Darwinism and Morality

May 13, 2013

William Provine is a biologist and historian of biology at Cornell University. He is forthright about biological evolution and its implications, writing, for example, that evolution is the greatest engine of atheism ever invented. Provine summarises the consequences of the belief in evolution as follows:

Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.[1]

In this post, we will concentrate on points 3 and 5 above.

***

The evolutionary view is that moral law is something humans create as an evolved adaptation – a conviction that something is right or wrong arises out of the struggle for survival. All the notions we associate with moral and ethical principles are merely adaptations, foisted upon us by evolutionary mechanisms in order to maximize survival.

Provine’s logic is unassailable, if you grant his premises. His point of departure is that nothing exists beyond matter and energy. Matter and energy may manifest themselves in relatively simple forms – a hydrogen molecule, perhaps – and in complex forms, as in a butterfly or human being. But in the end, it all boils down to quarks, electrons and other denizens of the subatomic world. It follows that there cannot be an objective foundation for morality, and that human free will is an illusion, the result of complex neuronal interactions.

This is a popular (inevitable, really) notion among contemporary evolutionists. In 1985, the entomologist E.O. Wilson and the philosopher of science Michael Ruse co-authored an article in which they wrote that “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.” In his 1998 book Consilience, Wilson argued that “Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions.” He rejected the former explanation, which he called transcendentalist ethics, in favour of the latter, which he named empiricist ethics.[2]

Indeed, the whole field of sociobiology, founded by Wilson in the 1970s, presupposes that morality is the product of evolutionary processes and tries to explain most human behaviours by discovering their alleged reproductive advantage in the evolutionary struggle for existence. (Stephen Jay Gould is among numerous evolutionists who ridiculed the field for its proclivity to invent just-so stories).

One implication of the belief that human beings do not possess moral freedom is that criminals cannot be held responsible for their deeds. University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne thus writes – in a post entitled Is There Moral Responsibility? – that he does not believe in moral responsibility:

I favor the notion of holding people responsible for good and bad actions, but not morally responsible. That is, people are held accountable for, say, committing a crime, because punishing them simultaneously acts as a deterrent, a device for removing them from society, and a way to get them rehabilitated – if that’s possible. To me, the notion of moral responsibility adds nothing to this idea.  In fact, the idea of moral responsibility implies that a person had the ability to choose whether to act well or badly, and (in this case) took the bad choice. But I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people, so although they may be acting in an “immoral” way, depending on whether society decides to retain the concept of morality (this is something I’m open about), they are not morally responsible.  That is, they can’t be held responsible for making a choice with bad consequences on the grounds that they could have chosen otherwise.[3]

David Baggett describes how this notion manifests itself in contemporary academia:

I have found a recent trend among a number of naturalistic ethicists and thinkers to be both interesting and mildly exasperating, but most of all telling. Both one like John Shook, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York… and Frans de Waal, author most recently of The Bonobo and the Atheist (to adduce but a few examples) seem to be gravitating toward functional categories of morality. Talk of belief and practice replaces talk of truth; references to moral rules exceed those of moral obligations; and prosocial instincts supplant moral authority.[4]

But these notions are hardly recent. As the historian Richard Weikart puts it, “The idea that evolution undermines objective moral standards is hardly a recent discovery of sociobiology, however. In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin devoted many pages to discussing the evolutionary origin of morality, and he recognized what this meant: morality is not objective, is not universal, and can change over time. Darwin certainly believed that evolution had ethical implications.” Ever since then, evolutionists have been arguing that human free will is a mirage and that morality is subjective. Here are representative examples of a vast genre.[5]

***

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was a leading criminologist who authored the landmark study Criminal Man in 1876. According to Lombroso, infanticide, parricide, theft, cannibalism, kidnapping and antisocial actions could be explained largely as a throwback to earlier stages of Darwinian evolution. In earlier stages of development such behaviours aided survival and were therefore bred into biological organisms by natural selection. William Noyes, one of Lombroso’s American disciples, explained that “In the process of evolution, crime has been one of the necessary accompaniments of the struggle for existence.” Invoking modern science in general and Charles Darwin’s work in particular, Italian jurist Enrico Ferri (1856-1929), one of Lombroso’s top disciples, argued that it was no longer reasonable to believe that human beings could make choices outside the realm of material cause and effect. Ferri applauded Darwin for showing “that man is not the king of creation, but merely the last link of the zoological chain, that nature is endowed with eternal energies by which animal and plant life… are transformed from the invisible microbe to the highest form, man.” Ferri looked forward to the day when crime would be treated as a “disease”.

Ludwig Büchner (1824–1899) was a German medical doctor who became president of the Congress of the International Federation of Freethinkers. He was an outspoken atheist and authored Force and Matter, a materialist tract that went through fifteen editions in German and four in English. He was one of the most energetic popularisers of Darwin’s work in the German-speaking world. Büchner wrote that “the vast majority of those who offend against the laws of the State and of Society ought to be looked upon rather as unfortunates who deserve pity than as objects of execration.” Büchner argued that the [alleged] brain abnormalities in many criminals showed that they were throwbacks to “the brains of pre-historic men.”

***

Born into wealth and privilege, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were Chicagoan graduate students who decided to commit the perfect crime. In the spring of 1924, they abducted and murdered 14-year old Bobby Franks. They were eventually apprehended and confessed to their crime.

Clarence Darrow was hired to save Leopold and Loeb from the gallows. Yes – Clarence Darrow of the famous Monkey Trial in Tennessee. Darrow was a true believer in evolution. According to him, the question before the court was whether it would embrace “the old theory” that “a man does something… because he wilfully, purposely, maliciously and with a malignant heart sees fit to do it” or the new theory of modern science that “every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.” According to Darrow, Leopold and Loeb murdered Franks “… because they were made that way…”

Robert Crowe, the state’s chief prosecutor in the case, challenged “Darrow’s dangerous philosophy of life.” He read to the court a speech Darrow had delivered to prisoners at a county jail more than twenty years earlier. Darrow had told the prisoners that there was no moral difference between themselves and those who were outside jail. “I do not believe people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it, on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control, and for which they are in no way responsible.” “There ought to be no jails”, he told the prisoners.

***

In his book Crime: Criminals and Criminal Justice (1932), University of Buffalo criminologist Nathaniel Cantor ridiculed “the grotesque notion of a private entity, spirit, soul, will, conscience or consciousness interfering with the orderly processes of body mechanisms.” Because we humans are no different in principle to any other biological organism, “man is no more ‘responsible’ for becoming wilful and committing a crime than the flower for becoming red and fragrant. In both cases the end products are predetermined by the nature of protoplasm and the chance of circumstances.” The sociologist J.P. Shalloo wrote in the 1940s that it was the “world-shaking impact of Darwinian biology, with its emphasis upon the long history of man and the importance of heredity for a clear understanding of man’s biological constitution” that finally opened the door to a truer understanding of crime than traditional views.

***

Evolution is not only a scientifically untenable theory, but also a morally bankrupt, corrosive spiritual poison that undermines the foundations of human society.

***

See also: the post Random and Undirected:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/04/29/random-and-undirected/

References:

[1] Abstract of Dr. William Provine’s 1998 Darwin Day Keynote Address, Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life. This used to be available at http://fp.bio.utk.edu/darwin/frmain.html. I was not able to retrieve it.

[2] See the article by the historian Richard Weikart here:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/05/at_emory_univer_1059491.html.

Retrieved 12th May 2013.

[3] See http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/is-there-moral-responsibility/.

Retrieved 12th May 2013.

[4] See http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/04/26/watering-down-the-categories/#comments.

Retrieved 12th May 2013.

[5] Much of the material in the rest of this post is from the superb Darwin Day in America by John G. West, ISI Books, 2007.

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Dr. John Ioannidis and the Reality of Research

May 5, 2013

I mentioned Dr. John Ioannidis a number of times in Genesis and Genes, as well as in several posts. A reader has kindly referred me to an excellent article about Dr. Ioannidis that appeared in The Atlantic.[1] Below are some pertinent points from the article, interspersed with my comments.

David H. Freedman, who wrote the article in The Atlantic, notes that “Medical research is not especially plagued with wrongness. Other meta-research experts[2] have confirmed that similar issues distort research in all fields of science, from physics to economics (where the highly regarded economists J. Bradford DeLong and Kevin Lang once showed how a remarkably consistent paucity of strong evidence in published economics studies made it unlikely that any of them were right).”

Understanding the factors that can distort research is a crucial step in becoming an informed consumer of science. Below, we look at some issues that are raised in the Atlantic article, and suggest how they may be relevant to other fields of science.

***

John Ioannidis may be one of the most influential – and popular – scientists today. In 2005, he published a paper in PLoS [Public Library of Science] Medicine that remains the most downloaded in the journal’s history. He has published papers with 1,328 different co-authors at 538 institutions in 43 countries. In 2009 he received, by his estimate, invitations to speak at 1,000 conferences and institutions around the world. Ioannidis is one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in peer-reviewed published studies – conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fibre or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain – is misleading, exaggerated, and often just wrong. Ioannidis charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed.

In the PLoS Medicine paper, Ioannidis laid out a detailed mathematical proof that, assuming modest levels of researcher bias, typically imperfect research techniques, and the tendency to focus on exciting rather than plausible theories, medical researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time. His model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials. [Vioxx, Zelnorm, and Baycol were among the widely prescribed drugs found to be safe and effective in large randomized controlled trials before the drugs were yanked from the market as unsafe or not so effective, or both.] The article articulated Ioannidis’ conclusion that researchers were frequently manipulating data analyses, chasing career-advancing findings rather than good science, and using the peer-review process to suppress unpopular views. These are all phenomena that are well-known to informed consumers of science, but still invisible, to a significant extent, to the general public.

In a seminal paper that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Ioannidis zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. These were articles that helped lead to the widespread popularity of treatments such as the use of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to reduce the risk of heart disease, coronary stents to ward off heart attacks, and daily low-dose aspirin to control blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. So a large fraction of the most acclaimed research in medicine is untrustworthy.

***

There are many reasons for the dismal record of medical research, and we shall only consider a few factors. Ioannidis suggests that the desperate quest for research grants has gone a long way toward weakening the reliability of medical research. Readers of Genesis and Genes will recall the passage from Seed:

Cash-for-science practices between the nutrition and drug companies and the academics that conduct their research may also be playing a role. A survey of published results on beverages earlier this year found that research sponsored by industry is much more likely to report favorable findings than papers with other sources of funding. Although not a direct indication of bias, findings like these feed suspicion that the cherry-picking of data, hindrance of negative results, or adjustment of research is surreptitiously corrupting accuracy. In his essay, Ioannidis wrote, “The greater the financial and other interest and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.”[3]

In The Atlantic article, Ioannidis is blunt about one important factor in this situation. “The studies were biased,” he says. “Sometimes they were overtly biased. Sometimes it was difficult to see the bias, but it was there.” Researchers headed into their studies wanting certain results – and, lo and behold, they were getting them. We think of the scientific process as being objective and rigorous, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, sometimes unintentionally or unconsciously. “At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded,” says Ioannidis. “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.” The fact that financial conflicts of interest are a feature of contemporary science is familiar to readers of Genesis and Genes:

I randomly pulled out from my shelf an issue of Scientific American. It happened to be the September 23, 2004 issue. It carried this announcement, made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest: “Some scientists and consumer advocates have called for a re-evaluation of studies that led to lower cholesterol guidelines. Among other concerns: eight of nine authors of the recommendations had ties to firms that make cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.” This is a thoroughly typical news item in science magazines. This particular note was so ordinary that it warranted all of a tiny mention on page 17. Anyone who reads science publications will periodically come across such items.

Ioannidis says that perhaps only a minority of researchers were succumbing to this type of bias, but their distorted findings were having an outsize effect on published research. To get funding and tenured positions, and often merely to stay afloat, researchers have to get their work published in well-regarded journals, where rejection rates can climb above 90 percent. Not surprisingly, the studies that tend to make the grade are those with eye-catching findings. But while coming up with eye-catching theories is relatively easy, getting reality to bear them out is another matter. The great majority collapse under the weight of contradictory data when studied rigorously. Imagine, though, that five different research teams test an interesting theory that’s making the rounds, and four of the groups correctly prove the idea false, while the single less cautious group incorrectly “proves” it true through some combination of error, fluke, and clever selection of data. Guess whose findings your doctor ends up reading about in the journal?

***

Another issue discussed by Ioannidis is the process of peer-review. The average member of the public (who is, needless to say, not an informed consumer of science) considers peer-review to be a magic pill. Peer-review is supposed to be an objective process, manned by referees who have no personal stake in the research they are reviewing, and who have all the time in the world to devote to carefully checking other peoples’ results. The real world, alas, is a little less rosy. Biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through peer-review. In a 2006 editorial, Nature stated that “Scientists understand that peer review per se provides only a minimal assurance of quality, and that the public conception of peer review as a stamp of authentication is far from the truth.”

Furthermore, the peer-review process often pressures researchers to shy away from striking out in genuinely new directions, and instead to build on the findings of their colleagues – that is, their potential reviewers – in ways that only seem like breakthroughs. One example is the glut of hyped papers touting gene linkages (autism genes identified!) and nutritional findings (olive oil lowers blood pressure!) that are plain dubious.

***

Here is one example of a point made by Ioannidis in the context of medical research which is applicable to palaeontology. Ioannidis says, “Even when the evidence shows that a particular research idea is wrong, if you have thousands of scientists who have invested their careers in it, they’ll continue to publish papers on it. It’s like an epidemic, in the sense that they’re infected with these wrong ideas, and they’re spreading it to other researchers through journals.”

This phenomenon will be familiar to readers of Genesis and Genes. In the section on the alleged evolution of dinosaurs to birds, I discussed the work of researchers like Professor John A. Ruben of Oregon State University, whose work casts heavy doubt on the reigning paradigm. I wrote:

The Science Daily report from which these quotations are taken continues: “The conclusions [of the Oregon State University researchers] add to other… evidence that may finally force many palaeontologists to reconsider their long-held belief that modern birds are the direct descendants of ancient, meat-eating dinosaurs…” Professor Ruben adds, “But old theories die hard, especially when it comes to some of the most distinctive and romanticized animal species in world history.” He continues, “Frankly, there’s a lot of museum politics involved in this, a lot of careers committed to a particular point of view even if new scientific evidence raises questions.”

Furthermore, Ioannidis found that even when a research error is publicised, it typically persists for years or even decades. He looked at three prominent health studies from the 1980s and 1990s that were each later soundly refuted, and discovered that researchers continued to cite the original results as correct more often than as flawed – in one case for at least 12 years after the results were discredited.

***

Early in his career, Ioannidis was disabused of the notion that mechanisms like randomized trials and double-blind studies were magic wands that ensure infallibility. In poring over medical journals, Ioannidis was struck by how many findings of all types were refuted by later findings. This is particularly visible in medical research. One month ago, TIME Magazine published an article entitled Spin Doctors.[4] The article states:

Mammograms help you live longer. Or wait; they may not… In the medical world, this kind of uncertainty is increasingly common… Enter the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), a panel of independent experts charged by Congress with sifting through all the studies about health procedures…

In a side-bar entitled Four Surprising Recommendations, TIME highlights four prominent turnabouts:

  • What you may have heard: Taking estrogen and progestin after menopause can lower the risk of heart disease and bone fractures. What you may not have: The USPSTF says supplemental estrogen can increase the risk of breast cancer and does not protect against heart disease, as earlier studies suggested.
  • What you may have heard: All men over age 50 should get regular blood tests for prostate cancer. What you may not have: Those blood tests, which detect many growths that are not cancerous, can lead to risky interventions. Plus, many prostate tumors are slow-growing and don’t need to be removed, even if they are cancerous.
  • What you may have heard: Women should start annual screening for breast cancer at age 40. What you may not have: Women in their 40s have lower cancer rates than older women and higher rates of false positives that lead to additional tests and procedures that may come with complications.
  • What you may have heard: Vitamin D and calcium can strengthen bones and lower the risk of fractures in postmenopausal women. What you may not have: They may slow bone loss, but recommended doses may not be high enough to lower the risk of fractures. And too much calcium can increase the risk of heart disease.

The article in The Atlantic makes much the same point: mammograms, colonoscopies, and PSA tests are far less useful cancer-detection tools than we had been told; widely prescribed antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil have been revealed to be no more effective than a placebo for most cases of depression; staying out of the sun entirely can actually increase cancer risks; taking fish oil, exercising, and doing puzzles doesn’t really help fend off Alzheimer’s disease; and peer-reviewed studies have come to opposite conclusions on whether taking aspirin every day is more likely to save your life or cut it short, and whether routine angioplasty works better than pills to unclog heart arteries.

One important reason for this see-sawing is that most studies involve a relatively small number of participants and run for a relatively short time, perhaps five years. The reason for this is straightforward – it’s expensive and cumbersome to run experiments for thirty or forty years. But the price paid for these short-term savings is that the results of clinical trials are more often than not incorrect. Let’s see why.

Randomized controlled trials constitute the gold standard in medical research. These studies compare how one group responds to a treatment against how an identical group fares without the treatment. Various checks and balances are used to try to shield the researchers from bias, and, consequently, these trials had long been considered nearly unshakable evidence. But these trials, too, are sometimes wrong. “I realized even our gold-standard research had a lot of problems,” Ioannidis says. Before long he discovered that the range of errors being committed was astonishing: from what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals.

In a typical nutrition or drug study, researchers follow a few thousand people for a number of years, tracking what they eat and what supplements they take, and how their health changes over the course of the study. Then they ask, ‘What did vitamin E do? What did vitamin C or D or A do? What changed with calorie intake, or protein or fat intake? What happened to cholesterol levels? Who got what type of cancer?’

After this, complex statistical models are used to find all sorts of correlations between, say, Vitamin X and cancer Y. When a five-year study of 10,000 people finds that those who take more vitamin X are less likely to get cancer Y, you’d think you have good reason to take more vitamin X, and physicians routinely pass these recommendations on to patients. But these studies often sharply conflict with one another. Studies have gone back and forth on the cancer-preventing powers of vitamins A, D, and E; on the heart-health benefits of eating fat and carbohydrates; and even on the question of whether being overweight is more likely to extend or shorten your life. Ioannidis suggests a simple approach to these studies: ignore them all.

For starters, he explains, the odds are that in any large database of many nutritional and health factors, there will be a few apparent connections that are in fact merely flukes, not real health effects. But even if a study managed to highlight a genuine health connection to some nutrient, a given individual is unlikely to benefit much from taking more of it, because we consume thousands of nutrients that act in concert, and changing the intake of any one nutrient is bound to cause ripples throughout the network that are far too complex for these studies to detect, and that may be as likely to harm you as help you [this is why I explained in Genesis and Genes that science is strongest when it deals with observable, repeatable and limited phenomena.] Even if changing that one factor does bring on the claimed improvement, there’s still a good chance that it won’t do you much good in the long run, because these studies rarely go on long enough to track the decades-long course of disease and ultimately death. Instead, they track easily measurable health ‘markers’ such as cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood-sugar levels, and meta-experts have shown that changes in these markers often don’t correlate as well with long-term health as we have been led to believe.

On the relatively rare occasions when a study does go on long enough to track mortality, the findings frequently upend those of the shorter studies. (For example, though the vast majority of studies of overweight individuals link excess weight to ill health, the longest of them have not convincingly shown that overweight people are likely to die sooner, and a few of them have seemingly demonstrated that moderately overweight people are likely to live longer.) Now add to the above ubiquitous measurement errors (for example, people habitually misreport their diets in studies) and routine misanalysis (researchers rely on complex software capable of juggling results in ways they do not always understand).

If a study somehow avoids every one of these pitfalls and finds a real connection to long-term changes in health, you’re still not guaranteed to benefit, because studies report average results that typically represent a vast range of individual outcomes. Should you be among the lucky minority that stands to benefit, don’t expect a noticeable improvement in your health, because studies usually detect only modest effects that merely tend to whittle your chances of succumbing to a particular disease from small to somewhat smaller. “The odds that anything useful will survive from any of these studies are poor,” says Ioannidis – dismissing in a breath a good chunk of the research into which $100 billion a year in the United States is sunk.

I have pointed out before (see the post Blowing Hot and Cold, for example), that the problem of tackling research that is diffuse – the opposite of limited – is by no means restricted to medical research. Take the climate. It is affected by many dozens, perhaps hundreds, of factors. In the context of human health, we know that there can be a huge difference between what is detected over a 5-year study as opposed to what ultimately transpires when subjects die fifty years later. In climate studies, too, there may be enormous differences between what is measured over a few decades and what happens over millennia.

Furthermore, as we saw above, most medical studies do not actually track the individual’s health as a whole; rather, they measure ‘markers’ which are taken as proxies for overall health. The assumption that markers are good proxies for overall health is, at best, dubious. In climate science too, it is often ‘markers’ that are used to indicate the overall ‘health’ of the climate, and this may well lead to erroneous conclusions. Consider glaciers.[5]

In 1895, geologists thought the world was freezing up due to the ‘great masses of ice’ that were frequently seen farther south than before. The New York Times reported that icebergs were so bad, and that they decreased the temperature of Iceland so much, that inhabitants fearing a famine were ‘emigrating to North America.’ But in 1902 the Los Angeles Times, in a story on disappearing glaciers in the Alps said the glaciers were not ‘running away,’ but rather ‘deteriorating slowly, with a persistency that means their final annihilation.’ The melting led to alpine hotel owners having trouble keeping patrons. It was established that it was a ‘scientific fact’ that the glaciers were ‘surely disappearing.’ But the glaciers instead grew once more.

The Boston Daily Globe reported in 1923 that the purpose of an Arctic expedition it was covering was to determine the beginning of the next ice age, ‘as the advance of glaciers in the last 70 years would indicate.’ When that era of ice-age reports melted away, retreating glaciers were again highlighted. In 1953’s Today’s Revolution in Weather, William Baxter wrote that ‘the recession of glaciers over the whole earth affords the best proof that climate is warming’. He gave examples of glaciers melting in Lapland, the Alps, and Antarctica. In 1952, the New York Times reported on the global warming studies of climatologist Dr. Hans W. Ahlmann, whose ‘trump card’ ‘has been the melting glaciers.’ The next year the paper said that ‘nearly all the great ice sheets are in retreat.’ U.S. News and World Report agreed, noting on January 8, 1954 that ‘winters are getting milder, summers drier. Glaciers are receding, deserts growing.’

But in the 1970s, glaciers did an about face. Lowell Ponte, in his 1976 book The Cooling, warned that ‘The rapid advance of some glaciers has threatened human settlements in Alaska, Iceland, Canada, China, and the Soviet Union.’

In 1951, TIME magazine noted that permafrost in Russia was receding northward at up to 100 yards per year. But in a June 24, 1974, article, TIME stated that the cooling trend was here to stay. The report was based on ‘telltale signs’ such as the ‘unexpected persistence and thickness of pack ice in the waters around Iceland.’ The Christian Science Monitor in the same year noted ‘glaciers which had been retreating until 1940 have begun to advance.’ The article continued, ‘the North Atlantic is cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool.’ And the New York Times noted that in 1972 the ‘mantle of polar ice increased by 12 percent’ and had not returned to ‘normal’ size. North Atlantic sea temperatures declined, and shipping routes were ‘cluttered with abnormal amounts of ice.’ Furthermore, the permafrost in Russia and Canada was advancing southward, according to the December 29 article that closed out 1974.

Two points are crucial. Markers for ultra-complex entities such as human health or the climate may or may not be useful indicators of overall health. Secondly, it may well be that studies of ‘markers’ – whether of human health or the climate – may require a lifetime (in the case of humans) or several centuries (in the case of global climate) to teach us anything significant. Shorter studies may well be misleading, as is certainly the case in many clinical studies.

***

In a nutshell, becoming an informed consumer of science involves the realization that science is a human endeavour. It is subject to a galaxy of factors beyond the nuts and bolts of the laboratory work, from political considerations that determine how much funding is funneled to particular fields to the interpretation of complex statistical analyses of murky results. As the physicist and philosopher John Polkinghorne has written,

Many people have in their minds a picture of how science proceeds which is altogether too simple. This misleading caricature portrays scientific discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive experiments… In actual fact… the reality is more complex and more interesting than that.

To its credit, the medical community seems to have embraced the work done by Ioannidis and its implications. The Atlantic reports that:

Ioannidis initially thought the community might come out fighting. Instead, it seemed relieved, as if it had been guiltily waiting for someone to blow the whistle, and eager to hear more. David Gorski, a surgeon and researcher at Detroit’s Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, noted in his prominent medical blog that when he presented Ioannidis’ paper on highly cited research at a professional meeting, “not a single one of my surgical colleagues was the least bit surprised or disturbed by its findings.”

But Ioannidis is pessimistic about anything changing soon:

His bigger worry, he says, is that while his fellow researchers seem to be getting the message, he hasn’t necessarily forced anyone to do a better job. He fears he won’t in the end have done much to improve anyone’s health. “There may not be fierce objections to what I’m saying,” he explains. “But it’s difficult to change the way that everyday doctors, patients, and healthy people think and behave.”

***

Dr. John Ioannidis’ work deals with medical research, which is – at least theoretically – readily amenable to the tools of science. Even here, it is obvious that science consumers should ration out credibility carefully. The fact that you read about evidence-based medicine or peer-reviewed studies or randomized trials is by no means a guarantee that you’ve been touched by Truth. And this is all in the realm of the here and now. Contemporary science is vastly overrated when it deals with issues that go beyond those that affect medical research, and involve huge extrapolations, chains of reasoning and assumptions and numerous ideological commitments.

 ***

See also: the post Dr. Ben Goldacre and the Reproducibility of Research:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/04/10/dr-ben-goldacre-and-the-reproducibility-of-research/

The post Blowing Hot and Cold:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/03/11/blowing-hot-and-cold-2/

References:

[1] See http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/308269/.

Retrieved 5th May 2013.

[2] Meta-research involves the analysis – often with advanced statistical tools – of a large number of primary studies performed by other researchers.

[3] See http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/dirty_little_secret/. Retrieved 5th June 2011.

[4] See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2139710,00.html

Retrieved 4th May 2013.

[5] The information on the media coverage of glaciers comes from a report by the Media Research Council entitled Fire and Ice:

http://www.mrc.org/special-reports/fire-and-ice

Retrieved 5th May 2013.

Random and Undirected

April 29, 2013

The Origin of Species is essentially about eliminating the need to invoke God to explain life. And Charles Darwin made no bones about it. In a letter to his mentor, the geologist Charles Lyell on 11th October 1859, Darwin wrote,

But I entirely reject as in my judgment quite unnecessary any subsequent addition “of new powers, & attributes & forces”; or of any “principle of improvement”… If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.[1]

This has consistently been the position of Darwin’s heirs and the vast majority of evolutionary biologists. Ernst Mayr, widely considered to be one of the most important and influential biologists of the twentieth century, wrote:

The Darwinian revolution was not merely the replacement of one scientific theory by another, but rather the replacement of a worldview, in which the supernatural was accepted as a normal and relevant explanatory principle, by a new worldview in which there was no room for supernatural forces.[2]

 Julian Huxley was the grandson of Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, and a prominent biologist in his own right. He wrote:

Darwinism removed the whole idea of God as the Creator of organisms from the sphere of rational discussion. Darwin pointed out that no supernatural designer was needed; since natural selection could account for any new form of life, there is no room for a supernatural agency in its evolution.[3]

George Gaylord Simpson, one of the leading palaeontologists of the twentieth century, wrote that “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”[4]

In Genesis and Genes, I quoted the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most famous scientists and popularisers of science in the latter part of the twentieth century. Gould  frequently discussed the “radical philosophical content of Darwin’s message” and its denial of purpose in the universe:

First, Darwin argues that evolution has no purpose… Second, Darwin maintained that evolution has no direction… Third, Darwin applied a consistent philosophy of materialism to his interpretation of nature. Matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.[5]

Contemporary biology textbooks are adamant that Darwinian evolution is unguided. A popular college biology textbook by Douglas Futuyma declares that “[B]y coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.”[6]

This is what you will find in Invitation to Biology:

Now the new biology asked us to accept the proposition that, like all other organisms, we too are the products of a random process that, as far as science can show, we are not created for any special purpose or as part of any universal design.[7]

 And Evolution (by Strickberger) has this to say:

The advent of Darwinism posed even greater threats to religion by suggesting that biological relationships, including the origin of humans and of all species, could be explained by natural selection without the intervention of a god… In this scheme a god of design and purpose is not necessary…[8]

 And Evolution (by Barton) explains that evolution involves “random genetic drift,” “random mutation,” “random variation,” “random … individual fitness,” and “random reproduction”.

 In 1997, the National Association of Biology Teachers in the USA removed from its description of the evolution of life an assertion that it was an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process.” Ninety-nine academics, including over 70 evolutionary biologists, sent a letter of protest to the NABT asserting that evolution indeed is “an impersonal and unsupervised process… The NABT leaves open the possibility that evolution is in fact supervised in a personal manner. This is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist should vigorously and positively deny.”[9]

Evolutionary biologists and authors are often at pains to emphasise this point. University of Chicago evolutionary biologist and author Jerry Coyne makes the point concisely:

But any injection of teleology into evolutionary biology violates precisely the great advance of Darwin’s theory: to explain the appearance of design by a purely materialistic process — no deity required.[10]

And the biochemist Larry Moran of the University of Toronto writes that:

The main mechanisms are natural selection and random genetic drift and those two mechanisms act on populations containing variation. The variation is due to the presence of mutations and mutations arise “randomly” with respect to ultimate purpose or goal.[11]

 This sentiment is often encountered in academic papers:

 Mutation is the central player in the Darwinian theory of evolution – it is the ultimate source of heritable variation, providing the necessary raw material for natural selection. In general, mutation is assumed to create heritable variation that is random and undirected.[12]

Francisco Ayala is a former Roman Catholic priest and world-famous evolutionary biologist [See the post Tactics and Deceit to read more about Ayala]. In a 2007 paper Ayala wrote:

Chance is, nevertheless, an integral part of the evolutionary process. The mutations that yield the hereditary variations available to natural selection arise at random. Mutations are random or chance events because (i) they are rare exceptions to the fidelity of the process of DNA replication and because (ii) there is no way of knowing which gene will mutate in a particular cell or in a particular individual. However, the meaning of “random” that is most significant for understanding the evolutionary process is (iii) that mutations are unoriented with respect to adaptation; they occur independently of whether or not they are beneficial or harmful to the organisms. Some are beneficial, most are not, and only the beneficial ones become incorporated in the organisms through natural selection.[13]

What Professor Ayala means by point (iii) can be economically expressed as follows: the Darwinian process is bereft of foresight. This has direct and obvious bearing on the philosophical content of biological evolution, as Ayala points out:

It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the complex organization and functionality of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process – natural selection – without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent… The scientific account of these events does not necessitate recourse to a preordained plan, whether imprinted from the beginning [this is sometimes referred to as front-loading – YB] or through successive interventions by an omniscient and almighty Designer. Biological evolution differs from a painting or an artifact in that it is not the outcome of preconceived design.

Ayala’s conclusion is concisely expressed:

This is Darwin’s fundamental discovery, that there is a process that is creative although not conscious. And this is the conceptual revolution that Darwin completed: the idea that the design of living organisms can be accounted for as the result of natural processes governed by natural laws. This is nothing if not a fundamental vision that has forever changed how mankind perceives itself and its place in the universe.

 ***

Notwithstanding the above – and we could go on and on demonstrating that the community of evolutionary biologists, as a whole, conceives of evolution as a non-teleological process – there are those who style themselves theistic evolutionists. This position often results in confusion, as we shall presently see.

In July 2005, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he stated that “evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense – an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection – is not [true].”[14]

Ken Miller, a biologist, textbook-writer and prominent exponent of theistic evolution, responded:

But the Cardinal is wrong in asserting that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is inherently atheistic. Neo-Darwinism, he tells us, is an ideology proposing that an “unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection” gave rise to all life on earth, including our own species. To be sure, many evolutionists have made such assertions in their popular writings on the “meaning” on evolutionary theory. But are such assertions truly part of evolution as it is understood by the “mainstream biologists” of which the Cardinal speaks? Not at all… This means that biological evolution, correctly understood, does not make the claim of purposelessness.[15]

Huh? Is Miller serious about “mainstream biologists” believing anything except that evolution is unguided and unplanned? Besides everything we said above, consider the following. In 2005, the Kansas State Board of Education sought to introduce changes to the biology syllabus in order to foster critical thinking among students. This involved allowing teachers to introduce scientific criticisms of evolutionary biology. In response, no fewer than 38 Nobel laureates (!) under the auspices of – wait for it – the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity signed a joint statement to the KSBE informing them that,

… evolution is understood to be the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.[16]

Perhaps Professor Miller does not consider these Nobel Prize-winners representative of the mainstream. But besides his capacity to ignore the obvious, Miller also contradicts himself. Five editions of Miller’s textbook, Biology, stated that “evolution works without either plan or purpose… Evolution is random and undirected.”[17] In his book Finding Darwin’s God, we find the following:

  • Random, undirected process of mutation had produced the ‘right’ kind of variation for natural selection to act upon (Page 51).
  • A random, undirected process like evolution (Page 102).
  • Blind, random, undirected evolution [could] have produced such an intricate set of structures and organs… (Page 137).
  • The random, undirected processes of mutation and natural selection (Page 145)
  • Evolution is a natural process, and natural processes are undirected (Page 244).

 Both the 1991 and 1994 editions of Miller & Levine’s Biology: The Living Science contain the following passage:

Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products. Darwinian evolution was not only purposeless but also heartless – a process in which the rigors of nature ruthlessly eliminate the unfit. Suddenly, humanity was reduced to just one more species in a world that cared nothing for us. The great human mind was no more than a mass of evolving neurons. Worst of all, there was no divine plan to guide us.[18] [Italics in the original.]

***

The confusion generated by Professor Miller’s apparently-schizophrenic writings is, unfortunately, not limited to the Gentile community. I wrote in Genesis and Genes that,

Evolution is inherently indifferent to religion; deities need not apply. But there will always be those who wish to reconcile the irreconcilable. They want to take the world’s most efficient engine for atheism, slap on a veneer of verses, and recast it as a Torah ideal. The result is about as appetising as frosting on a bar of soap. There cannot be a rapprochement between mutually-exclusive concepts. The attempt to apply a layer of religious respectability to evolution is vacuous.

 See Also: The post Tactics and Deceit

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/01/17/423/

 References:

 [1] Letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell, 11th October 1859. See Darwin Correspondence Database,

http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-2503.

Retrieved 28th April 2013.

[2] Ernst Mayr, book review of Evolution and God, Nature 248 (March 22, 1974): 285.

[3] Tax, S. and Callender, C. (Eds.), Evolution after Darwin, Issues in Evolution (volume III), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA, page 45, 1960.

[4] George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), page 345.

[5] Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, pg. 12–13 (W.W. Norton & Co. 1977).

[6] Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, 3rd edition, Sinauer Associates, 1998, page 5.

[7] Helena Curtis and N. Sue Barnes, Invitation to Biology, 3rd edition. New York: Worth Publishers, 1981:474-75.

[8] Monroe W. Strickberger, Evolution, 3rd edition. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2000:70-71.

[9] The Nature of Nature, Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, editors. ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2011, page 41.

[10] See http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/truckling-to-the-faithful-a-spoonful-of-jesus-helps-darwin-go-down/.

Retrieved 28th April 2013.

[11] See http://sandwalk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/is-unguided-part-of-modern-evolutionary.html.

Retrieved 28th April 2013.

[12] An environmentally induced adaptive (?) insertion event in flax, Yiming Chen, Robin Lowenfeld and Christopher A. Cullis, International Journal of Genetics and Molecular Biology Vol. 1 (3), pages 038-047, June 2009. The paper can be read here: http://www.acadjourn.org/IJGMB/PDF/pdf2009/June/Chen%20et%20al..pdf. Retrieved 11th July 2011.

[13] Francisco J. Ayala, “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104 (May 15, 2007): 8567-8573. I saw this in an article by Casey Luskin dated 11th August 2012 on the website Evolution News and Views.

[14] See http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/catholic/schonborn-NYTimes.html.

Retrieved 28th April 2013.

[15] See http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/catholic/op-ed-krm.html.

Retrieved 28th April 2013.

[16] The letter used to be available at:

http://media.ljworld.com/pdf/2005/09/15/nobel_letter.pdf

I was not able to retrieve it.

[17] Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine, Biology (1st ed., 1991), p. 658; (2nd ed., 1993), p. 658; (3rd ed., 1995), p. 658; (4th ed., 1998), p. 658; (5th ed. 2000), p. 658. See article by Casey Luskin here:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/11/truth_or_dare_with_dr_ken_mill027891.html

Retrieved 28th April 2013.

[18] Joseph Levine & Kenneth Miller, Biology: Discovering Life (1st ed., D.C. Heath and Co., 1992), pg. 152; (2nd ed. D.C. Heath and Co., 1994), p. 161.

OPERA or Soap Opera?

April 22, 2013

In the post Dr. Ben Goldacre and the Reproducibility of Scientific Research, I discussed a systemic problem within contemporary science, viz. publication bias. Not all results of scientific research are published; results that stray uncomfortably far from sundry paradigms are sometimes not even submitted by their authors to journals.

A reader objected to this, citing the OPERA experiment as an example of negative results being fearlessly published. Matt wrote:

But I can provide you with countless examples of the researchers deciding to put their results out to the larger community anyway… even at the risk of humiliation if they are found to have messed up. For a recent example, look up the “superluminal neutrino” results from the OPERA experiment.

I didn’t need to look up the OPERA episode, being very familiar with it. But that sorry affair has little in common with the theme of the post Dr. Ben Goldacre and the Reproducibility of Scientific Research, as will be seen in this post.

***

OPERA stands for Oscillation Project with Emulsion tRacking Apparatus. In September 2011, the experiment electrified the world with the announcement that superluminal neutrinos – subatomic particles that travel faster than light – had been discovered. Physicists usually respond to such grand claims with a laconic “Important, if true.” In this case, had the results been correct, they would not just be important; they would “kill modern physics as we know it”, as Laura Patrizii, leader of OPERA’s Bologna group, put it. The story ended ignominiously, if predictably. The results were found to be incorrect, partly due to some loose cables. But let’s begin at the beginning.

Modern physics is often done by large groups of scientists working together. When you have large collaborations like the OPERA group, it’s prudent to seek consensus before making announcements about the research. Dmitri Denisov, a physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, says it is standard procedure to wait to publish a paper until everyone in the collaboration has signed on. “We really strive to have full agreement,” he says. “In some cases it takes months, sometimes up to a year, to verify that everyone in the collaboration is happy.” In the case of OPERA, 15 of the 160 members refused to add their names to the original paper because they felt the announcement and submission of the results for publication were premature. “I didn’t sign because I thought the estimated error was not correct,” said team member Luca Stanco of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Italy. In a New Scientist article, Stanco was quoted as saying that “We should have been more cautious, more careful, presented the result in not such a strong way, more preliminarily. Experimentalists in physics can make mistakes. But the way in which we handle them, the way we present them – we have some responsibility for that.” Physics World mentioned Caren Hagner, leader of the OPERA group at Hamburg University and one of the people whose name did not appear on the pre-print. She too argued that the collaboration should have carried out the extra checks before submitting the paper for peer review.

The OPERA operatives were in such a rush to announce their scoop to the world that they failed to apply basic prudence. Janet Conrad, a particle physicist at MIT, said that much of the negative reaction from the physics establishment to the announcement stemmed from the fact that there were insufficient experimental checks carried out prior to the announcement. “A [paper in] Physical Review Letters is four pages long. An experiment is vastly more complicated than that,” she says. “So we have to rely on our colleagues having done all of their cross checks. We don’t expect to make a retraction within a year.” Fermilab’s Joseph Lykken concurred. “Precisely because these are big, complicated experiments, the collaborations have a responsibility to both the scientific community and to the taxpayers to perform due diligence checks of the validity of their results,” he said. “The more surprising the result, the more time one must spend on validation. Anyone can make a mistake, but scientific collaborations are supposed to catch the vast majority of mistakes through internal vetting long before a new result sees the light of day.” CERN physicist Alvaro De Rujula also had strong words in this regard. “The theory of relativity is exquisitely well-tested and consistent. Superluminal neutrinos were far, far too much in violation of the rules to be believed, even for a nanosecond. That ought to have made the OPERA management have everything checked even more carefully. Alas, it turned out not to be a subtle error, but mainly a bad connection, the very first thing one checks when anything misbehaves.”

Then, again in violation of good practice, the OPERA results were announced to the press rather than first presented to peers through the usual science channels. The physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University (and an ardent atheist) authored an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled Colliding Theories, with the subtitle Findings that showed faster-than-light travel were released too soon. He wrote,

What is inappropriate, however, is the publicity fanfare coming before the paper has even been examined by referees. Too often today, science is done by news release rather than waiting for refereed publication.

What makes all of this even more surprising is that the OPERA collaboration did not have a direct competitor from which a scoop had to be snatched. The physicists were in a position to carefully check and re-check their results before rushing off to make their announcement.

As a result of the fiasco, OPERA spokesman Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern in Switzerland and experimental coordinator Dario Autiero of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Lyon, France, resigned following a 16-13 no-confidence vote from the collaboration’s other leaders. An indication of just how embarrassing this episode was for physics is that CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research), the European collaboration that supplied the neutrinos to the OPERA experiment, had no official comment on the resignations, distancing itself from the OPERA experiment despite its central role in publicizing the original results. Physics World reported that a press officer for CERN refused to be identified and emphasised that OPERA was “not a CERN collaboration” since it “only sends [OPERA] a beam of neutrinos.”

To some extent, the OPERA debacle was about grabbing headlines. As one report put it,

If faster than light neutrinos do exist, there need to be many rounds of testing, independent analyses and rigorous peer review before we can start announcing dents in Einstein’s bedrock theories. But, as is abundantly clear in this world of fierce media competition, social media and science transparency, any theory is a good theory so long as it makes a good story — as long as the scientific method has been followed and the science is correctly represented by the writer, that is. [Italics in the original.]

***

Let us digress for a moment to discuss a few points that are relevant to material discussed in Genesis and Genes, before returning to the topic of publication bias.

I explained in Genesis and Genes that the public almost always misunderstands what is meant by “measurement” in the context of contemporary science. Measurements in cosmology and physics do not mean that someone is doing something as prosaic and straightforward as reading a temperature off a thermometer. The procedure is far more complicated, and introduces enormous amounts of complexity into the endeavour. This is something that Professor Krauss stressed in the article he penned for the LA Times:

The claim that neutrinos arrived at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland on average 60 billionths of a second before they would have if they were traveling at light speed relies on complicated statistical analysis. It must take into account the modeling of the detectors and how long their response time is, careful synchronization of clocks and a determination of the distance between the CERN accelerator and the Gran Sasso detector accurate to a distance of a few meters. Each of these factors has intrinsic uncertainties that, if misestimated, could lead to an erroneous conclusion.

Informed consumers of science realise that words like measure – which convey a high degree of certainty to the public – in reality reflect something far murkier. This is why, in the post Missing Mass, I pointed out that cosmology is much more theory than observation. The public, inasmuch as it knows anything about the expansion of the universe, for example, entertains fantasies about astronomers watching galaxies flying off into the cosmic sunset, like an airplane slowly moving across the distant horizon. That’s nonsense. To “measure” the expansion of the universe, inferences are made on the basis of complex statistical analyses which depend on layer upon layer of assumption and analysis. In Genesis and Genes, I discussed the work of the brilliant mathematician and member of the National Academy of Sciences Irving Segal. I wrote that,

The most recent study by Segal and his colleagues contained a detailed analysis of Hubble’s law based on data from the de Vaucoleurs survey of bright cluster galaxies, which includes more than 10 000 galaxies. (It is worthwhile noting that Edwin Hubble’s own analysis was based on a puny sample of twenty galaxies.) The results are astounding. The linear relationship that Hubble saw between redshift and apparent brightness could not be seen by Segal and his collaborators. “By normal standards of scientific due process,” Segal wrote, “the results of [Big Bang] cosmology are illusory.”

The debate between Segal and his detractors was not about who had more acute eyesight; it was about ultra-complex models and statistical analysis. This should give informed consumers of science pause when they encounter reports of “measurements” in cutting-edge science.

***

I pointed out in Genesis and Genes that there exists a misconception of science as the ultimate cosmopolitan pursuit, devoid of any nationalistic flavour which might influence research. The truth is that, being a human endeavour, such factors do influence scientific research. Remember the part about acupuncture? I wrote,

Between 1966 and 1995, there were forty-seven studies of acupuncture in China, Taiwan, and Japan, and every trial concluded that acupuncture was an effective medical treatment for certain conditions. During the same period, there were ninety-four clinical trials of acupuncture in the United States, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, and only fifty-six per cent of these studies found any therapeutic benefits.

Controlled, double-blind clinical trials are not magic bullets. One’s cultural background influences research, and this was a factor in OPERA also. One news item states that “The large international collaboration has had to contend not just with the usual personality conflicts, but also with cultural differences between Italian, Northern European, and Japanese scientists. The added scrutiny from the controversial result exacerbated those tensions.”

***

At any rate, the OPERA experience has little to do with ordinary, day-to-day publication bias. Once OPERA produced a tsunami of publicity with its premature announcement of superluminal neutrinos, its leaders had no choice but to come clean about the various failures that plagued their experiment. Back on the ranch, far from the limelight, the fact is that uncomfortable results are often just ignored, exiled to distant directories in one’s hard-drive. They don’t make headlines; they don’t provoke resignations; they just don’t get reported and published. And that produces a distorted picture in the minds of scientists and the public with regards to important issues. In the article by Professor Krauss in the LA Times, Kraus – who is an enthusiastic adherent of scientism – writes that

What is inappropriate, however, is the publicity fanfare coming before the paper has even been examined by referees. Too often today, science is done by news release rather than waiting for refereed publication. Because a significant fraction of experimental results ultimately never get published or are not later confirmed, providing unfiltered results to a largely untutored public is irresponsible. [Emphasis added.]

One can quibble with Krauss regarding how much filtering – this is a synonym for prejudice – must be done to protect the public from unorthodox research findings. But the fact is that a significant portion of research is never published. One reason for this is that researchers are trapped in paradigms that stain certain research results as wrong. As Nottingham University astronomer Michael Merrifield explains,

And, more worrying, is something that scientists like to push under the carpet… there’s psychology in this as well. If, in 1985, I made a measurement of the distance [from the Sun] to the centre of the galaxy when everyone said it was ten kilo-parsecs, and I got an answer that said it was seven kilo-parsecs, I would have thought, “Well, I must have done something wrong” and I would have stuck it in some filing cabinet and forgot about it; whereas if I had got an answer that agreed with the consensus, I’d probably have published it… In this error process, there’s also psychology. As I say, scientists are very uncomfortable about this, because we have this idea that what we are doing is objective and above such things. But actually, there is a lot of human interaction and psychology in the way we do science.

Some in the science establishment try to avoid confronting this reality by invoking ideal worlds, in which various safeguards eliminate any residual doubt from experiments. But scientific research – like virtually all human activity – is more ambiguous than these scientists would have you believe. In Genesis and Genes I quoted the physicist and philosopher Sir John Polkinghorne:

Many people have in their minds a picture of how science proceeds which is altogether too simple. This misleading caricature portrays scientific discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive experiments… In actual fact… the reality is more complex and more interesting than that.

***

Nobody doubts that there are many sincere politicians out there. And nobody denies that there is a gaping gulf between election-season promises and post-election reality. After the debris of elections is cleared and the votes tallied, the real, gritty, grey world of horse-trading, budgetary constraints, political alliances and a host of other factors intervene to make politicians, well, politicians.

Science – including the realm of the hard sciences – is a human endeavour. Scientific research is subject to a galaxy of factors beyond the nuts and bolts of the laboratory. It is affected by every condition related to human nature. OPERA is a good example of an experiment going awry because of mundane weaknesses such as impulsivity, the pursuit of glory and bad judgment. But the fact that scientific research happens in the real world and not in some idealized version thereof is just as true in the day-to-day research that never makes headlines.

Informed consumers of science recognise this, and recognise the limitations that these weaknesses impose upon the credibility of scientific research. Science is strong – though never infallible – when it explores phenomena that are repeatable, observable and limited. Its credibility diminishes rapidly as it meanders from these parameters. And when science makes absolute statements about the history of the universe or life, you should take them with a sack of salt.

***

See also:

The post Dr. Ben Goldacre and the Reproducibility of Research:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/04/10/dr-ben-goldacre-and-the-reproducibility-of-research/

The post Missing Mass:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/03/07/missing-mass/

References:

The quotations about OPERA in this post come from the following sources:

http://news.discovery.com/space/opera-leaders-resign-after-no-confidence-vote-120404.htm

http://news.discovery.com/space/faster-than-light-neutrino-theory-almost-certainly-wrong-111012.htm

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21093-fasterthanlight-neutrino-result-to-get-extra-checks.html

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21656-leaders-of-controversial-neutrino-experiment-step-down.html

http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/04/opinion/la-oe-krauss-neutrino-20111004.

http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2011/oct/07/tension-emerges-within-opera-collaboration

Retrieved 21st April 2013.

Professor Merrifield can be watched here:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzvPH6A5CmQ

The Limits of Variability

April 16, 2013

Evolutionary theory is based on a number of crucial assumptions. One of the most important of these assumptions is that biological organisms are infinitely plastic – they can accumulate an endless number of mutations and be gradually transformed into different organisms. After all, if an ancient one-celled organism eventually begot creatures that possess brains, gills, wings, immune systems, antlers, capillaries and countless other features, the process must have involved millions of mutations that stretched organisms beyond recognition.

Nobody denies that there is some flexibility within life forms. Breeders exploit this biological malleability to enhance desirable features – more colourful crests in pigeons or tennis-ball-sized peaches. But this is a far cry from the flexibility that is required to allow an organism to accumulate mutations to the point where new organs and body plans emerge. That level of plasticity is indispensable to evolutionary theory. The co-discoverer of Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, called his 1858 essay “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type”. The operative word here is indefinitely.

But infinite plasticity is an assumption – there is no evidence that biological organisms can change beyond very narrow limits. One of the architects of Neo-Darwinism, Theodosius Dobzhansky, emphasised the differences between micro-evolution (the small, intra-species events that are observed in nature and in breeding programs) and macro-evolution (the emergence of new organs and body plans). As I wrote in Genesis and Genes,

In 1937, Dobzhansky noted that there was no hard evidence to connect small-scale changes within existing species (which he called microevolution) to the origin of new species and fundamentally-new structures (an eye or a wing where there hadn’t been one before) and body plans that are recorded in the fossil record (which he called macroevolution).

Dobzhansky clearly acknowledged that it is nothing but an assumption and a working hypothesis that the accumulation of micro-evolutionary changes can account for macro-evolution.

For centuries, breeders have tried to push the limits of biological variability, with little success. Norman Macbeth, in his book Darwin Retried, quotes Luther Burbank (1849-1926), who was called “the most competent breeder of all time”. Burbank worked in Santa Rosa, California in the early decades of the 20th century, and his work was funded by Andrew Carnegie. Burbank wrote that,

I am willing to admit that it is hopeless to try to get a plum the size of a small pea or one as big as a grapefruit. I have daisies on my farms little larger than my fingernail and some that measure six inches across, but I have none as big as a sunflower and never expect to have. I have roses that bloom pretty steadily for six months in the year, but I have none that will bloom twelve, and I will not have. In short, there are limits to the development possible…[1]

The biologist Julian Huxley (grandson of Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley) made much the same point as Burbank:

In spite of intensive and long-continued efforts, breeders have failed to give the world blue roses and black tulips. A bluish purple and a deep bronze in the tulip are the limits reached. True blue and jet black have proved impossible.[2]

Huxley attributed this limit to a “lack of modificational plasticity” – variation can only go so far.

Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) was one of the founders of genetics, and received a Nobel Prize for his work.[3] Working in the famous Fly Room that he established at Columbia University, Morgan used artificial selection to try to increase the number of bristles in fruit flies. He found that the bristle number reached a maximum and could not be increased further, no matter how much selection pressure was applied.

In The Natural Limits of Biological Change, Lane P. Lester and Raymond G. Bohlin quoted the noted French biologist Pierre Grassé (1895-1985):

What is the use of their [E. Coli] unceasing mutations if they do not change? In sum, the mutations of bacteria and viruses are merely hereditary fluctuations around a mean position; a swing to the right, a swing to the left, but no final evolutionary effect.[4]

In Genesis and Genes, I mentioned Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) a number of times. A world-famous biologist, she was elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and inducted into the World Academy of Art and Science, the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences between 1995 and 1998. She was the recipient of the William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement (1999) and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Bill Clinton in that same year. Margulis was an evolutionist, but she rejected Neo-Darwinism partly because of her perception that the standard picture of new species being formed as a result of the accumulation of mutations was false. In an interview in Discover Magazine, she said:

… neo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change – led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.

Margulis makes the point that Neo-Darwinism requires that biological organisms be infinitely-plastic – just pile mutation upon mutation and you’ll eventually get a new species. She explains why this is unrealistic:

This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: they teach that what is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations in DNA, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.[5]

Dr. Lee Spetner[6] echoes this observation:

Degrading side effects have also been noted in insects that have become resistant to insecticides. M. W. Rowland from the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertforshire, England has reported that mosquitoes that have become resistant to dieldrin are less active and slower to respond to stimuli than are other insects.[7] Their resistance to the insecticide is thus bought at the price of a more sluggish nervous system…

In grain, selection for high protein content has been found to result in less starch per seed and less grain per planting.[8] Dairy cattle bred for high milk production turn out to be less fertile than normal cattle.[9]

This effect – that every “advantageous” genetic trait is bought at the expense of some other trait, a case of stuffing your right pocket with notes taken from your left pocket – is recognised by world-famous scientists whose fealty to the evolutionary paradigm is uncontested. Thus, E.O. Wilson writes that,

Artificial selection has always been a tradeoff between the genetic creation of traits desired by human beings and an unintended but inevitable genetic weakness in the face of natural enemies.[10]

And Ernst Mayr wrote that,

The most frequent correlated response of one-sided selection is a drop in general fitness. This plagues virtually every breeding experiment.[11]

As I wrote in Genesis and Genes:

Whether it is the finches’ beaks, or minuscule growth in the length of frogs’ feet, or slight colouration variations between moths, or minor changes to the genomes of bacteria, or elephant tusk size as measured by the Uganda Game Department between 1925 and 1958, or the change in head size of a Mediterranean lizard, Podarcis sicula, between 1971 and 2008 as registered by a Belgian team studying the lizard population on a pair of little islands off the Croatian coast[12], the claims far outstrip the evidence.

Finally, here is what the delightful David Berlinksi had to say on the subject, as quoted in Genesis and Genes,

Changes in wing color and the development of drug resistance are intraspecies events. The speckled moth, after all, does not develop antlers or acquire webbed feet, and bacteria remain bacteria, even when drug-resistant… the grand evolutionary progressions, such as the transformation of a fish into a man, are examples of macro-evolution. They remain out of reach, accessible only at the end of an inferential trail.

***

Informed consumers of science are aware that the grand evolutionary story is crucially dependent on the alleged ability of biological organisms to change without limit. The oft-repeated claim about overwhelming evidence heard in the context of evolution is indeed true, but not in the way it is usually intended. There is overwhelming evidence – from the field, the farm and the laboratory – for the fact that living creatures cannot change beyond narrow limits.

***

See Also:

The post Birds and Micro-Evolution:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/04/07/birds-and-micro-evolution/

 The post An Interview with Lynn Margulis:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/02/25/an-interview-with-lynn-margulis/

 The post More on Margulis:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/02/26/more-on-margulis/

References:

[1] Norman Macbeth, Darwin Retried, Dell Publishing, 1973, page 36. I came across the quotations from this book in an essay by Tom Bethell on the website Evolution News and Views. See http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/04/natural_limits058791.html.

Retrieved 15th April 2013.

[2] Julian Huxley, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, London, Allen and Unwin, 1943, page 519.

[3] “American zoologist and geneticist, famous for his experimental research with the fruit fly (Drosophila) by which he established the chromosome theory of heredity. He showed that genes are linked in a series on chromosomes and are responsible for identifiable, hereditary traits. Morgan’s work played a key role in establishing the field of genetics. He received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1933.”

Morgan, Thomas Hunt. (2009). Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2009 Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.

[4] Pierre Grassé, Evolution of Living Organisms, 1977, quoted in Lane P. Lester and Raymond G. Bohlin, The Natural Limits of Biological Change, Zondervan Publishing, 1984, page 149.

[5] The interview can be read online:

http://discover.coverleaf.com/discovermagazine/201104?pg=68#pg70

Retrieved 25th February 2013.

[6] Lee Spetner, Not By Chance!, The Judaica Press, 1997, pages 144-148.

[7] Rowland, M.W. (1987). Fitness of Insecticide Resistance, Nature, volume 327, page 194.

[8] Brock, R.D. (1980). Mutagenesis and Crop Production, in Carlson, P.S., The Biology of Crop Productivity, New York: Academic Press, pages 383-409.

[9] Hermas, S.A. (1987). Genetic relationships and additive genetic variation of productive and reproductive traits in Guernsey dairy cattle, Journal of Dairy Science, volume 70, pages 1252-1257.

[10] Wilson, E.O. (1992). The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

[11] Ernst Mayr, Populations, Species, and Evolution, Harvard University Press, 1970, page 163.

[12] The last two examples come from Richard Dawkins’ book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The chapter containing the discussion of the elephant tusks and the lizards’ heads is bombastically entitled [Evolution] Before Our Very Eyes.

Dr. Ben Goldacre and the Reproducibility of Research

April 10, 2013

The institution of peer-reviewed, published research is not a magic wand that ensures that all findings are disseminated to all relevant parties. I wrote in Genesis and Genes about an important paper that appeared in Nature in March 2012:

During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, [Glenn] Begley identified 53 “landmark” publications – papers in top journals, from reputable labs – for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development. Result: 47 of the 53 studies (89%) could not be replicated. He described his findings in a commentary piece published in the journal Nature in March 2012. In a Reuters report, Begley said “It was shocking. These are the studies the pharmaceutical industry relies on to identify new targets for drug development… As we tried to reproduce these papers we became convinced you can’t take anything at face value.” Begley’s experience echoes a report from scientists at Bayer AG. In a 2011 paper titled Believe it or not, they analyzed in-house projects that built on “exciting published data” from basic science studies. “Often, key data could not be reproduced,” wrote Khusru Asadullah, vice president and head of target discovery at Bayer HealthCare in Berlin, and colleagues. Of 47 cancer projects at Bayer during 2011, less than one-quarter could reproduce previously reported findings, despite the efforts of three or four scientists working full time for up to a year. Bayer dropped the projects.

Bayer and Amgen found that the prestige of a journal was no guarantee a paper would be solid. “The scientific community assumes that the claims in a preclinical study can be taken at face value,” Begley and Lee Ellis of MD Anderson Cancer Center wrote in Nature. They and others fear the phenomenon is the product of a skewed system of incentives that has academics cutting corners to further their careers. Part way through his project to reproduce promising studies, Begley met for breakfast at a cancer conference with the lead scientist of one of the problematic studies. “We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure,” said Begley. “I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they’d done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It’s very disillusioning.”

A reader has now kindly drawn my attention to a TED talk by Dr. Ben Goldacre.[1] The talk is entitled What Doctors Don’t Know about the Drugs they Prescribe. [Goldacre refers to the Nature paper mentioned above at about 02:00]. The points made by Dr. Goldacre are relevant to all branches of science.

Early on in the talk, Dr. Goldacre refers to a case study of the drug Lorcainide. This drug was designed to suppress arrhythmia, irregular beating of the heart. It was thought that since patients often suffer from arrhythmia after a heart attack, suppressing irregular heart-beating may be salubrious. In a preliminary study, fifty heart-attack patients were given Lorcainide, while another fifty patients were given a placebo. In the first group, ten patients died; in the second, only one patient died. The researchers concluded that Lorcaininde was dangerous. But because this trial was deemed a failure – the drug had no commercial prospects – the study was never published. This had tragic consequences. Not knowing the results of the unpublished study, other research groups in the following years who also thought that arrhythmia-suppressing drugs have medical potential brought similar medicines to market. According to Goldacre, this led to the unnecessary death of more than 100 000 patients.

A little further in his talk Dr. Goldacre discusses the drug Reboxetin, manufactured by Pfizer. With some asperity, Dr. Goldacre announces that he was misled by the published results regarding this drug, as indeed he was. Seven clinical trials were conducted to test the effectiveness of Reboxetin. One trial produced a positive result i.e. the drug produced better results than a placebo, and was published. Six trials produced negative results – and were not published. Goldacre says that he – and presumably thousands of other doctors – freely prescribed this drug on the basis of the published results.

Next, Dr. Goldacre turns to all the antidepressant trials submitted to the FDA for approval over a 15-year period. There were 38 positive trials and 36 negative trials submitted to the FDA. But when one looks at the publication record of these studies in the peer-reviewed academic literature, one finds that of the 38 positive trials, 37 were published; of the 36 negative trials, only 3 were published.

Dr. Goldacre peppers his talk with pungent comments about the rotten state of things. He says that publication bias is so prevalent that it cuts to the core of evidence-based medicine; the state of affairs “is a systematic flaw in the core of medicine”; he uses phrases like “This is a disaster” and terms like “cancer” to describe the situation.

***

The issues discussed by Dr. Goldacre in his TED talks and in his books are by no means limited to medical science. Publication bias is a systemic problem within science. One manifestation of this is that research that does not conform to basic tenets of sundry paradigms is simply not published, thus distorting the impression that scientists and the public form about important topics.

I discussed this in some length in Genesis and Genes. I pointed out that the problems begin right at the outset of one’s university training. Laboratory exercises, in which students ostensibly investigate some phenomenon, are actually exercises in reproducing textbook results.[2] I quoted the distinguished evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci (who has doctorates in genetics, botany, and the philosophy of science):

Things are often only marginally better in college or university classes… Worse yet, most of these exercises are “prepackaged” labs designed to obtain a predetermined outcome, which often enough does not occur because of the carelessness of both students and teaching assistants. The latter are then tempted to do the worst thing they could possibly do in teaching science: tell the students that they should have gotten result X instead, and to write up their reports as if they had. Is it a surprise, then, that the whole enterprise becomes meaningless and that most students think science is either too difficult for them to grasp or, worse, is actually done by cooking the results to come out according to a priori expectations…

I pointed out that in the vast majority of science programs, no modules are offered in the psychology of research or the history/philosophy of science. The result is that science undergraduates who are unaware of the myriad biases which affect research become scientists who are often unaware of the biases affecting the publication of research results.

In this context, I referred to a talk given by Professor Michael Merrifield, an astronomer at Nottingham University.[3] Merrifield was discussing a purely technical issue – measuring the distance between our Sun and the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. This is not anthropology or sociology, but the research is nonetheless subject to psychological forces:

And, more worrying, is something that scientists like to push under the carpet… there’s psychology in this as well. If, in 1985, I made a measurement of the distance [from the Sun] to the centre of the galaxy when everyone said it was ten kilo-parsecs, and I got an answer that said it was seven kilo-parsecs, I would have thought, “Well, I must have done something wrong” and I would have stuck it in some filing cabinet and forgot about it; whereas if I had got an answer that agreed with the consensus, I’d probably have published it… In this error process, there’s also psychology. As I say, scientists are very uncomfortable about this, because we have this idea that what we are doing is objective and above such things. But actually, there is a lot of human interaction and psychology in the way we do science.

This phenomenon – sticking your results into a filing cabinet because they stray uncomfortably far from the consensus – is common in contemporary science. The failure to publish anomalous or “wrong” results is as prevalent in astronomy, physics or biology as it is in medical science.

Publication bias is bad science (One of the books authored by Dr. Goldacre is entitled Bad Science, and one of his TED talks is called Battling Bad Science). And awareness of this aspect of modern science is crucial in the process of becoming an informed consumer of science. The picture conveyed to the public – whether the topic is climate change, evolutionary biology, cosmology or a host of other areas – is by no means one that reflects all the research being done. It is distorted by numerous factors. Sometimes, there are financial factors (as in the case of Lorcainide); sometimes, there are political factors (an example is climate science); sometimes, there are paradigm considerations (read about Daniel Shechtman, Robin Warren and Alfred Wegener). The bottom line is that the final picture is often significantly incomplete.

***

See also:

The post Replication of Experimental Data:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/02/10/replication-of-experimental-data/.

References:

[1] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKmxL8VYy0M.

Retrieved 10th April 2013.

[2] A reader of Genesis and Genes who trained as an aeronautical engineer wrote to me to express how, upon reading this passage in the book, he was struck by the fact that this had happened to him repeatedly throughout his university career, without his being consciously aware of the phenomenon.

[3] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzvPH6A5CmQ

Retrieved 10th April 2013.

Birds and Micro-Evolution

April 7, 2013

I devoted a substantial part of Genesis and Genes to a discussion of macro-evolution and micro-evolution. The difference is crucial. Micro-evolutionary changes are intra-species events; they are common and uncontroversial. Macro-evolutionary changes are needed to drive real biological innovation – they supposedly lead to new organs and new body plans. Macro-evolutionary changes are the stuff of common descent. If all life on Earth today arose from one or a few one-celled organisms, there had to have been untold millions of macro-evolutionary changes along the way.

The earliest references to the terms micro- and macro-evolution that I could find were made by one of the architects of Neo-Darwinism, Theodosius Dobzhansky. As I wrote,

In 1937, Dobzhansky noted that there was no hard evidence to connect small-scale changes within existing species (which he called microevolution) to the origin of new species and fundamentally-new structures (an eye or a wing where there hadn’t been one before) and body plans that are recorded in the fossil record (which he called macroevolution).[1]

 According to Dobzhansky,

There is no way toward an understanding of the mechanisms of macroevolutionary changes, which require time on a geological scale, other than through a full comprehension of the microevolutionary processes observable within the span of a human lifetime. For this reason we are compelled at the present level of knowledge reluctantly to put a sign of equality between the mechanisms of macro- and microevolution, and proceeding on this assumption, to push our investigations as far ahead as this working hypothesis will permit.

Dobzhansky clearly acknowledged that it is nothing but an assumption and a working hypothesis that the accumulation of micro-evolutionary changes can account for macro-evolution. This has been controversial right from the beginning. In 1940, Berkeley geneticist Richard Goldschmidt argued that “the facts of microevolution do not suffice for an understanding of macroevolution.”[2] Goldschmidt added that “Microevolution does not lead beyond the confines of the species, and the typical products of microevolution, the geographic races, are not incipient species.”[3] At the other end of the century, evolutionary biologists Scott Gilbert, John Opitz and Rudolf Raff wrote in 1996 that:[4]

Genetics might be adequate for explaining microevolution, but microevolutionary changes in gene frequency were not seen as able to turn a reptile into a mammal or to convert a fish into an amphibian. Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest.

 Gilbert et. al concluded that, “The origin of species – Darwin’s problem – remains unsolved.”

Unfortunately, most members of the public are not aware of the enormous difference between micro- and macro-evolution. This ignorance is exploited by the evolution establishment. Numerous examples of micro-evolution are provided in newspapers, documentaries, and websites, and are then conflated with macro-evolution to foster the impression that macro-evolution has been established.

I discussed a number of examples of this phenomenon in Genesis and Genes. Readers will recall the less-than-thrilling discovery, discussed in Nature’s “evolutionary gems” online resource, regarding small birds in Southern England. Nature promised readers that they would see “marked evolutionary differentiation” at “small spatial and temporal scales.” The journal informs its readers that over a span of about 35 years, the birds known as great tits from the eastern part of the Wytham woodland saw a decrease in adult body size that amounted to a net average change of about 1 gram (less than 10 percent of total body mass). Fledgling birds likewise saw a small change in body mass. Birds in the northern part of the wood did not experience such a change.[5] Needless to say, this is hardly evidence for the grandiose claims of evolutionary biology regarding the ability of natural selection acting on random mutations to produce birds in the first place.

Here are two more recent examples of this phenomenon, both from the sphere of avian life.

A rather prosaic discovery was reported last month in Current Biology[6] and was summarised in Science Now:[7]

Cliff swallows that build nests that dangle precariously from highway overpasses have a lower chance of becoming roadkill than in years past thanks to a shorter wingspan that lets them dodge oncoming traffic. That’s the conclusion of a new study based on 3 decades of data collected on one population of the birds. The results suggest that shorter wingspan has been selected for over this time period because of the evolutionary pressure put on the population by cars.

It seems clear that shorter wings give birds better manoeuvrability:

“Probably the most important effect of a shorter wing is that it allows the birds to turn more quickly,” says [ecologist] Charles Brown [of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, who conducted the new study with wife Mary Bomberger Brown, an ornithologist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.] Previous studies on the dynamics of flight have illustrated the benefits of short wings for birds that perform many pivots and rolls during flying and shown that shorter wings also may allow the birds to take off faster from the ground, he adds.

So what’s the significance of this data-acquisition exercise?

“This is a clear example of how you can observe natural selection over short time periods,” says Brown. “Over 30 years, you can see these birds being selected for their ability to avoid cars.”

But how significant are these changes in the grand scheme of things? The report tells us that,

When the researchers analyzed the average wing length of the living birds in the population, they discovered that it had become shorter over time, from 111 millimeters in 1982 to the 106 millimeter average in 2012. The data suggested to the Browns that roadkill deaths were a major force driving this selection. Birds with longer wings would be more likely to be killed by vehicles and less likely to reproduce…

So, over 30 years, the average length of the swallows’ wings became shorter by about 5 mm, or 4.5%. Must we, um, swallow the claim that this example of natural selection, together with non-teleological mutations, is convincing evidence for the origin of birds, as well as all life-forms on earth?

***

Nature recently reported on research published in Science. The study in question was led by University of Utah biologist Michael Shapiro and offers “insight into the genetics of both ‘fancy’ domestic breeds and plain street pigeons and supports their common origin from the wild rock dove (Columba livia).”[8] The report begins with some background:

Humans have shaped the domestic pigeon into hundreds of breeds of various shapes, colours and attributes — a diversity that captivated Charles Darwin, who even conducted breeding experiments on his own pigeons. Now, a number of domestic and feral pigeon genomes have been sequenced for the first time, giving scientists a resource for studying the genetics of how these traits evolved.

 Here is what the research involved:

 The Utah team… sequenced a complete ‘reference’ genome from a breed called the Danish tumbler. The researchers also sequenced the genomes of 36 different fancy breeds and of two feral birds from different regions of the US.

 And the results:

 The study fills in knowledge about the relationships between breeds, many of which are centuries old with origins in the Middle East. Darwin argued that all domestic pigeon breeds descended from the wild rock dove. Shapiro says this study puts data behind that argument, as all the breeds sequenced are more similar genetically to one another than to another, closely related, species of pigeon, C. rupestris. It also found that street pigeons are genetically similar to racing homing pigeons, which frequently escape into the wild.

 So the wild rock dove is ancestral to many varieties of pigeons today. Now, the rock dove is just the rock pigeon, also known as the common or garden pigeon – the kind that soils your patio. So the claim being made here is that pigeons are descended from pigeons.

 But the humdrum nature of the research is obscured by the electric title of the report: Pigeon DNA proves Darwin right. Yeah, right; it also proves right every common peasant in Darwin’s time who knew that you could breed cows, dogs, cats, tulips and hundreds of other organisms and obtain modest results. These results always demonstrate micro-evolution: a slightly faster dog, a new breed of cow, a slightly brighter tulip.

 Darwin called his book On the Origin of Species. Neither before its publication nor thereafter has anyone been able to discover or demonstrate genuine macro-evolutionary changes. As I put it in Genesis and Genes,

But there is no reason at all to believe, at the outset, that there must be a seamless progression from micro to macro. If you have seen people walking in New York and you know that people have walked on the Moon, that doesn’t justify the conclusion that it must be possible to walk from New York to the Moon. Small processes – walking around your home, in our analogy – cannot necessarily be extrapolated to big processes – like walking in space. This notion is expressed in Dobzhansky’s reluctant admission that, as an assumption and a working hypothesis, biologists equate microevolution and macroevolution. It is something for which there is no logical imperative.

 ***

Related Posts:

An Interview with Lynn Margulis:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/02/25/an-interview-with-lynn-margulis/

More on Margulis:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/02/26/more-on-margulis/

 

References:

[1] Theodosius Dobzhansky, Genetics and the Origin of Species, 1937. Reprinted by Columbia University Press, 1982, page 12.

[2] Richard Goldschmidt, The Material Basis of Evolution, Yale University Press, 1940, page 8.

[3] Ibid. page 396.

[4] Scott F. Gilbert, John M. Opitz and Rudolf A. Raff, Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology, Developmental Biology 173 (1996): 357-372.

[5] See Dany Garant, Loeske E.B. Kruuk, Teddy A. Wilkin, Robin H. McCleery & Ben C. Sheldon, “Evolution driven by differential dispersal within a wild bird population,” Nature 433:60-65 (January 6, 2005), at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v433/n7021/abs/nature03051.html

[6] You can read the summary here:

http://www.cell.com/current-biology/retrieve/pii/S0960982213001942

Retrieved 7th April 2013.

[7] See http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2013/03/evolution-via-roadkill.html

Retrieved 7th April 2013.

[8] See http://www.nature.com/news/pigeon-dna-proves-darwin-right-1.12334

Retrieved 5th April 2013.

A Lopsided Universe?

April 3, 2013

In 2005, Kate Land and João Magueijo at Imperial College London discovered a mysterious pattern in the radiation left over from the Big Bang. In analysing the cosmic background radiation, widely considered to constitute the remnants of the Big Bang, they discovered that instead of hot and cold spots being randomly scattered across the sky, as expected, the spots appeared to be aligned in one particular direction through space. The two cosmologists named this the Axis of Evil. Why evil? Because it undermines one of the most fundamental assumptions of cosmologists about the early universe. Modern cosmology is built on the belief that the universe is isotropic i.e. roughly the same in whatever direction you look. If cosmic radiation has a preferred direction, the assumption of isotropy – and the best theories about cosmic history – may need to be jettisoned.

In an April 2007 article, New Scientist revisited the Axis of Evil.[1] It pointed out that evidence is growing for the fact that the axis may be real, “posing a threat to standard cosmology.” The article explains that the threat arises from the fact that “According to the standard model, the universe is isotropic, or much the same everywhere.” The magazine reported that “two independent studies seem to confirm that it [i.e. the Axis of Evil] does exist.” Damien Hutsemékers of the University of Liège in Belgium analysed the polarisation of light from 355 quasars and found that as the quasars get near the axis, the polarisation becomes more ordered than expected. Taken together, the polarisation angles from the quasars seem to corkscrew around the axis. This was supported by another study. Michael Longo of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor analysed 1660 spiral galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and found that the axes of rotation of most galaxies appear to line up with the Axis of Evil. According to Longo, the probability of this happening by chance is less than 0.4 per cent. “This suggests the axis is real, and not simply an error in the WMAP data,” he says.

Now a report in TIME gives an update on the situation, and even more reason for informed consumers of science to treat with scepticism some of the central claims of modern cosmology.[2] TIME reports on a brand-new image of the early universe released by the Planck satellite mission which “poses a mystery that could shake the foundations of cosmology.” For the uninitiated, TIME explains that “For decades, scientists have operated on the assumption that the universe should look the same, on average, in all directions—same number of galaxies, sprinkled about the sky in the same general pattern, no matter where you look. It’s a homogeneity which is in keeping with a birth blast that radiated out uniformly and at once [i.e. the Big Bang].” But this newest snapshot of the universe confounds this expectation. TIME:

The ancient, leftover light from the Big Bang, however, seems lopsided, with a huge swath of sky at a slightly cooler temperature than the rest. It could simply be a fluke, like getting 50 heads in a row in a coin toss. Or it could mean that the age-old assumption about cosmic uniformity is wrong. The chance is maybe one in a few hundred that this asymmetry could happen randomly, says [Rachel] Bean [a Cornell astrophysicist].

TIME then refers to the research I cited in Genesis and Genes in connection with the Axis of Evil. It points out that “this [the Planck satellite data] isn’t an entirely new finding: it was reported a decade ago by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite. There was always a chance, though, that it was some sort of mistake—but not anymore.”

At this point, the speculation begins regarding the anomalous data. For example, some scientists suggest that the universe is rotating. But the report acknowledges that these conjectures are “inconsistent with other data.” Of course, the future may bring new explanations of the WMAP and Planck data that will be consistent with standard Big Bang cosmology. Then again, there is also the distinct possibility that one of the most important pillars on which contemporary cosmology stands is, in fact, illusory.

As I pointed out in the post Missing Mass[3], most members of the public simply have no idea of the number of assumptions made in modern cosmology, and the extent to which the definitive statements of cosmologists about the age and nature of the universe are dependent on these assumptions. So often in the past, as I showed in Genesis and Genes, assumptions of this kind were accepted uncritically by one generation of scientists, only to be shown by a later generation to have been wholly unrealistic. The result was a paradigm shift. One should be parsimonious in one’s use of terms like proof or demonstration in the context of cosmology.

References:

[1] New Scientist, 14th April 2007, Vol. 194 Issue 2599, page 10.

[2] http://science.time.com/2013/03/28/look-close-somethings-strange-in-the-photo-of-the-universe/.

Retrieved 3rd April 2013.

[3] https://torahexplorer.com/2013/03/07/missing-mass/

James Clerk Maxwell and Religion

March 29, 2013

I argued in Genesis and Genes that many people make a crucial mistake when they confuse Nature with Science:

It happens because many people confuse science with nature. Judaism cannot countenance a contradiction between God and nature. God created the universe and its laws. We don’t think that God is schizophrenic, so there cannot be inconsistencies between Him and His creation. The proposition that there is a contradiction between the Torah and nature would invite the suggestion of multiple deities. But nature is not the same as science. Nature is God’s creation, with its laws and processes. Science is the attempt by human beings to understand these laws and processes. Being a human endeavour, it is not infallible. There is no reason why there should not be contradictions between Torah and science, just like we can expect there to be contradictions between Torah and any other human endeavour.

Insisting, as a matter of principle, that there cannot be contradictions between Judaism and science can have insalubrious consequences. As I wrote in my last post (Concordism and String Theory):

If you handcuff the Torah to some contemporary theory in physics, what will happen if that theory sinks? Retro-prophecy begets quickie emunah – flimsy and fragile. If the science fails – and science is a human endeavour with prominent historical failures – the Torah falls too.

I have now come across a fascinating statement in this context. It appears in a biography of the 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest scientists of all time. His biographer relates that “He summarised [his approach] many years later when replying to an invitation to join the Victoria Institute, an eminent organisation specifically set up to establish common ground between Christianity and science. Over the years he had turned them down several times, but they were so keen to have him in their number that in 1875 the President and Council sent him a special request to join.” In declining the request, I believe that Maxwell, who was a pious Christian, was making the same point that I am making:

“I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time… For it is in the nature of science, especially those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions, to be continually changing.” The Man who Changed Everything – The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, Basil Mahon, Wiley, 2004, page 37.

“For it is in the nature of science… to be continually changing.” What Maxwell realised is that science is not reliable when it addresses the most profound questions. As I explained at length in Genesis and Genes, science is not a monolith, all of whose results carry the same credibility. Science is strong – though never infallible – in elucidating phenomena which are repeatable, observable and limited. Its credibility rapidly diminishes when it confronts phenomena which stray beyond those parameters. So much so that Maxwell felt that because it is “continually changing”, it would be folly to commit to a particular viewpoint in science – say, when it discusses the origin of life or the age of the universe or whether Adam and Eve could have been real people – and try to pigeonhole his religion into that viewpoint.

I argued in Genesis and Genes that one cannot formulate Torah positions in response to the latest consensus position in science:

When Torah sources clearly and consistently describe a position about the physical universe, then that is the Torah position, whether one finds it conveniently modern or not.

If Maxwell were Jewish, I think he would concur.

Concordism and String Theory

March 21, 2013

David Shatz, a member of Tradition’s Editorial Board, is professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University and editor of The Torah u-Madda Journal. He is the author of an erudite and eloquent essay entitled Is There Science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism, which was recently sent to me by a reader.[1]

Early in the essay, Professor Shatz poses the following question: why is it that many Modern Orthodox Jews are quick to reject attempts by writers like N. Aviezer and G. Schroeder to demonstrate concordism – the idea that the Torah “teaches science and metaphysics in a positive fashion”?[2] Shatz responds,

One answer, I think, is that Aviezer and Schroeder are associated with a method of kiruv which critics regard as potentially counterproductive. Concordists use the “discovery” that the Torah already includes truths that scientists discovered millennia later to instill awe, wonder, and belief in the Author’s omniscience. But when kiruv is done this way, fluctuations in scientific beliefs could induce cynicism over time: when science changes, out go the proofs of the author’s omniscience that were based on a correspondence between Genesis and the old science. If anything, the Author will look ignorant, has ve-shalom, when the science changes. Concordism comes off as a gimmick.

This is an important point, and one which I emphasised in Genesis and the Big Bluff (which I wrote several years before reading Shatz’s essay). To demonstrate where Dr. Schroeder’s approach could go wrong, I used the example of String Theory. I wrote in Genesis and the Big Bluff,

The central thesis of Genesis and the Big Bang is that traditional sources – the Talmud, midrashim and medieval commentators – provide a view of the cosmos which is strikingly in agreement with modern scientific observation and hypothesis. Hence, the subtitle of the book – The Discovery of Harmony between Modern Science and the Bible. But Dr. Schroeder never ponders the possibility – and consequences – of contemporary scientific theories turning out to be wrong. If you claim congruence between Torah sources and scientific theories, and those theories are eventually rejected, what are the implications for the Torah?

Dr. Schroeder introduces his thesis that traditional Torah sources presaged String Theory on page 59 of Genesis and the Big Bang:

To form the universe, God chose from the infinite realm of the Divine, ten dimensions or aspects and relegated them to be held within the universe. These dimensions are hinted at in the ten repetitions of the statements “and God said…” used in the opening chapter of Genesis. The cabalists believed that only four of the ten dimensions are physically measurable within today’s world. The other six contracted into submicroscopic dimensions during the six days of Genesis…

With an amazing congruity, particle physicists now talk of the String Theory, a unified description of our universe in ten dimensions… These dimensions according to the physicists are the four that we know, length, width, height and time, plus six others. These six are contracted into a size far too tiny ever to be observed even by the best of microscopes…

An obvious objection to be made here – and one on which I shall not elaborate in this post – is that the association Dr. Schroeder claims between the Torah and String Theory is extremely flimsy, and is unsubstantiated (except for that vague phrase The cabalists believed…).

But even if the association was more robust, one should beware of aligning the Torah with the latest theories in physics. Genesis and the Big Bang was published in the early 1990s, when String Theory was all the rage in physics. Two decades later, things look very different. String Theory is controversial, entirely theoretical (for the foreseeable future, it will not be possible to test its predictions, since that would require particle accelerators orders of magnitude larger than anything available), and of questionable usefulness to physics. In its 14th August 2006 edition, TIME Magazine published an article entitled The Unravelling of String Theory. The magazine’s science writer, Michael Lemonick, points out that despite its initial popularity, it has accumulated many detractors:

Not Even Wrong, by Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit, and The Trouble with Physics, by Lee Smolin at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, both argue that string theory (or superstring theory, as it is also known) is largely a fad propped up by practitioners who tend to be arrogantly dismissive of anyone who dare suggest that the emperor has no clothes.

Lemonick proceeds to describe some of the problems with String Theory:

The mathematics is excruciatingly tough, and when problems arise, the solutions often introduce yet another layer of complexity. Indeed, one of the theory’s proponents calls the latest of many string-theory refinements “a Rube Goldberg contraption.”

USA Today ran an article entitled Hanging on by a thread, making similar points. Nature published Theorists snap over string pieces.[3] In an article dated 1st June 2009 and entitled What string theory is really good for, reporter Jessica Griggs of New Scientist writes,

The critical voices have in the meantime been getting more strident. They complain about string theory’s weird, unverifiable predictions – for instance, that space-time has any number of dimensions, usually 10, rather than the three of space and one of time we see. Folding 10 dimensions down to four can be done in a mind-boggling 10^500 ways, with no way of saying which of them corresponds to how our universe does it. As if that weren’t enough, the energies needed to create the tiny strings the theory is woven from make them impossible to detect. To its detractors, string theory is long on mathematical elegance, but woefully short on real-world relevance.

Nobel Prize winner Sydney Glashow and his colleague Paul Ginsparg warned that “contemplation of superstrings may evolve into an activity as remote from conventional particle physics as particle physics is from chemistry.”

In March 2010, New Scientist interviewed Roger Penrose.[4] Penrose is a world-famous mathematician who has won numerous international prizes. In 1994, he was knighted in recognition of his services to science. He is the author of several books, including the best-selling Road to Reality. Penrose is perhaps most famous for his collaboration with astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in the study of black holes. The New Scientist interview was entitled Happy-go-lucky, no strings attached. The happy-go-lucky part is a reference to Penrose’s pleasant disposition (he describes himself as an incurable optimist). The no-strings-attached part refers to his deep scepticism of String Theory. Here is the relevant part of the interview:

And that [String Theory], to Penrose, is a Bad Thing. Penrose has no time for strings. “My main objection is all those extra dimensions, which don’t make any sense… String theorists are not facing up to their problems. I don’t see string theory converging on anything. In fact, it’s diverging: it has got wilder and wilder.” That’s part of the reason why… he will publish Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics, a critique of modern physics. String theory provides the “fashion”, but there are other targets too.

The prominent physicist Lawrence Krauss apparently devoted much of his 2005 book, Hiding in the Mirror [which I have not read], to a scathing attack on String Theory. Finally, here is what Paul Dirac’s biographer (himself a physicist) has to say:[5]

Although string theory is the only strong candidate for a unified theory of the fundamental interactions, by no means all theoreticians are convinced of its value. A substantial number of physicists worry that the theory makes sense only in more than four dimensions of space-time… More worrying, it has received little support from experiment: string theory has yet to make a clear-cut prediction that experimenters have been able to test. These are among the key signals, several physicists have argued, that the theory is absurdly over-valued and that it would be better to pursue other avenues. One of the most vocal sceptics is the Standard Model pioneer [and Nobel Prize winner] Martin Veltman: “String theory is mumbo jumbo. It has nothing to do with experiment.”[6]

Dr. Schroeder writes for the broad public, whose knowledge of science is usually rudimentary. These readers are in no position to know that among mathematicians and physicists, scepticism of String Theory runs high. But this point is obvious to those who specialise in the intersection of religion and science. One of the most prominent of these specialists is Ian Barbour.[7] Barbour, now retired from academic life, was professor of physics and religion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and a pre-eminent figure in the field of science and religion, having been awarded the Templeton Prize in 1999. He begins by reviewing Dr. Schroeder’s approach:

Schroeder holds that other scientific facts can be found in later rabbinic writings. He describes in detail the commentary on Genesis by the thirteenth-century kabbalist Nahmanides… Nahmanides also said that there were ten principles or dimensions of reality corresponding to the ten times that the phrase “and God said” is repeated in Genesis. Schroeder claims that this has been confirmed in a remarkable way by recent superstring theory, which (as we saw) postulates ten initial dimensions…

Barbour proceeds to demonstrate the weakness of this argument:

Moreover, the use of superstring theory seems to me particularly dubious because it is highly abstract and speculative and cannot be tested experimentally at energies available in any existing or projected particle accelerator…

Let us see how a more sober observer of contemporary physics than Dr. Schroeder describes String Theory. Writing a number of years before Genesis and the Big Bang was published, Professor Timothy Ferris said:

Such optimism [about String Theory] may, of course, prove to have been misplaced. The history of twentieth-century physics is strewn with the bleached bones of theories that were once thought to approach an ultimate answer. Einstein devoted much of the latter half of his career to trying to find a unified field theory of gravitation and electromagnetism… Yet nothing came of it… Wolfgang Pauli collaborated with Werner Heisenberg on a unified theory for a while, then was alarmed to hear Heisenberg claim on a radio broadcast that a unified Pauli-Heisenberg theory was close to completion, with only a few technical details remaining to be worked out. Put out by what he regarded as Heisenberg’s hyperbole, Pauli sent… colleagues a page on which he had drawn a blank box. He captioned the drawing with the words, “This is to show the world that I can paint like Titian. Only technical details are missing.”[8]

Now, do these sentiments prove that String Theory is wrong? Of course not. There are many top-notch physicists who believe that it could lead to the deepest explanation of nature yet. Some believe that it will usher in that elusive theory of everything linking all four fundamental forces of nature. But this is far from certain, as should be obvious from the sceptical comments cited above. It is quite possible that String Theory will end up as a footnote in the history of physics. If you handcuff the Torah to some contemporary theory in physics, what will happen if that theory sinks? Retro-prophecy begets quickie emunah – flimsy and fragile. If the science fails – and science is a human endeavour with prominent historical failures – the Torah falls too.

***

There is another reason to be suspicious of Dr. Schroeder’s methodology, which is not examined in Professor Shatz’s essay. How robust is Dr. Schroeder’s approach? Can one link concepts from physics with religion in ways that undermine Dr. Schroeder’s thesis? In 1961, Murray Gell-Mann introduced a classification of elementary particles called hadrons. For his work, Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969. Gell-Mann’s own name for the classification scheme was the eightfold way, because of the octets of particles in the classification. The eightfold way achieved experimental verification when a previously undetected particle which it predicted, omega minus, was identified in a bubble chamber experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The term Gell-Mann used for his scheme – the eightfold way – is a reference to the eightfold way of Buddhism – a choice which is reflective of Gell-Mann’s eclectic interests.

How would Dr. Schroeder approach this? Would he write of the amazing congruity between particle physics and Buddhism, and encourage us to accept the truth of the latter? If not, why not? Is the eightfold classification scheme any less convincing as evidence for Buddhism than associating String Theory with the Torah because the phrase And God said appears ten times in the creation narrative?

Here is a second example. The website speed-light.info is slick, its content sophisticated, the science apparently up-to-date.[9] Various explanations about the speed of light abound, including the history of attempts to measure this constant. The site comes with the usual clarifications regarding frames of reference and problems of measurement. It explains, plausibly, that stating the speed of light in terms of lunar orbits per Earth day allows one to express the speed of light as an absolute quantity, regardless of one’s platform of observation. It is only then that one discovers that this is a Muslim site, which goes on to claim:

But 1400 years ago it was stated in the Quran (Koran, the book of Islam) that angels travel in one day the same distance that the moon travels in 1000 lunar years, that is, 12000 Lunar Orbits / Earth Day. Outside the gravitational field of the sun 12000 Lunar Orbits/Earth Day turned out to be the local speed of light!!! This definition is independent of direction and common to all observers: An observer near a black hole, for example, sees the speed of light outside gravitational fields a zillion km/s but still equal to 12000 Lunar Orbits/Earth Day!!!

So the Quran apparently managed to deduce the speed of light 1400 years ago. Shall we accept this as evidence for the truth of Islam?

***

I do not claim that that the Torah does not contain scientific truths only recently discovered; perhaps it does. Furthermore, it may be possible to evaluate similar claims from other religions according to some objective scheme that will indicate that the Torah claims are more convincing. But this has not been done, as far as I know, and certainly not in Dr. Schroeder’s books. Evidence for the Torah’s authenticity is only beneficial if it is robust and unique to Judaism. If the “proofs” are so fragile that a similar methodology will yield proofs for the truth of other religions, one has achieved little.

Just as important is the realisation that science is a fallible human enterprise, and that in physics and other branches of science, more wrong turns are taken than right turns. The tendency of some authors to impute infallibility to the latest paradigms – and to pretzelise Torah sources so as to fit with these paradigms – is a consequence of the ignorance of the history of science.

References:

[1] http://www.traditiononline.org/news/article.cfm?id=105357.
Retrieved 18th March 2013.
[2] “What we have here, then, is a deep, instinctive resistance to an approach taken by the very medieval thinkers whom Modern Orthodox Jews usually point to and invoke as their models and ideological forebears. Why this instant, reflex-like, dismissal of concordism on the part of some or many Modern Orthodox Jews?” Is There Science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism, David Shatz, TRADITION 41:2 / © 2008 Rabbinical Council of America.
[3] From an article by the physicist Sean Carroll in New Scientist, 19th May 2007.
[4] New Scientist, 13th March 2010, page 28.
[5] The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo, Basic Books, 2009, page 437.
[6] Martinus Veltman (born 1931) is a Dutch physicist, who, together with his student, Gerard ‘t Hooft (born 1946), shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1999 for elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions.
[7] Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, HarperSanFrancisco, 2000, page 46.
[8] Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, pages 332-333.
[9] See http://www.speed-light.info/.
Retrieved 27th August 2011.