The Sciences

The stupid is the mind-killer

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJul 12, 2012 3:19 AM


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In the comments below I expressed anger when I realized one of the readers who I had hoped was not stupid was really rather stupid. I don't have a high toleration for this sort of stuff, which has supposedly become somewhat well known in the blogosphere (judging from comments about me on other weblogs). When I was younger I suspect I had more toleration for this sort of thing, and engaging with the dull is something that needs to be done, just like you need to change a baby's diaper because you know they'll soil themselves, and they can't be left that way. Perhaps there's a fixed amount of sympathy for people who shit themselves because they don't know any better, literally or metaphorically. I've got to deal with the former right now, so maybe I'm not having any of the latter anymore. Sometimes I wonder what world I'm living in, where rank stupidity can get passed along by newspapers as "letters to the editor." For example, you have to read this whole piece from Stephen Chauvin, State Board of Education is correct on evolution:

About once every six months or so, either Bill Barnes or Karyl Paige fire a shot across the bow of the Texas State Board of Education’s standard of teaching both strengths AND weaknesses of scientific theories, specifically, the “theory of evolution.” This time it is Ms. Paige in her July 7th letter where she implores us to be honest. In her letter she asks, “Let’s be honest about the theory of gravity … ” What Ms. Paige may not realize is that the effects of gravity are not “theory,” but “law.” It differs from theory in that its effects can be observed, calculated and repeated over and over. Similarly, she asks, “Let’s be honest about the theory of the solar system … ” Again, our solar system is not “theory” because we are able to observe, calculate the positions of the planets and verify these calculations over and over again. Then she tries to apply the same value to something that is indeed a theory, Darwinian evolution or change over time due to survival of the fittest.

Unlike gravity or the solar systems, although we may SUPPOSE that it may have happened in the distant past, we are unable to see such evolution occur, as in, one species changing into another and particularly in additional genetic information being added to an existing structure.

Rather, we see exactly the opposite. Rather than new species springing up left and right, we repeatedly observe species dying off or becoming extinct, thereby LOSING genetic information over time. I would agree that we can observe “micro-evolution,” which is change within a species. However, those changes are primarily the switching of genetic pairs and not the creation of something entirely new, as demonstrated in Darwin’s own observations of his finches, which returned to their original characteristics depending on the availability of water and food. Even in the example that she provides, viruses, some of the simplest organisms, while they are changed by absorbing and integrating the DNA of their host, they remain merely a “virus.” Unfortunately, our human attempts to destroy them through antibiotics, etc. means that those that are not killed, which are not susceptible, survive, creating what may be “super” viruses and bacteria.This again is not a gain of genetic information, but a loss of information. Ms. Paige and Mr. Barnes are disgruntled that Texas requires the examination of the weaknesses of the theory of evolution at all. They would much prefer that Darwinian evolution be exclusively taught in schools as if it were scientific law rather than a mere theory. Ms. Paige says that, ”If Texas does not educate its children according to the scientific knowledge of this century, we might well forget competing in a world economy.” I believe that Texas schools are doing EXACTLY that, teaching our children how to PROPERLY examine theories by investigating BOTH strengths and weaknesses. We are teaching them HOW to think and reason, not WHAT to think. This puts our children far above states and countries that merely teach dogmatic assertions without evidence. In fact, I think we should teach MORE weaknesses than we currently do, and believe me, there are many, many more than what are showing up in our text books.

First, it would be funny if it wasn't sad how often Creationists turn into street-corner philosophers of science and epistemologists. I've heard of the distinction between scientific laws and theories before, mostly with the former being something like thermodynamics, repeated observations, and the latter more a systematic body of knowledge which frames the data and generates inferences. But these terms are in my experience in science not like the difference between baryons and leptons; they're not clear and distinct. Second, I emphasized sections where I basically didn't know what he was talking about. That's one of the maddening things about Creationists, they've created their whole internal language, which actually does a decent job seeming plausibly coherent to the non-scientifically trained. I think the emphasis on thinking for oneself is funny, because I'm 99% sure that this individual is rewarming talking points that he received in church. I suspect that the original points are often more scientifically coherent, if still false, but as they get passed around by people who don't know what they're saying they get more and more garbled. One of the main reasons I avoid talking to blank slate Leftists and Creationists is that often I notice I spend a lot of time refashioning the arguments they want to make for them, because they don't even know what they are trying to say (if you want the Lefty equivalents, I almost always have to elaborate the exact nature of Lewontin's Fallacy, because my interlocutors often garble it). Anyway, I thought this letter was repeating because of the weird portion about antibiotics and viruses. They don't really work on viruses, though most of the public seems to think they do. Why did this obvious show of ignorance go through? Did the people working at the paper not know? Or did they want to make Stephen Chauvin seem stupid?

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