Wednesday, February 5, 2014

So Many Misconceptions, So Little Time....

Update (Feb. 7): Several actual SCIENTISTS have provided their own responses in their own blogs.

So, in the wake of the big debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, a contributor to Buzzfeed asked 22 self-identifying creationists to write a questions for the other side.  The results were a rather frightening display of ignorance about the subject at hand.

Here are my responses.

1. Bill Nye, Are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?

Well, I can't speak for Bill Nye; but, from my perspective at least, he is absolutely influencing the minds of children in a positive way, exposing them to the wonders of scientific inquiry.

2. Are you scared of a Divine Creator? 

That would depend upon who the question is directed to. For the many scientist who do follow a religious faith, they have no difficulty reconciling that faith with science. For the many others who are atheists, they are of course not scared of a non-existent entity.

3. Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. tree created with rings... Adam created as an adult... 

 This isn't really a scientific question, but from a theological perspective, yes, it is completely illogical. Light from distant stars created in-flight? Fake fossils planted in geological strata? A Creator who would resort to such trickery seems pretty seedy.

4. Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution? 

No, it does not. The Second Law applies to thermodynamically isolated systems. The Earth's ecosystem is thermodynamically coupled to a HUGE entropy generator called "the Sun."

You may have heard of it.

Nothing about evolutionary dynamics contradicts thermodynamics. Sure, certain biological processes can cause a local decrease in entropy.  For that matter, so does the formation of a snowflake or any other crystalline structure. But, taken together with the overall thermodynamic system in which these processes take place, the net entropy increases.

5. How do you explain a sunset if their[sic] is no God? 

Er, the earth rotates, causing the sun to seem to sink below the horizon.

All kidding aside, I refer you to my answer for #20 (to avoid duplication).

6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories? 

First of all, the laws of thermodynamics do not even remotely debunk the BBT or evolution. I address evolution in #4 above. As for the Big Bang Theory, your concern likely involves the Law of Conservation of Energy. That worry mistakenly assumes that all energy has a positive value. However, as any freshman physics student should be able to tell you, the potential energy between mutually attracting bodies is a negative value. Assuming a cosmology in which overall spacetime is flat (in other words, aside from local gravitational curvature) as opposed to closed or hyperbolic, which seems to be the case based upon measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the net energy balance for the cosmos comes out to zero.

7. What about Noetics? 

I don't think that word means what you think it means. I suggest you look it up. It has nothing to do with this discussion.

8. Where do you derive objective meaning in life? 

Again, this has nothing to do with this discussion. Furthermore, it assumes that there is such a thing as life having an objective meaning. But that is more of a metaphysical/philosophical debate than anything else.

9. If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance? 

That is actually outside of the scope of evolutionary theory, but the origins of life are an area of active research, and many interesting conjectures have been put forth. And, yes, by and large, these conjectural models are based upon chance. There is a nice overview of this topic at .

10. I believe in the Big Bang Theory... God said it and BANG it happened! 

That isn't a question. It is a statement.

11. Why do evolutionists/secularists/humanists/non-God believing people reject the idea of their[sic] being being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terestrial sources? 

Scientists by and large don't really subscribe to the highly-speculative idea of intelligent design by aliens, although it makes an interesting premise for sci-fi movies. There is no evidence supporting it.

There is an idea called "panspermia" which suggest that the basic building blocks of life came here from outer space, but that is based upon the simple observational fact that spectroscopic analysis of many nebulae and dust clouds in space reveal the presence of complex organic molecules. Basically, the building blocks of life are fairly common throughout the cosmos. Even more speculative variants of this idea involve conjecture about the first primitive cells themselves coming to Earth from space, but that is pretty far out on the fringe in the scientific community, and, again, highly speculative.

12. There is no in between... The only one found has been Lucy and there are only of a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an "official proof" 

Lucy isn't the only australopithecene found, nor the only primitive hominid found. Take a look at this (far from comprehensive) overview of hominid fossils:

13. Does metamorphosis help support evolution? 

In that biologists have a pretty good grasp of how certain species evolved to go through such a process, yes. See Truman, J. W. and L. M. Riddiford, 1999. "The origins of insect metamorphosis". Nature 401: 447-452.

14. If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact. 

First of all, we need to clear up some definitions. While the word theory as used in common vernacular tends to be synonymous with a conjecture or hypothesis, as used in science the word means far more. A theory is a model for explaining how things work in nature. A theory should be supported by experimental and observational evidence. There should be ways of testing it to see if it is wrong (falsifiability). A theory should have predictive capabilities that can then be compared to observation and experiment. Evolution meets all of these criteria.

Evolution is also an observable fact. We can see it in action. We can even manipulate it, as has been done for millennia in agriculture. It is also a theory, or, more properly, the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology is the theoretical structure which explains and describes how evolution works.

Creationism is not a theory. It is a belief. It is not supported by physical evidence. In fact, the entirety of physical evidence, from the fields of biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, astrophysics, and astronomy, contradicts it.

The Bible is not a theory. It is a book.

Creationism and the Bible could certainly be taught in schools in a comparative religions course, but they have no place in a science class, simply because they are not science.

15. Because science by definition is a "theory" - not testable, observable, nor repeatable, why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school? 

Yet another instance of someone who does not know the meaning of the word "theory." See the answer to #14. The word "theory" does not mean what you think it means.

16. What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process. 

Genetic information is added via random mutations. Whether the information added is of any benefit to the genetic population in question is determined by natural selection. It is a crap shoot. Most mutations are rather neutral in their impact. You have a few hundred mutations that your parents didn't have. Sometimes mutations are beneficial. Sometimes they are harmful. The latter tend to be weeded out over time if they represent a reproductive disadvantage in terms of natural selection.

A lot people seem to be stuck on the notion that information cannot be generated randomly. However, in information theory, even random data counts as information. In fact given a block of random digits, and a same-sized block of alternating ones and zeros, the first block actually has more information content, since the second block can be compressed to a more compact representation.  This concept is independent of any "meaning" the data might have, as meaning is imposed by context.  In the case of evolution and biological processes, the context is imposed through how genetic information is interpreted and expressed by the transcription process and what impact the resulting proteins and processes have on natural selection.

17. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation? 

See #8.

18. Why have we found only 1 "Lucy", when we have found more than 1 of everything else? 

See #12.

19. Can you believe in "the big bang" without "faith"? 

No one "believes" in the Big Bang, or in evolution, for that matter. It is not a matter of belief or faith. The Big Bang theory is the best currently available model for explaining the observational evidence about the cosmos, just as evolution is the best available model for explaining the totality of biology. If a better model comes along that provides better explanations and fits the evidence better, great!

(As an historical aside, I should note that the Big Bang Theory was first postulated by a priest, Monseigneur Georges Lemaître.)

Science is not a static body of knowledge, nor is it a bastion of dogma. It is a process for keeping us from fooling ourselves, for testing what we think is correct. In science, all knowledge is provisional, and evidence is the ultimate arbitrator of what is valid and what is invalid. A well-trained scientists always questions and double-checks the assumptions upon which they base their conclusions. Those that find problems with those assumptions are the ones who propel our knowledge forward.

20. How can you look at the world and not believe someone Created/thought of it? It's Amazing!!! 

Again, this is more of a metaphysical question rather than a scientific question. First of all, yes, the world and the universe are amazing, and beautiful, and awe-inspiring. And, guess what? Many scientists who reject Young Earth Creationism also believe in a creator, having no difficulty reconciling their faith with science. For them, the creation account in Genesis is more metaphorical or poetic, the result of our ancient ancestors trying to understand how everything came to be based upon what little they knew.

For those of us who are not believers, that does not make the universe any less beautiful or awe-inspiring. Just because I can explain in excruciating mathematical detail how a rainbow works (and I can) doesn't make it seem any less beautiful to me. In fact, understanding how it works enhances my appreciation of its beauty. 

Back in 1990, as the Voyager 1 space probe was entering the outer reaches of the solar system, Carl Sagan directed that its cameras be pointed back into the inner solar system to capture a "family portrait" of the worlds of our system. Included in the images captured was shot of the Earth, appearing as a tiny pale blue dot. That image inspired Sagan (an atheist) to pen the following beautiful passage:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. 
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

21. Relating to the big bang theory.... Where did the exploding star come from? 

First of all, the BBT doesn't say that the universe came from an exploding star. That said, there is considerable speculation about the origins of the big bang, although nothing has been settled definitively (and likely will not be until we have a good quantum gravity model). The prevailing model right now among cosmologists and astrophysicists is that the "primordial particle" from which the Big Bang sprung came from a quantum fluctuation, an idea perfectly consistent with quantum field theory as we now understand it. (Yes, particles spring from nothingness all the time. It is an inescapable consequence of quantum theory.)

22. If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

Oh, this old chestnut encapsulates two major misconceptions about how evolution works. First of all, the theory of common descent doesn't say that humans evolved from monkeys. Rather, humans and monkeys share common ancestry, that they are two different branches of the same evolutionary family tree. In this case, that common ancestral species is in fact extinct. However, speciation doesn't require the extinction of the progenitor species, particularly if the new species has become geographically isolated from the remainder of the population. Such an isolated population can be exposed to more intensive selective pressures causing more rapid development than the parent species.