Monday, April 04, 2005

Creationism is a disease resulting from a lack of imagination (or intellect)

Recently there has been an organized effort by creationists (I refuse to call them “proponents of Intelligent Design” as it only feeds into their public relations efforts to rename themselves and thus escape the criticism they deserve) to insert what amounts to astrology into science education. In their current guise creationists describe themselves as “scientists” who offer “scientific” objections to the theory of evolution. In fact, they describe it as “incompatible” with the observed complexity of life. Creationists cleverly avoid associating themselves with religion by sophistically attacking the scientific basis of evolution by calling it “just a theory” while implying that if evolution can not successfully explain the origin of life a supernatural force must be at work. Unfortunately the scientific literacy of the American public is such that the attacks of the pseudo-scientists have taken hold on a number of fronts. I will discuss their objections to evolution specifically then, in a later article, discuss the disastrous consequences possible should their efforts to alter science education succeed.

What is a “theory”? The normal usage of the term indicates something that is unfounded, in fact just an idea that someone has offered with little or no evidence. The scientific use of the term is much different. Theories in science follow “hypotheses” which are more closely related to the general usage of the word “theory”. When a process is noted in nature scientists offer ideas, or “hypotheses” that could potentially explain the observation. Following this conjecture they experimentally test their hypothesis via the normal scientific process, by proposing experiments which would eliminate alternative theories while buttressing their own idea. These experiments are then published in the scientific literature, complete with the researcher’s hypothesis. Subsequently, other scientists in the area attempt to replicate the researcher’s data while possibly offering competing hypotheses which would also explain the event. After a period a single “theory” usually emerges which best explains the observation. This “theory” has been exhaustively tested in the laboratory and has withstood scrutiny from experts on a number of fronts. Thus, the attempt to use the term “theory” as a pejorative by creationists may gain traction with the scientifically unversed but sounds much like fingernails on a chalkboard to those familiar with the practice of science.

The theory of evolution has recently been attacked by creationists by rehashing an old argument made by William Paley which states that the very complexity of life evidences a designer. Paley asked that if a person should find a pocket watch in a field would it not make the most sense to assume that someone had fashioned it and then left it in that place (Rather than it had formed there spontaneously)? He predated Darwin (Who read, and appreciated, Paley’s work) and thus was not familiar with the theory of natural selection. Ostensibly, his argument makes sense. In our limited time on this earth how often have we seen complex structures formed by what seem to be random processes? Have we ever dropped a coffee mug to see it form a saucer on the floor? Not likely. Darwin’s Black Box, a book written by Mike Behe, uses this visceral reaction to summative processes to “prove” evolution wrong. He states that some portions of animals, plants, even bacteria, would not possibly function in a useful manner if they were missing a single part. For example, what possible function could bacterial flagella (The rotating tails which aid in the movement of certain bacteria) have predating their current form? By implication he states that they could not have possible “evolved”, they must have been created fully functional, in their current form.

This creation argument seems reasonable, doesn’t it? What good would an eye be if it couldn’t see things? What possible good could blood clotting proteins be before they quelled bleeding? The problem with this line of argument is the limits of Professor Behe’s imagination (And, apparently, his intellect). A number of articles have offered possible, even probable, usages of these and many other processes and structures in the body as they evolved (Including evidence for these past uses). For example, there are a number of cells in organisms which respond to the stimulus of light. It is quite possible that these cells became centralized and associated within the organism conferring an evolutionary advantage by allowing, for example, photosynthetic organisms to move to areas with higher intensities of light. It is difficult for all of us to imagine evolution on a macroscopic scale. How is it possible for “random” genetic mutations to produce phenotypical advantages that make one organism better suited to life in a certain environment? The problem is that the human lifespan is rather short and we tend to view all things through the lens of our own history. Over millions of years it has been shown (and even observed) that genetic mutations do lead to additive changes in organisms which allow populations to adapt to a changing environment. I know it is difficult to imagine this occurring. It is quite often the case in science that the explanations for phenomena are counter-intuitive. In fact, many initial “common sense” hypothesis turn out to be incorrect. I am reminded of quantum mechanics. I have yet to understand how something could be in two states at one time or randomly “pop” through a wall and appear on the other side. Fortunately, I am not alone in this difficulty.

Yet another canard employed by pseudo-scientific creationists to “disprove” evolution, or in reality to necessitate a creator, is the “Thermodynamic proof of Design”. This is an especially embarrassing misuse of science as it is so obviously misguided. Certain creationists postulate that as the 2nd law of thermodynamics (explained in detail in this link but, in a bit of simplification, states that a system tends towards an increasing state of disorder. That “disorder” is called entropy and given a value in energy. A more positive value means less order, a more negative value means more order.). From this law creationists postulate that, since life requires so much organization that a higher power must be working against the 2nd law to “create” and “design” these living beings.

The thermodynamic proof of “Design” is, of course, a gross misunderstanding of very basic physics. For example, I was in the supermarket a few weeks ago (A rarity, I buy almost every meal. I believe that most things in life should be done by professionals, including cooking) and as I walked by a very ordered pyramid of oranges collapsed and fell to the floor. As rolled to a stop on the floor they formed an almost perfect star shaped pattern. Does that pattern indicate that some invisible power wanted a star shaped pile of oranges on the floor? No. But, you ask, doesn’t this new shape of oranges violate the second law? No. You see what is often not mentioned by the creationists is that the 2nd law specifies that the overall order of any system tends to decrease with time. If you don’t consider that previously the oranges were neatly stacked you might believe that a “designer” was involved. (I know, this begs the question of “what caused the oranges to fall”. To that I would ask that if you believe that every single thing requires a cause, what caused God? The prime mover argument is old indeed and fraught with errors. I would suggest that we should all consider the possibility of the universe as a vacuum fluctuation, rather than require an infinite regress. And please don’t offer the anthropic argument of design as a valid proof.). The same goes with the argument concerning life, while the overall order of organisms is indeed increasing (By using massive amounts of energy I might add. A former professor of mine once defined life as “The battle against equilibrium”, or the state reached by organisms when they run out of energy), the overall disorder of the universe is increasing (We get our energy from the sun, which burns brightly thereby giving off energy and heat, increasing the disorder of the universe. Now, multiply that by trillions of stars. You get my drift.). Thus, by a slight of hand some creationists offer what is really a risible argument for design.

Creationist arguments based on what seems like science have become more sophisticated but no less incorrect (Do not mistake credentials, especially a Ph.D., as proof of scientific integrity. There are many trained “scientists” who sacrifice their devotion to the rigor of the scientific method in order to pander to their own ideology). Of the most recent “proofs” William Dembski’s mathematical argument for creationism based on information theory is the most likely to confuse the public. I will not spend the time or space here refuting his theory as it has been done in great detail elsewhere. Suffice it to say that creationist theory simply attempts to attack the foundations of evolution (quite unsuccessfully) while offering no legitimate alternative (Other than the implied supernatural “designer”). The danger here is that these authors will be (and often are) cited by the scientifically illiterate as mainline scientists who represent some sort of highly populated cabal opposing evolution on factual grounds. The public (Especially religiously oriented, and intellectually stunted school boards) are beginning to frame this as a real question in science. I am sure I could find an M.D. (Hopefully not many) who believes that voodoo is a valid method of treating cancer. If I trotted this “expert” out would we call for a re-examination of cancer therapy and state that a voodoo versus biochemical controversy was raging in medicine? I would hope not but this is exactly what seems to be occurring in the sciences. The only remedy for this affliction is to ensure that the American public is well versed in science, the very thing that is now in jeopardy should we allow the creationists access to our classrooms. I will devote another article to the potential consequences of giving creationists equal time and thus the air of legitimacy they crave.


Anonymous Je Suis said...

Really, are you actually claiming the "it's possible" line against creationsim and for evolution? Now THAT'S ironic.

3:34 AM  

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