First They were Wrong About Science and it Got Worse from There

Thanks to Arkenaten, I have read a post called ‘The Big Bang, Children’s Fairy Tales and the Human Genome’ and I am not the only person compelled to reply to it. I replied to the post in the comment section after I read it, but I thought it would make a good post. The original post is a misrepresentation and resulting diatribe against science. (I’m always hesitant to call posts like this “misunderstandings”, because I lack the confidence to say the author sincerely misunderstands science.)

The poster, The Ethical Warrior, admits to not being familiar with science. I think it only fair to follow suit: I have no formal training in science beyond the rather trite requirements of a bachelor of science honours degree’s bare minimum requirements to have heard of “critical rationalism”. I am certainly not a physicist or geneticist; my degree was in Geography and my current master’s degree is also geographic in scope (Environmental Management). I have a long standing interest in science and the philosophy of science, but none of the mathematical knowledge to support proper studies in physics. Despite this shaky grounding in science, the Ethical Warrior’s reflections on science still seemed apparently poor to me. Below is my comment, adapted for the sake of being a post.

I’m glad you begin this post very openly and honestly. You are transparent about your epistemic approach (logic and intuition) and your lack of familiarity with science. You’d be surprised how rare a self-aware opening is. Hopefully, with such an honest opening, you’ll be open to the idea that  the description of science given here doesn’t accurately portray the philosophies or practices of science. This is particularly true of theoretical physics, where the beginning of the post focuses.

Notes on Theoretical Physics

Theoretical physics is about building models to explain observations. You quote Robert Lanza, who is a highly talented medical doctor. But he is not a physicist nor is he trained in the broader discipline of science. When Lanza tries to critique science by saying the science community has allowed speculation to runaway, unfettered by observation, Lanza is poorly representing the methods that underpin openly hypothetical and speculative areas of science. String Theorists, for example, make no bones about the fact it is a near-purely mathematical model. Yet, this is the target of Lanza’s criticism, which he then extrapolates to all of science. The post makes a similar mistake regarding the “multiverse”. The multiverse is a consistent prediction of a number of very powerful and compelling models meant to answer other questions. It also isn’t a “theory”.

In fact, the current goal of String Theory is for the model to produce a prediction that is perceptible, so that we can actually start to build the empirical defense of String Theory (which we don’t currently have).

Relativity, Lensing and Black Holes

Even more oddly, Lanza attempts to discredit spacetime in his diatribe against the practices of theoretical science. Einstein made the observations in his lifetime that supported spacetime. Einstein even speculated about something he said we may never see: gravitational lensing. We’ve observed that now, too.

Einstein claimed that a significant mass out in the universe would bend spacetime so severely that light from stars behind the mass would be bent in a concave fashion. The result of this would be the ability to see two versions of the stars behind the mass. We have now observed this, except there is no obvious mass in the way causing it; out in the universe, there is immense mass without visible material. That’s dark matter. Dark matter is not the mysterious property filled with magic that fiction writers and even some journalists characterise it as. It is simply evident matter that doesn’t interact with the matter we better understand (including photons, making it invisible or ‘dark’). These are all observations that support the claim of spacetime (so I find it odd that Lanza would attack it).

Observations in and Communication of Science

I’m not denying―and I don’t think anyone reasonable would―that observations are never pure; observers are part of the model they observe and building narratives using induction is fraught with human categorisation. But as many people observe the same things, with different methods, and construct similar models that spawn more hypotheses that are also tested, those concerns become less… concerning.

Big Bang cosmology is the interesting one, actually. There’s a hierarchy of concerns relating to knowledge: cosmology, ontology, epistemology, methodology and communication. Exactly what that means isn’t relevant, except to say “communication” is often the weakest link. Certain individuals in the scientific and peer review community fail to be properly ruthless or open to questions on epistemology or ontology, but the community at large is good pretty good at it. In fact, it’s in the individuals’ self-interest to be good at it. Each scientist wants to damage other papers so they can produce a superior one: that makes scientific papers very robust things. The problem is, the currency of “truth” (there’s another conversation for another day) loses value when it leaves the scientists hands and goes into the hands of “the media” for communication. Communication is the weakest link.

In the public eye, Big Bang cosmology is the pinnacle of scientific understanding. But the conversation in universities is very different. The Big Bang model is split into two steps: the singularity and the phase. The Big Bang singularity is still speculative. It’s an extrapolation from winding back the evidence we have now for expansion. The Big Bang phase is different: the phase takes account of the moments immediately after the (hypothetical) singularity. It’s the rapid expansion. The models of the Big Bang phase produce predictions we have observationally verified. So, the model is a lot more complex than the public understands, and that’s the fault of communication. (And then the Big Bang model is not the only model taken seriously in the academic community.)

This failure of science communication is often confused for a failure of science. But it’s a failure of a system of media that uses currency as a currency, and not truth as a currency.

Model Dependent Realism

We know Black Holes violate Relativity, all of quantum mechanics violates Relativity; nothing is so evidently paradoxical as a quantum particle with massive embedded gravity. But science knows that and fully acknowledges that at least one of those two models is incomplete. But “incomplete” is not the same as “wrong”, as the model does make a lot of hugely successful and verified claims and observations.

There are people on working on “quantising” relativity because the observations we have made for both black holes and relativity are so compelling. And there are observations that support the claims of black holes, not least the orbiting of galaxies around a centre emitting Hawking Radiation: it’s not a claim unfettered by observation.

Models of reality that explain large amounts of data and observations are theories. A theory, in science, is the highest level; there is no “proof”. “Theory” and “proof” are words that have very different meanings in colloquial and technical use. Academically, “proof” only exists in mathematics. It portrays the failure of science communication that this linguistic error is so very common: scientists avoid the word “proof” and use the word “theory” and the public isn’t given the tools to understand what scientists are saying.

The success of Relativity as a model has elevated it to the accolade of “Theory” and, despite its evident problem of overstepping into the world of the quantum and then failing to deliver, under the philosophy of “Model Dependent Realism”, relativity is real.

Biology

We have a uniquely biased view of life, as our experience of life is only at this far end of 3.5 billion years of evolution; we see life as complex and filled with protein machinery and balanced interdependencies in the physiology of the individual and ecology. That type of life, it seems very fair to say, will not spontaneously arise. However, that is not the understanding of life we currently have: work has progressed a long way since the Urey-Miller experiment in the 1950s. Over the last decade we have been able to demonstrate intermediaries between strictly chemical and strictly biological systems. The origin of life was probably not an event, but a process. (And, as I mentioned earlier, I’d be cynical of a scientist that either has or has been reported as saying something has been “proven”.)

Abiogenesis

This chemical/biological process is “abiogenesis”, and it should not be confused with Big Bang cosmology or any other cosmogonies. Any given theory, like “The Big Bang”, is only meant to explain a limited set of observations of a particular theme. In the same way Germ Theory of Disease doesn’t explain weather systems, cosmogonical theories are not meant to explain abiogenesis. Equally, abiogenesis is about the start of life and evolution is about the diversity of life: they are not meant to explain the same set of observations and should not be confused (especially not for convenience).

Also, don’t confuse complexity and uncertainty with teleology and intelligence. It does not follow that because life today is complex and human understanding is still uncertain there must be some hidden purpose and design behind it all. As any fan of Google or Apple can tell you, simplicity is a sign of good design, not complexity. Complexity arises in the universe all the time, and not all the complexity is even life. You could claim that me pointing at complexity in more places is more evidence of teleology, but in doing that you are denying the existence of undesigned processes for comparison, else you are begging the question by claiming complexity is design.

To lend credibility to the idea of design, you are not alone in pointing to the interview between Ben Stein and Richard Dawkins, where Dawkins appears to be entertaining the idea aliens designed life on Earth. Ben Stein specifically and repeatedly asked Dawkins to entertain the idea of intelligent design and how it could be a plausible narrative or idea. Entertaining an idea in such narrow parameters, then Dawkins discussed extraterrestrial authorship of DNA, but it is not Dawkins lead theory and neither does it make it into scientific discussion. Knowing that Dawkins was pressured into entertaining such a narrow game of “what if…” I am unsure as to why anyone continues to bring this up, unless it is to knowingly mislead to support their narrative. Is it helpful to the idea of intelligent design to think one of the critics has a silly unrelated idea?

Conclusion

When I take to writing these comments it becomes apparent to me that the topic is actually complex and difficult to articulate. I understand that if one doesn’t hold an active interest in the topic it is not something one can just sit down and intuit unguided by the input of the academic literature and the practitioners of science. But, if one doesn’t have the interest or patience to educate themselves, I also don’t understand why they then take the time articulate what they have intuited or pulled from a source without further research on the quotes they’ve mined or the topics they’re discussing.

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10 thoughts on “First They were Wrong About Science and it Got Worse from There”

  1. “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.” That was a lead in to a TV commercial not so long ago. “I am not a scientist but I am a reasonable substitute.” What can someone in such a position do but ask questions? Why do so many theists make assertions instead? Recently a YouTube video by a physicist had him making the claim that the Big Bang was a validation of the biblical statement “In the beginning …” My comment was there are religions that claim there was a beginning to all of this and others that claim that the universe is eternal. Since there are only two options (a beginning and no beginning), the Big Bang only discredits the “eternal” creation myths, it doesn’t “prove” the “in the beginning” myths. You do not need to be a scientist to wield basic logic tools, but even these seem beyond such apologists, even ones with scientific training.

  2. I followed your links and tried to muddle my way through that rather incoherent and ridiculous post.

    I left a factually correct and therefore highly critical, comment there, just as I always do here.

    1. Because the people on his blog who care enough to read the comments and around the subject will be directed to another way of thinking.
      Because, although the original blogger doesn’t understand science, those uninformed ideas are common place and it is useful to produce writing articulating another view point.
      And, I feel, it’s important for the writing of diverse viewpoints to be as ubiquitous as the narrowminded viewpoint.
      And, I blog out of interest and recreation. I do no blog out of some pragmatic need. I do it because it invites the conversation of the interested.

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