One More Thought on Science!

Thinking of Ayn Rand has brought up a vivid memory from 5th grade:

By the end of 5th grade, I had turned over just about every science book in the St. Mary’s of the Assumption school library, and had started in on the Whittier public library up the street.

One day, it dawned on me: 99% of people, those who don’t do science, are pretty much useless freeloaders. I mean, just read the books, both popular science and especially science fiction – time and time again, the lone genius struggles for those moments of luminous enlightenment that advance the human race, while the ignorant masses ignore or even persecute him! Yet, the wonders that result from the scientists’ labor enrich lives everywhere, even, perhaps especially, the lives of those who ignore or even persecute him.

This thought caused a bit of despair, because I was pretty sure even back then that I wasn’t going to be a great scientist.

Gradually, over the course of the next few years, it dawned on me what a bunch of self-serving crap this was. I think I reached this conclusion with the help of both real science history, which tells a much different and much more communal and even societal story, and literature, especially philosophy. Reading Plato, you can easily see that scientist don’t have a monopoly on smarts, and even look a little stupid outside their core disciplines. (By the time I’d graduated college and watched Cosmos, guys like Sagan had totally disproved Scientists = Altruistic Smart Guys equation. Scientists can be every bit as concerned with their Q rating as any Hollywood bimbo.)

Scientists are utterly dependent on a social  environment that supports science – and they most certainly did not create that society.

The Church did.

The Nonexistent Seductive Powers of Ayn Rand

There is of course an unlimited list of things I will never understand, me being finite and the universe being effectively infinite (not to mention God and all that). High upon that list, just under why people, under no threat of torture or death, voluntarily watch Dukes of Hazard, Charlie’s Angels and ‘reality’ TV, is the appeal of Ayn Rand. Specifically, I don’t understand why anyone would read more than about half of either of her novels.

To hear her fan boys and fan girls talk reminds me of the first time I ever made a snowball. After growing up in Los Angeles, where we wisely keep our snow up on the mountaintops where we can admire it from afar as we work on our January tans, I ran into my first snowfall up close and personal a couple months into my first semester of college up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. About a 16th of an inch if snow had fallen, and I just had to scape about a quarter acre of landscaping to come up with a workable snowball, which I threw at a friend – a friend from Colorado.

He looked at me with a mixture of bemused disgust, as I had just cemented in his brain every goofball stereotype of the stupid Californian. By the third day, any enthusiasm I harbored for wintery outdoor activities had died, and I settled into waiting for Spring. I had learned what every Midwesterner and Northerner knows in his heart: snow sucks.

Basically, if you’ve never read a book with ideas in it, never thought a thought deeper than to wonder if anything good is on TV, never had occasion to exercise the thinking part of your brain at all – then, well, I suppose Rand could be kind of bracing, at least for a short while.

But if you’ve read anything good, you’d immediately recognize Rand as a writer of pot-boiler dreck. If you’d ever actively entertained any of the real thoughts out there in the world, like the stuff in Plato or the Bible (read to understand, not for proof texts)  or Chesterton or Tolkien, then Rand’s ‘ideas’ would be instantly recognized as utterly sophomoric posing. Or, finally, if you’d ever loved a child or someone old and ‘useless’, then you see Rand as pure evil.

Make your snowball, throw it at somebody you love, and get over it.

Bad Science Reporter! Bad!

Here, a science reporter says:

Despite our lack of evidence proving otherwise, we are probably not alone in this universe.

Um, what? What does that even mean? I fear the problem isn’t ignorance or even bad science, it’s anti-science.
Dude, given the current state of the evidence, all we can say about the possibility of life on other planets is ‘we don’t know’. It is neither probable or improbable. You – and so many other mystical metaphysicians claiming to be speaking for science – are relying on a series of assumptions about the nature of the universe that are absolutely unscientific, if by scientific we mean based on the observation and measurement of the observable material world. These mystical assumptions include:
– Life is solely the result of material causes and physical laws which are same everywhere in the Universe;
– Life must arise anywhere the required material conditions are present;
– It would be a terrible waste of space if life didn’t exist all over the universe.
It’s not *just* that none of those mystical assumption are known – it’s that none of them are knowable by science even in theory. For reasons that escape me, it appears many, many otherwise intelligent people utterly fail to grasp this logically inescapable fact.
Usual disclaimer: I’d be awed, thrilled and fascinated if we ever discovered non-terrestrial life. It’s just that such life is neither probable nor improbable – it is simply unknown, and it is unscientific and frankly stupid to claim otherwise.

Science: Manning Up

How many fundamental science errors can you spot in this one short article on different fossil pre-humans? How about in that last sentence?

Piltdown Skull

Here’s a couple to get you going:

But 50 years ago, researchers discovered an even older and more primitive species of human called Homo habilis that may have coexisted with H. erectus. Now it seems H. rudolfensis was around too and raises the distinct possibility that many other species of human also existed at the time

“…raises the distinct possibility that many other species of human also existed at the time”  Really? How is it any more a possibility that there are “many” undiscovered species now than there were before this latest discovery?  Why does this find not raise the distinct possibility that, nope, this is it, last new find. What is the author trying to say here? This may be more of a basic logic error than a basic science error, but you don’t get far in science without logic.

In other groups of animals many different species evolve, each with new traits, such as plumage, or webbed feet. If the new trait is better suited to the environment then the new species thrives, if not it becomes extinct.

No, that’s not it, exactly. In other groups of animals, it sometimes happens that many different species arise from a common stock, thereby changing the environment of evolutionary adaptation in which they exist (didn’t have the new species before, now it does!), or, sometimes, moving into completely different environments.  Survival depends on the big picture, which includes not only closely-related ‘competitors’ but the whole ecosystem over time. Rarely do new traits arise in isolation or in such a way that anyone can say “That’s why it survived!”  Does the giraffe with the longest neck or the Australopithecus with the biggest brain win? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s that whole extended phenotype thing. As so often the case, Mike Flynn has covered this. Continue reading “Science: Manning Up”