Saturday, October 23, 2010

Some Classic Pseudo-Scientific Howlers (1)




In the process of assimilating the current "Tea Party"- deformed American landscape, one cannot but help deploring what is certainly a renewed onslaught on intellectuals and science. Merely excavating some recent comments shows the extent of ignorance and the real danger that the nonsense uttered may well be ingested by the injudicious, the uneducated, or those who merely want to "milk" a new agenda hobby horse for the Right.

Below are some of these classic howlers, along with my rejoinders to the statements. In the case no specific person has been identified with making the statement, it can be said that numerous people made it- either on blogs, in letters to the editor, or in other venues and forums (e.g. Salon.com, Huffingpost.com, etc.).

1) Christine O'Donnel from a 2007 quote:

"American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains."

Of course this is the utmost poppycock, since a fully functioning human brain requires at least the neural capacity equivalent of more than ten billion neurons and concomitant firing synapses and mice don't have even one ten- thousandth that amount. Further, for a mouse- scale cranium, you wouldn't even be able to harvest a fetal capacity brain activity, far less a fully adult human thinking capacity. What O'Donnell was likely referencing (but messed up via poor memory, if she even processed it correctly in the first place) was a 2005 report in Nature concerning the implantation of human cells into mice to demonstrate human brain cells can be created from stem cells.

2) From Delmar Ray Riffe (Intertel Integra, September) :

"Natural selection is a random process and we're expected to believe a single mutation can cause alligator eggs to hatch into beautiful swans"

First, Riffe (who is supposed to rank among the top 1% of IQ as a member of Intertel) confuses mutation and natural selection. What natural selection does is to consolidate particular random mutations into a more stable, adaptive adjustment – governed by deterministic factors and inputs.Thus, that while the selected trait often appears at random, its preservation in the gene structure cannot be relegated to randomness.

In other words, once the trait – say ligand recognition by a protein- is incorporated, and gene frequencies increase, the process ceases to be random. The failure of Riffe is being unable to recognize the distinctions between the condition leading to the initial mutation and the subsequent natural selection consolidating it into higher gene frequencies! (An error often made by fundies, by the way).

Rather than Riffe's misinterpretation, we know mutation (say via a cell’s interaction with a cosmic ray) is the same as a single step selection, as opposed to natural selection, which can be viewed as a cumulative process of selection. Let’s take an example that recently made the news: the identification of an apparent “superbug” resistant to antibiotics, and designated by reference to the NDM-1 "superbug gene” which can turn any bacteria into a "superbug" - totally resistant to antibiotic treatment.

At some point in time (t - to) in the past, some mutation occurred (likely in India) that converted a normal bacterial gene into the NDM-1. At that point, it could easily have been a "one off", in other words, a one time event limited to one bacterial type in one patient. Had it remained so, it would have been a totally random event. If an event only occurs statistically once, or is confined or limited by probabilities, then it is a chance event. But when the change is actually incorporated, as evidenced by a changing fitness in the organism (enhancing the gene frequency) then it is no longer governed by random chance but a level of determinism via natural selection, or cumulative selection.

The measures for success of natural selection are the fitness (w) and the selective value (s). These can be measured on either absolute or relative scales, but are related algebraically on the latter by:

w = 1 – s, or s = 1 – w

For a successful mutation deemed to have taken hold and become consolidated in an organism via natural selection, we expect that the fitness w = 1, while there is little or no reduction in selection value, so that s remains near 0 for the most favorable alleles. (For example, resistance to antibiotics.)


3) From numerous fundies in assorted forums:

The universe is like a giant watch

This simplistic canard replicates the original error by William Paley. We know after more than three further centuries of scientific imnvestigation that Paley’s famously na├»ve argument: “A watch must always have a Watchmaker, so also the universe must have a Maker or Creator.” is flawed and outdated.

The analogy is flawed, first, because the universe is not a mechanical contrivance like a watch. Apart from the fact that – for the most part (certain limited domains in celestial mechanics excepted) the ‘clockwork universe’ was dispelled when quantum theory emerged. Unfortunately, while the practicing physicist has long since had to adopt an indeterminate, non-mechanistic world view (e.g. guided by the experimental results from quantum physics), the same cannot be said for non-physicists, including theologians, philosophers and multitudes of laypersons.

These groups continue to labor under erroneous assumptions of causality and “order” generated almost exclusively by an ignorance of modern physics. For example, an ignorance of the fact that simultaneous measurements at the atomic level are fundamentally indeterminate (Heisenberg Uncertainty principle).

In cosmological terms, the whole concept of "order" has been relegated to a minor and tiny niche of the extant cosmos. For example, the recent balloon-borne Boomerang and MAXIMA UV measurements to do with Type I a supernovae, have disclosed a cosmic content:

7% - ordinary visible matter

93% - dark component, of which:

- 70% is DARK (vacuum) energy and

- 23% is dark matter

In effect, 93% of the universe can't even be assessed for "order" since it can't be seen! In the case of dark matter, one can only discern its presence indirectly by the visible effects on neighboring matter. In the case of dark energy, the underlying physical basis isn't even known - though we know the result is an increase in the acceleration of the universe (arising from a cosmic repulsion attributed to dark energy).

Even in the 7% that is ordinary matter, more than 99% is tied to plasma or ionized gases(for example in nebulae and interstellar or intergalactic gas). The segment of the cosmos that DOES display some degree of precision (e.g. our solar system, and the systems of other exo-planetary systems so far discovered) is probably barely 0.000000001% of the whole, if that. In other words, the fundie is extrapolating to the whole cosmos a property of “precision” that applies only to a very minor fraction. This commits the error of generalizing from the particular to the general.

4) Numerous fundie blogs and other media talking heads, including Glen Beck, James Dobson, et al:

Evolution is only a theory and can’t be tested

The first major error is the misreprsentation of what "theory" means, which is here more conflated with speculation. In fact, a theory represents the highest order of scientific testing and predictive attainment. It means, essentially, that the original hypothesis has enabled predictions which have been tested or observed, and hence confirmed.

In the case of evolution, actual photographic evidence has been assembled for the telomeric fusion of the 2p and 2q chromosomes in apes, to become the ‘2’ chromosome in humans. In other words, prima facie evidence of a common ancestor. (See, e.g.: Yunis and Prakash, 1982, Science, Vol. 215, p. 1525, 'The Origin of Man: A Chromosomal Pictorial Legacy')

Then we have the evidence from the DNA (genomic) sequencing of the human and chimpanzee which discloses the remarkable fact that BOTH have the exact SAME cytochrome –c sequence! If evolution were false we’d expect the human and chimp cytochrome-c sequences to vary dramatically given that it exhibits 10^93 variations in functionality with other organisms. That is, 10 followed by ninety three zeros.So the odds that coincidence would explain a perfect match for humans and chimps are 1 in 10 to the 93rd power!

Both of these disclose prima facie evidence for the hypothesis of common descent, a key component of Darwinian theory as applied to humans and chimps!

More to come in Part (2)

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