth Miller? Miller is an evolutionary biologist and a devout Catholic who testified at the Dover PA case a few years ago. You can find his testimony at http://www.toarchive.org/faqs/dover/day1am.html#day1am103 . It's fascinating stuff.
Thanks! I shall put it on my reading list. I may try to have another crack at Darwin. I like to consider myself an educated layman when it comes to science, and it bothers me that I haven't yet read some very important works in the topic.
what fascinated me was this passage:

"mother mouse eats a diet rich in vitamin B12, folic acid or genistein (found in soy), her offspring are slim, healthy and brown—even though they carry a gene that makes them fat, at risk of diabetes and cancer, and yellow. It turns out that the vitamins slap a molecular "off" switch on the obesity/diabetes/yellow-fur gene."

We already know that each of us has genes that are turned "on" and genes that are turned "off". This would appear to show that diet can turn on or off genes, at least in our offspring.
Yes, isn't that cool? As I recall, it wasn't clear whether the mother mouse was eating that diet during her pregnancy or for the entirety of her life, but there were several things mentioned int he article I'd like to learn more about.
In addition to the science mention, I was thrilled that he included non-believers in the usual religious round-up. Might well have been the first time any President specifically mentioned such.
Good heavens, I'm talking a lot this round, but I was actually curious about that. I would have expected the term 'non-believer' to be not the best one to use, given that it defines people by what they are not, rather than by what they are. It also had certain undertones to me of, "Here we all are, all these people of religion, and also those people over there who don't believe." And I kept thinking of "Curse the unbeliever!", which I'm quite certain was not the intention.

I would have expected that someone of his ability with words would have chosen a phrase less loaded. "Atheists and agnostics", for example, would have defined people by their beliefs rather than lack of same, and would also have kept to his rhythm better. If he was looking to break the rhythm, then, "people who are not part of an organized religion" I would have thought could do. Are you in the non-believer category? If so, would you have preferred a different wording, or is non-believer acceptable?

On a completely unrelated note

Today's Dinosaur Comic may be of interest to you. I seem to recall reading the "time travel is space travel" argument on this journal at some point.
"We will restore science to its rightful place"

I cheered as well.

And good news about the Texas improvement. We (in Kansas) had a similar scare, but the watered-down standards never went into effect, and then we voted the anti-evolutionists off the board of education.

But you are correct about remaining vigilant. The forces against science are still out there. An no place in the US is safe.
While I have greatly appreciated most of the decisions the new President has made this week, there is still one issue where I firmly come down against him...

...his continued support of FISA, warrantless wiretapping, and all that.

George Orwell (and any citizen of the Soviet Union who lived through the Stalin regime!) warned us well of the danger of the surveillance society, and yet we keep letting American presidents and British prime ministers walk us down this path...

...and we won't have a Michael Garibaldi AI to save us from this one.
Yay for science as science, not as politics!
I was very pleased with that line too! (When I read it - didn't get to watch, sadly.)
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