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  • Double, Double Toil and Trouble

    Posted by John Jay on July 25th, 2006 (All posts by )

    “Such indeed is the respect paid to science, that the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase. If society is thus prepared to receive all kinds of scientific doctrines, it is our part to provide for the diffusion and cultivation, not only of true scientific principles, but of a spirit of sound criticism, founded on an examination of the evidences on which statements apparently scientific depend.”

    James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

    Emphasis mine. Living the life scientific means applying that philosophy to all areas of your life, and admitting when you do not have enough information to make a judgment, something a lot of scientists have a problem with. But this is not a rant about the failings of scientists, this is a rant mostly about this part of the quote:

    the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase.

    Not too long ago, I was on a train. A rant about Amtrak’s moveable hell* is a post for another day, this is a rant about a couple of passengers across the aisle. The woman was expostulating to her male companion on the virtues of the research of a “Japanese scientist” who takes pictures of water crystals through a microscope. It seems that if the water sample in question got messages of “you idiot” the crystals looked ugly, and if they got messages of love, they looked perfect. You, dear reader, just do not know how much control it took for me not to interject into this conversation. You. Just. Do. Not. Know. Hundreds of years of efforts by the Children of the Enlightenment to bring humans out of the demon-haunted world (including my own 20 years studying science), and people from ostensibly the same culture and civilization as I am willingly sink back into this kind of crap when cut loose from their historical religious superstitions. Freed slaves putting a new set of chains on each other. Un-freaking-believable.

    Some dude in her reiki class showed her the book of crystal pictures. There were also pictures of spring versus tap water, and the effect of pollutants was the same as if someone had been thinking mean thoughts at the water. The difference in the ice from spring versus ice from polluted water was also “unbelievable”. Also unbelievable were the effects of heavy metal versus classical music**. Well, unbelievable to someone who’s never heard of colligative properties and the impact of water drop geometry and solutes on ice formation. (Are you imagining me in the seat across the aisle with my blood pressure going off the scale? You should be.) Since the body is 90% water, or 87% water, she corrected herself (I was typing at the time, so I wrote this crap down verbatim – doesn’t 87 sound so much more exact and scientific than 90?), “just think, if the words we say can affect the crystals in a glass, how could the words we say affect an individual’s consciousness, or the world’s consciousness? It’s really been fun, you know?” No, I don’t know. Unimaginative, third rate science fiction ideas that wouldn’t get past my “willing suspension of disbelief” filter in a novel, but are accepted in the real world by credulous cretins, don’t seem like much fun to me, but what do I know? I’m just a scientist.

    Well, I just had to look this horsecrap up when I got home. The first thing I did was look up the percentage of water in the human body, because I didn’t really know what it was offhand, but 87% sounded suspiciously like the water content of a watermelon (actually, they are about 92% water), rather than the value for an organism containing bone and solid organs. And I was right – we are roughly 60% water.

    Then I went off to look for our Japanese friend. Unfortunately, I found him, and his book, The Hidden Messages in Water, with ease. That movie in the last link is the subject for another rant, I’ve got my hands full right here with the “Japanese scientist”, “Dr.” Masaru Emoto (江本勝, if you want to play along in Japanese). I say “Dr.” because his medical “degree” was purchased from a diploma mill for roughly $500. Just look at the photos on Emoto’s Japanese website and marvel at the lost, lost people enthusiastically deluding themselves.

    My thoughts when looking at all those people peering into microscopes, sporting Bluetooth earpieces linked to laptops, and buying Emoto’s BS, basically boiled down to the observation that you can take the savages out of the jungle and dress them up in suits, but they’ll still worship rocks on their days off. Here all these people surrounded by the fruits of the studies of scientists and engineers, and they understand none of it. Oh, sure, some of them, especially the Japanese, might be able to recite some facts at you, they might even be able to regurgitate the laws of motion and laws of thermodynamics at you. But they understand none of it, because, if they are employed by Hado, they don’t have a clue about how mankind arrived at any of those theories, unless they are total frauds. Maxwell’s “spirit of sound criticism” is too often drowned out by the memorization of facts in basic science classes all the way into the college freshman level. The result is that the majority of supposedly educated people might as well have been going to Sunday School instead of sitting in science class for all they have absorbed about the proper method of evaluating evidence. They memorized facts and figures for more than a decade of publicly funded education and called it science.

    This kind of thing irritates me, but I used to keep moving (far away) and just let it roll off of my back. As the wife says, everyone is entitled to be an idiot, just not around me. However, lately I’ve begun to wonder about what things such as Dr. Emoto’s “research” might portend for the future. Ignorant opinion spreads like cancer through our society. Many, if not most, economic, social and biological phenomena follow a non-linear development curve described by an exponential function. In the beginning, things look linear, and a phenomenon slowly builds. But at some point a critical mass is reached – trend setters are now populous enough to see and feed off of each other, or organisms create a substrate upon which others of their kind can build. Then you hit the dogleg in that curve, and it looks as if the phenomenon burst into prominence out of nowhere, when it fact the trend simply hit the dogleg.

    Stupidity works this way, too. You just can not imagine my disgust when I Googled “water crystal formation”, and the number 2 and 3 hits were this and this from Dr. Emoto. Oh well, at least the number one hit was this. As we do a poorer and poorer job of educating our youth in math and science, ignorance will grow until it reaches a critical mass.

    We are pretty darn close to critical mass right now, if you ask me. I’m continually surprised at the ignorance of people with college educations who have no idea where the frontiers of knowledge for the human race now lie. “If we can put a man on the moon…”. What a stupid, ignorant remark. Putting a man on the moon was an intricate but conceptually simple feat of engineering and Classical Physics. It has nothing to do with understanding the far more complex series of feedback and feed-forward loops in a living organism that must be tinkered with in order to cure cancer, not to mention that you can actually see most of the parts that go into a spaceship with the naked eye. But the misconceptions about the exact capabilities of science have already entered politics at the fringes. Derek Lowe had a great quote for the PETA crazies who think that we (the human race) have the biological knowledge to replace animal testing with computer models, and how ludicrous that idea is to anyone who gives the economics of the issue the slightest rational thought:

    It’s true: I don’t actually like the fact that every successful modern drug has risen to its place on top of a small mountain of dead animals. But not liking doesn’t keep it from being true, and not liking it doesn’t mean that I have an alternative, either. I don’t. What the animal rights campaigners – the more rational ones, anyway – don’t seem to realize is that tens of millions of dollars are waiting for the person who can come up with a way of not using so many mice, rats, and dogs. (The less rational ones wouldn’t care even if they knew).

    They’re expensive, you know, animals are. We don’t just have them running around in rooms with a bunch of straw on the floor. They live in facilities that are expensive to build and expensive to maintain, and you have to hire a lot of people whose only job is to take care of them. The anti-testing people seem to have visions of drug company employees cackling at the thought of getting to use more animals, when the truth is that we’d dump them in a minute if we could.

    But here’s the hard part: we can’t. Not for now, and not for some time to come. We don’t know enough biology to do it. As it stands, if you were able to model every relevant system in a rat, well enough to use your model for predictive screening, you’d have basically built a rat yourself. We get surprised all the time when our compounds go into animals, and every time it happens, it shows how little we really know.

    As ignorance about how the world works and how one goes about uncovering new knowledge gets more widespread, it begins to affect the body politic. Al Gore touting a “consensus” of scientists is only the tip of the iceberg, but no scientist, no matter which way you stand on the Global Warming debate, should let that one pass. Same goes for “Intelligent Design” arguments.

    But the Democratic experiment in America worked long before higher education was so widespread didn’t it? So what am I worrying about? I guess that I feel that in a large part people are spending so much time reading and so little time doing during their educations, that higher education is actually corroding most people’s BS meters. In most of the softer disciplines, it is possible to obtain a degree purely out of books, with little or no practical experience: without building something concrete, or trying to run a business, or do anything that most people actually do in the real world – making education less useful than it could be, leaving young minds open to silly ideas. *** It’s usually those educated beyond their intelligence who fall for the Emotos of this world – most working class people are either too busy, have too much common sense, or both, to get involved in determining the “hidden messages in water”.

    Since fewer and fewer people work with their hands anymore, the traditional common sense that formed the backbone of the democratic system that allows a universal franchise is being eroded. And so I’m left to wonder: how many Emotos can we absorb into the body politic before democracy is undermined by medieval credulity?

    Cross-posted on TPwithpagenumbers.

    * Not my phrase, although I wish it was.

    ** Actually, I can believe this one, if they were playing heavy metal at its normal volume, assuming that the classical piece did not include the cannon shots from the 1812 overture. Vibrations do affect ice formation.

    *** Yes, I am one of those people, who believe that education for education’s sake is a waste of time and resources. Want to learn to appreciate literature (and yes, I do)? Do so on your own dime.


    24 Responses to “Double, Double Toil and Trouble”

    1. Shannon Love Says:

      I think the big mistake we make in teaching science to those who won’t ever actually use it is that we cram them full of facts at the expense of teaching them methodology. It is after the methodology by which a fact is known that makes some information scientific and other information not.

      Many people lack the ability to make even a prima fascia evaluation of whether some piece of information was arrived at scientifically. Without that, they must fall back on arguments from authority. If someone who looks like they fulfill the social role of a scientist says it, it must be true.

    2. Roy Lofquist Says:

      Dear Sir,

      Why do I get the feeling that the whole purpose of this post was to take a gratuitous swipe at Intelligent Design? Perhaps because today I heard a radio personality, commenting on an infamous murder trial here in Florida, say (paraphrase) “Unlike the O.J. Simpson case, the jury got it right”. It is a non sequitur. You conflate a pop-science fad, touted by a known fraud, with a serious debate that has credentialed scientists on both sides.

      Perhaps you have been mislead by the political forces who would have you believe that ID is a religious doctrine fomented by Creationists. A ruse to confuse the arguments. This is the logical fallacy of guilt by association. Before moving to the issues it needs to be stated that ID, as stated by “The Discovery Institute”, makes no religious claims and in fact states emphatically that it has no interest in theology of any stripe.

      Disclaimer: I have no connection with “The Discovery Institute” nor any religious group. I am not a credentialed scientist, merely an intersted layman with a life-long abiding interest in science.

      ID theory agrees with current neo-Darwinism, as championed by Dawkins et. al., almost in its entirety. It disagrees with the accepted theory on only one, vary narrowly defined, point: the mechanism of speciation. Current theory posits that speciation is caused by random genetic variation. ID questions whether that is an adequate, logical explanation.

      The questions arise from two directions: statistics and information theory.

      The statistical argument is that the genetic variations necessary for speciation are improbable to the point of being impossible. The serial mutations necessary for speciation, from a mechanical viewpoint, have a chance calculated in the one in 10^50+ range. This combined with the estimated 10^10 estimated species in biological history (10^9 years) makes this seem unlikely.

      Dawkins, in his “Climbing Mount Improbable”, attemped to address this argument. His solution is that there are “hidden patterns” in nature that favor certain combinations that sustain the intermediate stages of speciation. I.E.: “Here, a miracle happens”. This is precisely the ID argument: there are no known physical mechanisms that plausibly explain speciation.

      The other major questions come from information theory. To wit, information always decreases. This is the modern formulation of one of the fundamental propositions of physical science: entropy (disorder) always increases. This is universally true except when DNA is involved. And this violation of entropy involves unexplained mechanisms.

      The more fundamental question is: whence DNA? The simplest observed DNA molecule comprises approximately 700,000 base pairs. The statistical probabilty of this occuring randomly is approximately one in 4^700,000. The historically accepted number of protons in the universe is 10^88.

      There are profound, probably unsolvable, questions about the origins of life and our universe. I don’t have any definitive answers. I simply question the certitude of those who do.


    3. Brett Bellmore Says:

      Gee, thanks! That comment is such a compilation of nonsense about evolution, that John’s head probably popped from the surge in blood pressure when he read it.

    4. Mitch Says:

      “This is precisely the ID argument: there are no known physical mechanisms that plausibly explain speciation.”

      This is precisely where the ID argument fails: in assuming that because there are no known physical mechanisms to explain a phenomenon, no such mechanisms exist. The most famous example of this was the absence of a fossil record supporting the evolution of whales.

      Once more fossils filled in some of the gaps, the ID believers merely shifted their ground, claiming that the intermediate species did not establish a direct chain of ancestry. Most if not all of the intermediate species represent branches whose descendants are extinct. They show when and how the true ancestors might have evolved and what might have been common characteristics.

      The test of a scientific theory is falsifiability. If new evidence fits the theory, the theory has not been falsified. Perfect knowledge is not available to us, so science advances with theories that rather than having been proven true, have not been proven false (go see Popper on the philosophy of science). Rather than falsifying any known explanations, ID merely dismisses them as implausible because evidence does not exist for one point of the process or another.

    5. John Says:

      Roy – Methinks thou art a bit hypersensitive. I added the ID bit as an afterthought as I finished polishing the piece. It may surprise you to know that I actually personally believe in a theology (I am a Baptist) that overlaps with a lot of what the IDers say.

      However, I also know what is scientific and what is not. This personal belief of mine is not scientific. Mitch pointed out that scientific theories have to be falsifiable. I’ve seen some stupid philosophers get into the sophomoric argument of what “falsifiable” means, given that sometimes theories are ressurected: the particle theory of light being resurrected by QM is a good example. The key here is that a scientific theory has to be fasifiable within the boundary conditions of the current state of knowledge. When the photoelectric effect became well known, Newton’s wave theory came into question – but all the evidence supporting his theory had to be encomapssed by the new one, hence the QM principle of the dual nature of light – photons are wave packets. But for both Newton and Einstien, the rules were that the theories put forth had to be falsifiable – and they were within the framework of knowledge in the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively. That means there are some things that science can not help us with, because we can’t set boundary conditions i which to conduct an experiment – the existence (or non-) of God being one of those areas where science is useless. The sceintists who claim that Science has disproven the existence of God are just as deluded as IDers.

      To follow on what Mitch said, nothing ID has to offer is in the least way falslifiable within our current framework of knowledge. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as it were. Just becuase evolution may be wrong in particulars or in general, ID does not have to be right – but that is the tactic taken by every major ID proponent – and it is UNSCIENTIFIC. Negative inferences are unscientific. Full stop.

      The Theory of Evolution is waiting for a lot of evidence to fill in gaps, but it works pretty well in simple systems (such as bacterial resistance). ID has yet to prove its worth, or even describe how that worth might be proved – and that is the key to falifiability, and hence the claim of being a scientific theory.

      The only attmept at quantification in ID thus far has been Dembski’s proabability model, which, to put it kindly, is horse shit. I wrote extensively about ID and its counterparts (Nuclear Winter, etc.) in mainstream science here, here, and here. In a nutshell, there is no a priori method outlined in Dembski’s models to pick the “right” probabilities, so you can plug any numbers you want into that model. That is not science, it is mathematical masturbation.

    6. John Says:

      “You conflate a pop-science fad, touted by a known fraud, with a serious debate that has credentialed scientists on both sides.”

      I just re-read that comment. This is quote is exactly what Shannon and I mean about appeal to authority. Who gives a rat’s about whether there are credentialed scientists on either side a of a debate, or even what their credentials are? There were credentialed scientists on both sides of the Quantum Mechanics debate, the last time there was a major paradigm shift in Physics. And look at Linus Pauling – he was more than a bit of a nut about Vitamin C, and his credentials were not one, but two Nobel Prizes – I don’t know of any better credentials than that. But he was still wrong, and in his later years, he was still a bit of a nut.

      Do not ever go into an argument with a scientist using an appeal to authority. Our eyes immediately glaze over – how do you konw which authority to trust? Even we scientists, when we place faith in authority (and we do that -we are human, after all) get burned. Laymen have even less of a chance of picking the winning horse. Then it gets down to the very nasty business of picking apart each others’ credentails, and believe me, the IDers always lose on that one. So do the Global Warmers, by the way.

    7. Jonathan Says:

      The tragedy of discussions about the environment is that a lot of people are beyond reason, having decided to treat leftist pop-environmentalism as religion whose revealed knowledge (e.g., global warming) may not be challenged.

      IMO the cause of the degradation of science (and other important) knowledge among non-specialists is our primary and secondary educational system. This system shares the flaws of most govt-run monopolies and quasi-monopolies, and in particular has failed to keep up with advances in career incentives that are available in the rest of the economy. In the old days not only were community schools less centralized, but teachers were often highly intelligent and educated women for whom few alternative careers were open. Nowadays women who fit this profile have many career opportunities and rarely go into teaching, and the kinds of people (both male and female) who do go into teaching are often third-raters who wouldn’t do well in the competitive business or university world and are attracted to the security of govt employment.

    8. John Says:

      Jonathan – if I may be so lazy and vain as to quote myself, I had a conversation with the Moebius Stripper around that very topic over at Tall Dark and Mysterious in this post:

      “I read [the] economic argument as being that good math teachers and bad math teachers get the same pay. When that happened in the USSR, they still had good math instruction because there was nowhere else for people good at math to go. In our free market it means that the people who are really good at math and who also have people skills go into private enterprise. You’re a good case in point. As the good people leave, the sample gets enriched in idiots, until good people don’t even want to enter the profession. As the idiots gain in seniority, their idiocy ultimately manifests itself as the poor textbook choices and excuses for calculator dependence that you see around you today.

      My mom was a public school teacher for over 25 years. (Being in a rural school district and having lots of “split grades, she taught me for three freaking years in a row, but that’s a topic for a blog post…) Her take is that part of this is unintended consequences from the women’s lib movement. When she graduated college, she had three real career choices: school teacher, stewardess, or secretary. As more careers opened up to women, talented women who otherwise would have been forced into teaching went elsewhere. Mom saw a real shift around 1974 or 1975, when the ditzy teachers began to outnumber the thoughtful ones coming out of college. She likes to talk about the time that Maryland revised their math tests. They called for volunteers to help (sans pay, of course). The dedicated teachers didn’t have time for that crap. So who went to volunteer? The dumbest, perkiest, social climbingest (and generally most inexperienced) teachers. The test was so badly written that the test was withdrawn from the graduation requirements that first year, and wasn’t re-instituted for three years. Imagine that dynamic happening in the textbook selection process, and a lot becomes really clear, doesn’t it?

      As for getting teacher pay and performance in sync, that’s tough, because of the politics and difficulty in measuring the effects of a good teacher this year, from a good one last year that covered similar material, and in measuring a teacher with a class of goof-offs against one with a room full of kids with parents like I had. And my mom can give you plenty of stories about kissing butt (and other body parts, but I don’t like to go there in thinking about my grade school teachers) that make merit pay a very, very difficult issue. We don’t do a perfect job in the private sector, but imagine a government-run performance review, and you see why it hasn’t really taken hold. From the arguments about what exactly to measure to the fights over who actually gets to sit on the review board, it will be a mess. Not that I don’t think we should try to institute merit pay: we should, we just need to enter into the project with our eyes open.”

    9. Shannon Love Says:


      I agree completely with the hypothesis that women’s liberation hurt education badly. I first became aware of the possibility some years ago when I noticed that both the state’s governor and one senator both had undergraduate degrees in education earned in the early 60′s. In an earlier era, women of that caliber would be have taught school at least for a few years.

      We never adapted to this change in our talent pool.

    10. Shannon Love Says:

      Roy Lofquist,

      I know I am going to regret this but I grew up arguing with fence post so…

      As John pointed out, ID isn’t scientific because it can never be falsified, even in principle. You can never prove that some omnipotent being did not intervene to create the universe we see today. ID might be absolutely true in the ultimate sense but we can never, ever test it scientifically.

      The statistical argument is that the genetic variations necessary for speciation are improbable to the point of being impossible

      Hmmmm, no. Speciation is controlled by a small number of genes that control the formation of chromosome. Even if all the other genes between two population were identical, changes in the chromosomes will render them mutually infertile.

      More importantly, however, is the ugly fact that most life forms don’t reproduce sexually and therefor don’t form species. Bacteria exist in linear strains. They pick up genes from the environment at large via virus or during ingestion but they require any transfer of genes from any source in order to reproduce successfully. Speciation is actually a trivial issue in modern genetics.

      To wit, information always decreases. This is the modern formulation of one of the fundamental propositions of physical science: entropy (disorder) always increases. This is universally true except when DNA is involved.

      So how does water ever freeze into ice? Water as a liquid is a chaotic jumble of molecules whereas ice is a highly ordered crystal. Where does the order come from if entropy must always decrease?

      The answer is simple. The liquid water buys order but dumping heat (molecular motion) to some external environment. As a result the universe as a whole becomes more disordered but locally the water becomes more highly ordered.

      Evolution work exactly the same way. Life forms exist, grow and evolve by increasing the entropy/disorder of the external environment. The biosphere absorbs high frequency (low entropy) visible radiation from the sun and then radiates low frequency (higher entropy) infra red out into space. If life did not exist most of the high frequency radiation would just bounce off the earth’s surface and continue into space. The universe as a whole will reach heat death sooner because life exist and therefor the second law is satisfied.

      One seldom appreciated facet of natural selection is that the mechanism is a powerful conservator of information. Say you have a population of 1,000,000 bacteria. Say 9,999,999 of those develop a fatal mutation. The next generation will descend from the single bacteria that did not mutate. Moreover, the entire niche will rapidly populate with the descendants. All the random disorder in any genome rapidly disappears.

      As long as energy flow into and out of an organisms environment, natural selection can conserve any information essentially forever.

      The simplest observed DNA molecule comprises approximately 700,000 base pairs

      I have no idea what you are talking about. Since every 3 base pairs encodes one amino acid, a DNA strand 700,000 base pairs long would encode a protein roughly 200,000 amino acids long. That would be one honking protein.

      The simplest proteins found in life are strands of just a couple of dozen amino acids. Even if they did arise from random chance (which they do not) given time they could occur.

      Where did DNA come from. It evolved from RNA. We don’t know where RNA comes but that doesn’t represent a fatal flaw in evolutionary theory. Physicist cannot explain gravity, mass or inertia. Does that mean that modern physics is fatally flawed?

      Given that we can reproduce the evolution of novel and useful genes in the lab at will, we know that the basic mechanism of natural selection works as predicted.

      Everything else is gravy.

    11. John Says:

      What Shannon said. I just get so tired of this “life violates entropy” argument from the creationists. Here is the definition of entropy:

      “For a closed system, the quantitative measure of the amount of thermal energy not available to do work.”

      Notice there is no, none, not one reference to disorder. Entropy is a function of the system’s microscopic states, so it’s sort of a thermodynamic uncertainty priciple: if you clearly define the macroscopic states, there is still some energy left over in the system that can be thought of as the atoms or molecules shifting between possible microscopic energy states. As a system’s disorder increases, the amount of microscopic states available to it’s matter increases, making entropy bound up with some concepts of disorder, but ENTROPY IS NOT DEFINED AS DISORDER. Pitching a neatly stacked pile of paper onto the floor only minuetly increases the entropy of the room, but it makes disorder (as most humans understand the term)increase quite a bit.

      Note also that we are talking about a closed system. Your body spends an awful lot of the energy that you take in (see, no closed systems in biology) keeping body and soul together – it takes energy to fight the entropy gradient.

      For more on this, see here.

    12. GFK Says:

      Wow… how did this turn into an ID post? I was thinking it had in mind global warming rather than ID.

      Anways John, I feel your pain. It just goes to show that one thing that does not evolve is human nature. We will tend to believe anything that makes us feel good.

    13. Mitch Says:

      Maybe a little far afield here but…

      Assuming God acts upon His creation to achieve His purposes, would you know it if you saw it? Must it have both been a miraculous intervention and been detectable as one? Could He not have acted without being detected?

      For whatever purpose, it has pleased Him to reveal Himself sometimes, conceal Himself at others. I for one don’t think He is such a sloppy workman as to leave tools and debris lying around for us to trip over, unless we were meant to find them. It is an act of unspeakable hubris to declare that you have Him completely figured out. That’s what got Job’s “comforters” in such trouble.

    14. John Says:

      GFK – actually this was a post about eroding the legacy of the Enlightnement, and the slipping of the modern mind back into superstition – Jonathan’s and Shannon’s first comment were the most OT to the theme I had in mind. Both ID and Global Warming were afterthoughts I added after Emoto got me all steamed up.

      No one has taken a stab at my question though – where is the dogleg in the curve, and how many Emotos can we stand in the public eye before we turn into a civilization of haves and have nots with regards to real knowledge and thinking skills?

      Mitch – I don’t think He left tools around, but he does love a good Mystery, and he tends to have a sense of humor about where He leaves his clues.

    15. Tyouth Says:

      ” No one has taken a stab at my question though – where is the dogleg in the curve, and how many Emotos can we stand in the public eye before we turn into a civilization of haves and have nots with regards to real knowledge and thinking skills? ”

      I have speculated before that, we (our society) could get along fine when one person in a hundred knew (for example) how electricity was generated. It could be a problem though, if only one in ten thousand knows.

      The quesion you pose has a related social-factor of some consequence. Consider the siuation when knowledge/thinking skills have eroded and a shared moral code that motivates personal action or inaction is additionally no longer in effect. Not a pretty scenario: group think, political correctness, mob hysteria, “big lies”, and worse can be expected.

      Likely I’m cynical and pesimistic but that seems to be the decadent path we’re on. (I am glad to say, in a way, that the worst example of the “general slide” is the sloppy work I’ve seen the last 5/10 years has been at auto repair shops- when I think about it, I’m quite glad to not have had any major medical proceedures done….)

    16. LotharBot Says:

      “You can never prove that some omnipotent being did not intervene to create the universe we see today.”

      The claim being made (in Dembski’s case) is that we’ve detected the intervention of some intelligence in the formation of life at a specific instance. That’s entirely falsifiable — “no, we haven’t detected it in that instance.” It’s like the difference between the claim “there is a conspiracy out there” and the claim “I’ve proven the existance of a conspiracy in a specific case” — the first is not falsifiable, but the second is.

      Now, Dembski’s specific ideas on how to detect design are (as John so aptly put it) shit — and I can say that with confidence precisely because they’re falsifiable. One can give counterexamples that meet Dembski’s criteria but don’t actually involve any intelligence in their formation. In other words, I can demonstrate that Dembski *hasn’t* detected design where he claims to because his design-detection filters don’t work.

      “where is the dogleg in the curve, and how many Emotos can we stand in the public eye before we turn into a civilization of haves and have nots with regards to real knowledge and thinking skills?”

      IMO, we’ll always have some level of “haves and have-nots” with regard to real knowledge and thinking skills. It’s not the presence of Emotos that make us that way; rather, it’s the presence of haves and have-nots that lead to Emotos.

      There are competing forces at work here. Some forces lead to more “stupid” people and more “Emotos”, such as laziness and the fact that good teachers can get paid a ton more to be good engineers. Other forces lead to more “smart” people, such as the fact that good thinkers can build working products and get paid well for it. As long as there’s enough of a market for “stuff that works” we’ll retain adequate incentive for people to learn to be good thinkers.

      IMO, a big reason for the existance/location of the dogleg in the curve is that most people never have to make anything functional (from scratch) in their lives. We have a large class of people whose job is essentially to deliver products or information to us — sales clerks, teachers, writers, etc. We have another large class of people whose job is essentially to keep things working — plumbers, mechanics, tech support, etc. And we have a small class of people whose job is to actually design and create products. Critical thinking skills are necessary for the last group, and helpful (to some degree) for the middle group. That means a lot of people can make it through life and do fairly well never having to understand how stuff works.

      If something happens to change that dynamic, so that everyone needs to have good critical thinking skills, though, we’re screwed.

    17. Dove Says:

      To say ID is unfalsifiable is to misunderstand the claims it makes. Lotharbot already commented on this, but I feel the need to elaborate.

      In any positive design inference – sticking even to the published literature (by which I mean The Design Inference – which I find generally flawed, but correct on this point) a successful design inference involves both (1) successful identification of a pattern and (2) an argument that natural law cannot explain the pattern. Moreover, (2) as Dembski presents it is certainly to be understood in a strong sense – not claiming that our present knowedge of natural law cannot explain the pattern (that is, an appeal to ignorance), but as the claim that natural law in principle can never explain the pattern (that is, a negative proof).

      It’s therefore very simple to falsify a design inference–and in fact there’s more than one way. The obvious–and most decisive one–is to exhibit a natural law that accounts for the pattern. A good example here is a picture of the Mandelbrot set: without any knowledge of its origins, you might think the picture was the work of a human artist. As soon as you are shown a law that accounts for it, you abandon that design inference. The existence of a natural law that can account for a pattern immediately nullifies any design inference made on that pattern.

      A more indirect way to attack a design inference is to attack the pattern itself as weak, or (as is easiest in origins debates) to attack the in-principle argument–that is, to explain how, at least in principle, natural law could explain a given artifact.

      (Lest anyone doubt that there are patterns which are in-principle inaccessible to natural law, the canonical example is Mount Rushmore.)

      So individual design inferences are vulnerable to falsification. Though I don’t have proof of this, it is my belief that in any formulation of a theory of design, natural law must falsify design. And at any rate, in the existing literature, it is a necessary consequence of the higher explanatory “priority” given to natural law in the “Explanatory Filter”.

      To follow on what Mitch said, nothing ID has to offer is in the least way falslifiable within our current framework of knowledge. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as it were. Just becuase evolution may be wrong in particulars or in general, ID does not have to be right – but that is the tactic taken by every major ID proponent – and it is UNSCIENTIFIC.

      This summary misunderstands the context of the argument, slightly–and I suspect it’s related to misunderstanding the falsification criteria for ID. The reason ID proponents focus on proving evolution false in places is not that they believe that makes ID true by default. Rather, it’s just the opposite: any design inference may be falsified by a natural law that explains the artifact, and evolution is a conglomerate of natural law that explains biology. Therefore, if evolution is true, ID cannot even get off the ground. Of course, if evolution were false, ID would still have work to do, but if it were true… well then.

      So ID attacks evolution, not for justification, but for survival. Although there are formulations of ID that can co-exist with evolution (which depend on design being “front-loaded” into the universe), an ID predicated on biology absolutely cannot coexist with an evolutionary theory that explains that biology.

      In spite of that, there is merit to the idea that folks feel proving evolution false is tantamount to proving ID true. But this is more an artifact of the particular application to origins than it is an intrinsic characteristic of ID: the structures encountered in biology are so impressive that – without evolution – the conclusion of design is thrust on the observer with such force that it almost compels him to believe, not merely in a designer, but in God himself. So despite the (completely true and proper) claim that ID would still have to “do some work”, for most folks it wouldn’t have to do much.

      This is why many ID proponents focus on sophisticated design encountered in nature. Partly as an appeal to credulity (surely it demands too much faith to suppose that such structures will some day be explianed as the result of natural law!) and partly due to the sheer force of the inuitive design inference they evoke. Behe takes this tactic in Darwin’s Black Box, and I must admit–for its philosophical flaws, it’s darned intuitively persuasive.

      Negative inferences are unscientific. Full stop.

      Breaking away from ID, this is a statement I always find amusing. I hear it all the time from folks who really should know better, in myriad forms: “You can’t prove a negative”, or (in my line of work as a systems engineer) “You can’t test a negative requirement.” It has risen to “pet peeve” status for me. Rather than just snarkily commenting (as I generally try not to, but – Oh! – temptation sometimes wins) that “There are no scientific negative statements” is a self-defeating comment, I’ll explain.

      Of course, everyone knows you can’t prove the statement “There are no black swans” – no matter how many white swans you find, there could always be a black one out there. But this is subtly false–you can prove there are no black swans. You just can’t do it by counting white ones. You could do it if you knew that something about swans kept them from being black. I can, for example, say with complete scientific confidence that there are no swans the size of planets. Because, of course, I know some things about swans–about what sort of environment they grow in, about how they’re put together–that make swans of that scale impossible.

      And of course, science is usually not so rigorous as all that. For example, most folks are willing to say – with complete scientific confidence – that there were no humans around when dinosaurs roamed. Ignoring that we know something about humans (namely when in history they arose) that makes that impossible, it is also a negative statement – an affirmation of absence – based upon a perfectly reasonable abscence of affirmation. People–civilizations–leave evidence, and lots of it. If there had been humans around millions and millions of years ago, we would have found evidence. We looked, there wasn’t any, we are scientifically justified in making the negative statement.

      To return to ID, the published literature leaves plenty to criticize (John’s particular criticism of ill-defined probability calculations is spot on), but the particular points outlined here (that it is unfalsifiable, that as a negative claim it is unscientific) are not flaws found in any existing formulation. And indeed, I know that some IDers take the fact that their critics are constantly making these simple – and incorrect – arguments as evidence that there are not better arguments to be had against their position. This, I think, is damaging to everyone involved–neither side is genuinely challenged.

    18. John Says:

      “Of course, if evolution were false, ID would still have work to do, but if it were true… well then. ”

      Not true. I can think of several mechanical explanations that do not involve evolution. One is that certain proteins may be strange attractors within chemical space (over a suitable long time frame) and simultaneously give rise to the groups of organisms that you see around you, and that those groups develop only within their “species” – assuming natural selection to be related to, but different from Evolution Theory. This also does not involve a creator. Evolution is not the only mechanical game in town, and ID assumes that it is. Evolution is, however, the best one, and the one for which we have the most evidence.

      “The reason ID proponents focus on proving evolution false in places is not that they believe that makes ID true by default.”

      That is contradicted by a lot of what the IDers themselves say. They have a theory, now they are looking for evidence to prove it. They did not find evidence and then formulate the theory, find more evidence and refine or change the theory. That is how science works – as a bootstrap operation. In addition, while not incontrovertable proof of their intentions, Mitch correctly noted that the IDers shift ground when their theories are punctured – but continue to make the same type of arguments. They look for individual examples to make a broader case (in the current iteration, the case as defined by Dembski), its not that they are making faslifiable calims, it’s that they are looking for an example to plug into their overall theory. In so much as those examples have boundary conditions, we can plug them into the scientific method and falsify them. But that is a bug, not a feature (as they see it), in the ID approach. These people will constantly shift their argument to more and more fundamental questions. Right now it’s about the origins of DNA, it could just as easily be about the mechanism by which the first proto-amino acids formed. There is no way to set boundary conditions for falisfiability for a continually shifting target.

      “If there had been humans around millions and millions of years ago, we would have found evidence. We looked, there wasn’t any, we are scientifically justified in making the negative statement.”

      No we would not. You are confusing engineering rules of thumb with scientifically justifiable statements. We would be scientifically justified in making the statement that we have found no evidence of humans milions of years ago, this or that aspect of Evolution Theory would have to change in order for that to fit into our worldview, but until we have shifted pretty much every square meter of the Earth’s crust for that evidence, it is not proven. Now at some point the reasonable person gives up and quits looking, but that is not proof, it is acceptance of the rule of thumb. It is where philosophy and science part company with engineering and technology. Negative inferences can be used by the reasonable person to approximate proof, but they are not scientific proof. And the problem with ID is that at every juncture they will insert ID into that very small gap between the proof and the rule of thumb. There is no way to ever scientifically eliminate that gap, hence ID is not science.

      “And of course, science is usually not so rigorous as all that. For example, most folks are willing to say – with complete scientific confidence – that there were no humans around when dinosaurs roamed.”

      That gets at the key problem with people like Dawkins – making statements without error bars. The prediction of the current theory of evolution is that there were no humans around, but let’s ignore some evidence and assume that the timeline for mammal development is off, and that we just haven’t found that hidden valley where mammals developed at the same time dinosaurs ruled the rest of the Earth. I think that’s an extremely low probability, but it is not zero. I will say with complete confidence that humans were not around then, but my definition of complete, as a scientist, is greater than 99% probability, whereas a layman’s definition is 100%. That 1% contains the world of difference between the philosophic scientist and the applied scientist and engineer. But most scientists won’t sit down and enumerate those probabilities, mostly becuase they can’t, but also becuase it would slow conversation to a crawl. The error bars do exist, however. If it is not quantifiable, it is not science.

    19. Ken Says:

      This is not a new phenomenon.

      More than a hundred years ago, the ravings of “Dr.” Freud gave birth to an entire “scientific” discipline that still has an uncomfortably low signal-to-bullshit ratio.

      Just because your claim isn’t “an invisible man with superpowers did it” doesen’t mean that it’s the least bit scientific.

    20. LotharBot Says:


      are you suggesting ID needs to provide 100% certainty?

      I’m sure you, like the rest of us, are aware that no science lives up to that.

      It’s entirely scientifically justifiable to say that humans were not around at the same time as dinosaurs. It’s not “proven”, but then, science isn’t about proof — it’s about gathering evidence, observing, recognizing patterns, developing hypotheses, and repeating the process (developing greater certainty in our ideas.) If we happen to come across some evidence that makes us re-evaluate that conclusion, we’ll re-evaluate it, but in the absence of such evidence, it’s scientifically justifiable to draw conclusions based on the evidence we have and the expected errors associated with that evidence. There are always unstated “error bars” in science — yet we’re perfectly justified in stating certain scientific conclusions without mentioning them. Why subject the claim that “dinosaurs and humans didn’t coexist” to a different standard?

    21. John Says:

      LotharBot – no, I’m not suggesting that ID needs to provide 100% certainty, I’m saying that an argument of “God in the Gaps” is always going to have a gap into which God can be inserted. In order to be called science, ID needs to change its methodology to providing a testable model within our knowledge framework, and the only attempt I’ve seen at that is Dembski’s.

      Be careful about what you say is entireley scientifically justifiable, because hte unspoken caveat is always “to the best of our knowledge and understanding right now”. You’re right about science not being proof, and never providing proof in the mathematical or theological sense. Thus the disconnect. If the IDers stopped at pointing this out and then saying that those scientists, like Dawkins, who overstep the bounds of what they can show to be true, are full of it, I’d be behind the ID crowd all they way. But to claim that something is science that can not be tested due to the fundamental philosophical limitations of science is tantaomunt to fraud.

      If science can’t explain something, we always go looking for a new explanation, we don’t say “God made it that way” and walk away. Even if the current theory of evolution is disproved, a new one could take it’s place that overcomes the limitations of the old. That’s the fundamental reason why science does not allow supernatural explanaitons for phenomena. I’m working on a new post to lay all this out explicitly.

    22. Tom Bri Says:

      The problem of ignorance of the masses does not bother me much. People only really need to be good at what they do. Do I need to be able to debate ID vs Darwin to sell real estate? I enjoy the debate, and had a decent education in science so I can follow along, but my job does not demand these skills. As long as science continues to deliver the goods in the physical world, we won’t give it up.

      I doubt that ignorance is any greater now than in times past. Phrenology, anyone? Catastrophism? Kabalism is making a comeback, can Albigensianism be far behind?

      Besides, people die. The idiocy of today will be replaced by something else tomorrow. ID will either wither away and be forgotten, or perhaps the questions it is generating will lead to some real advances in theory. I sure would like to know how some of these weird feedback loops ever got started, and before ID came along not too many scientists bothered to think about the problems.

      Things like a plausible explaination for how jellyfish evolved their complex retractable harpoon/poison/pump/fishing line. I have gone over and over that one and can not for the life of me devise a logical way to explain it via evolution. Doesn’t mean there isn’t one, just that I can’t find it.

      I read a long article in Sci Am a few years ago, an effort to show how the eye might have evolved. It was sad. Pathetic. I couldn’t see how it slipped by the editors, except that they needed to flog the creationists a bit, and hadn’t anything better to offer. I read Dawkins. Quite a bit better, but still pretty weak if you were not already convinced.

      Science has to do better. Scientists have to try harder, no matter their personal faith. Looking into science from the outside, the plebes have got to see a better effort to at least be plausible or you can’t expect the masses to follow.

    23. LotharBot Says:

      John, fair enough.

      I should mention this is of specific interest to me because I think the idea of detecting intelligence is incredibly useful. I think Biology is a totally lousy playground for testing theories of detecting intelligence (and worse yet for actually applying them), but I’d love to see some of the ID people (mostly Dembski) focus more on areas of human design. Dembski’s current methods are flawed, but he’s got a few pieces that could be useful. My wife (Dove) has been working pretty seriously at developing better methods, and I’d love to see that ‘spirit of sound criticism’ applied to her work sometime, rather than the standard “yay, our hero!”/”down with the creationist” reactions I expect when she gets around to writing things down.

      In particular, when reading text (religious, political, etc.) we’re trying to detect the thoughts and motivations of the author. The question of being able to prove a negative (in the scientific sense, not in the math sense) is important to me because it matters when you’re trying to detect meaning in text. It’s important to be able to identify when certain meanings were intended versus when they appear accidentally (for example, double meanings, or repeated phrases or information from multiple authors — see the recent Glenn Greenwald sock puppet scandal.) Can we really say the Bible authors intended you to get idea X out of the details in passages Y and Z, or does the idea only appear due to some accident of language? Being able to say “this is not an accident” is key to being able identify meaning.

      (… too sleepy to write more. Maybe tomorrow.)

    24. Ginny Says:

      Our religiously obsessive forefathers had a vision that saw science as a tool for examining the great hieroglyphic that was God’s creation. With considerable energy, they believed it was only in humility before nature that they could come to understand God’s purpose. This attitude didn’t disappear from religious beliefs as early as it did from the romantic, mystic secular poets (see Poe’s somewhat lame “Sonnet – to Science”).

      Jonathan Edwards & Cotton Mather were recognized as true scientists in their day. Of course, so was the secular Benjamin Franklin, so it isn’t that these categories were either/or.

      In Fundamentalism & American Culture, George Marsden describes the importance to Evangelicals in the late nineteenth & even early twentieth century of the Baconian tradition & Common Sense philosophy.

      Since I am not a scientist, I don’t know how to gauge the argument: “But much of physics is counterintuitive, as is the case in many other disciplines, and before the rise of modern science we had only our folk intuitions to guide us.” I realize it is counterintuitive; it doesn’t make clear sense to me. If Michael Shermer is right, this may signal the reason for the split between the Evangelicals & science, one that has been often played out in terms of evolution.