Why science cannot be democratic


Sep 5, 2002 (Updated Sep 7, 2002)


The Bottom Line Caveat lector: Let the reader beware. People sometimes review material despite being incompetent to do so.

Widening my search in the reviews of books I found the section dealing with science, and as a research biologist and university teacher, I went to look at the reviews of books dealing with evolution.

I found several reviews written by people profoundly ignorant of science, praising silly, self-serving books claiming to discredit the theory of evolution. As if that was not bad enough, the reviews had been ranked by equally ill-informed people as _very helpful_ and indeed in one or two cases as _most helpful_. An egregious example of such a review is the one by Caprig, of the book by Carl E. Baugh entitled WHY DO MEN BELIEVE EVOLUTION AGAINST ALL ODDS? Dated Jan 14 '02 (Updated Jan 18 '02).

This is where democracy fails. If I were interested in beauty I might value Caprig's opinions, but her review of Baugh's book reveals profound ignorance of the subject of evolutionary theory, and rather misplaced self-confidence in publishing a review of a book on a subject that she is evidently entirely ignorant of.

When one writes a review of a book one places that book in a context of other books of the same type. Having read just one novel, the reader is in no position to make a judgement about it, in no position to award one star or five stars. One might make a personal statement about one's feelings towards the novel, but reviewing usually calls for something more: it calls for the comparison of the the work with others. You cannot write a worthwhile review of a novel unless you have read more than one novel.

We can all have opinions about the merit of works of fiction because it does not much matter what we write about fiction: fiction is written to entertain, amuse. It is not written to impart information about the properties of the real world. An ignorant person expressing a view about fiction is harmless. Perhaps some people like a book, perhaps others do not. Everybody who reads it learns to evaluate fiction, and so literary criticism may be said to be democratic, value being determined by advocacy and common assent. However, go to a university to study literature and different criteria are in place. What determines literary quality is not the common assent of readers: it is the the common assent of _learned_ readers. We discover that the views of the learned are different from the views of the common reader, and that books regarded by the learned as excellent may sell few copies, while the selling of many copies need not imply literary excellence to the learned. This doesn't matter in the arts, there is room for diversity, some people prefer hip-hop others prefer string quartets.

Science, is different. Democracy has no place in science, and the ignorant reader's opinion about science is worse than worthless. It takes years of hard study to become competent to assess the quality of scientific work, and ignorant or biassed commentary does matter because it can mislead the unwary or the young about the nature of reality.

I am qualified by education and experience to evaluate books dealing with certain topics in biology. My peers agree to the extent that I am permitted to teach courses in ecology and evolution at a university with more than 500 years of history. My authority to teach these matters is supported by academic papers published in international scientific journals and elsewhere, and also by the successive degrees of B.Sc, Ph.D, and D.Sc, granted to me by the University of Durham. Also, I am regularly invited to review books on scientific matters for scientific publications and to referee scientific papers to determine if they are worthy of publication.

Before turning to the trash it is important to make clear what the enterprise of science is, and what it is not. The practice of science is the construction of an account of material events, an account of a particular kind. Given a particular conformation of the world, it aims to predict the temporal evolution of that conformation, and to do so in a naturalistic way. An account of events that is not naturalistic cannot be scientific.

An example of a scientific problem is the prediction of the trajectories of two masses suspended in empty space. Given their masses, velocities, and accelerations, the positions of the masses can, in principle, be predicted at all future times. Matters are not so simple in practice because of the impossibility of measuring the physical quantities exactly, but within the limits of measurement we can predict the ranges of positions expected at any arbitrary time in the future.

The goal of prediction may be frustrated. The discovery of dynamical chaos proves that for many systems the goal of predicting the behaviour into the indefinite future will never be achieved. Complex interactions may be affected by random events and these events can lead to outcomes that cannot be predicted, but there are statistical methods of coping with some of these problems.For an account to be scientific it must be explicitly naturalistic. There is no place in a scientific account for an intelligent designer or
supernatural agent. Therefore, to attempt to reconcile a scientific account with a supernatural one is logically invalid. There is no point of epistemological contact between the different types of account. (Notice
that this is a statement about logical validity and not about truth.) Consequently, to begin an inquiry with the aim of confirming a religious belief is to undertake some kind of intellectual activity that is
fundamentally different from science.

The over-arching unification in biology is the fact of evolution, not the theory, the fact. There is undeniable scientific evidence that evolution has taken place, is taking place. There are some disagreements in detail,among biologists, about the _theory_ of evolution: some scientists believe that natural selection is very important, others disagree, but no qualified scientist working in any _real_ university, anywhere in the world denies the evidence supporting the _fact_ of evolution. I have my own difficulties with aspects of the theory, but no one properly acquainted with the evidence can doubt that evolution has taken place, is taking place now. Where did the DDT resistant insects come from; and where did the antibiotic resistant bacteria come from? They evolved from ancestral insects that were vulnerable to DDT, and from ancestral bacteria that were vulnerable to antibiotics.

This means that any book that claims to refute the
_fact_ is drivel, not worth the time spent reading it; but such books are written, read, and influence the gullible. The first question to ask is _Who are such books written by?_ This rant was stimulated by a silly review of the book by Carl Baugh who claims to be qualified to write on the theory of evolution. The first thing to determine is whether or not Carl Baugh is, in fact, qualified to write on the subject.

An examination of Carl Baugh's qualifications is published at

http://members.aol.com/Paluxy2/degrees.htm

As Glenn Kuban, the author of the page, remarks:

'Not having science degrees is no crime; however, misrepresenting one's credentials is another matter. Baugh's alleged science degrees appear to be as dubious as his "man track" claims, and ought to be of serious concern to his fellow creationists.'

Misrepresentation of qualifications is a serious misdemeanour and would be grounds for dismissal from an academic post in a British university. We expect academics to tell the truth.

(Likewise my own claims to degrees in science might be doubted, however a check with the University of Aberdeen's website, http://www.abdn.ac.uk/ will assure you that there is indeed such a university and that a John Ollason is on the staff of the Department of Zoology. Also, the University of Durham has a website http://www.durham.ac.uk/ which will provide the address of the University Office who will, no doubt, confirm to anyone interested that I am the possessor of the degrees claimed above.) So Carl Baugh has dubious qualifications, if indeed he has any, to write on the subject he chooses to write upon. If he is flexible about such a matter can we rely on him to be inflexible about telling the truth? He claims that at Paluxy, Texas, there are fossils of human footprints mixed up with dinosaur footprints. This is so obviously a misinterpretation that you don't need to take it seriously. The claim is evidence of profound error, or worse, deliberate misinterpretation of the fossils. You don't need to take it seriously.

Some years ago one of my graduate students, Annie, was undertaking experiments studying the way ants collected food. The experiments were exploring the predictions of a mathematical model I had developed, and the results of the experiments confirmed that my model was correct except for one detail. What she claimed was happening could not be happening, so I made Annie check everything to make sure that the questionable experiment was correctly carried out. She spent six weeks tying up every loose end, and still she was doing something wrong, still the experiment was not working; then one morning I realized what the problem was: my expectation was in error. Annie's experiments had been carried out correctly. This is what scientists live for, the moment when the theory, challenged by the data, must yield to the uncooperativeness of nature, and you find out something _new_.

So let's think again about the fossils, perhaps I was mistaken to condemn the claim out of hand. (The mark of the real scientist is his willingness to contemplate the possibility that what he believes might be mistaken. As the story about Annie's research illustrates, we don't tend to discard cherished theories lightly, but when the evidence against them is
overwhelming out they go, to be replaced by new theories that account for the new evidence as well as the old.)

If there really were human footprints and dinosaur footprints mixed together in fossils from Paluxy this would be a momentous biological discovery. The process of validation would follow the same pattern I described for Annie's experiments. Every possible check would be
carried out to ascertain, first, that what seemed to be dinosaur footprints were indeed dinosaur footprints, second, that what seemed to be human footprints were indeed human footprints, and third, that the two sets of prints were, in fact contemporaneous.

How should you do this? The first and most obvious thing to do would be to look at a sample of fossils of human footprints that all authorities agree are human footprints---Do such fossils exist?---and compare them with the features of the Paluxy fossils that look like footprints.

If you could prove not only that the features looking like footprints existed in tracks as the dinosaur footprints existed in tracks, that they appeared in some places to be on top of dinosaur tracks, and in others to be beneath dinosaur tracks, that they were of the appropriate size and shape, and revealed the slipping and blurring to be expected from walking or running over mud, the next thing you would do would be to write a paper based on the evidence and submit it to _Nature_, a scientific weekly magazine that publishes the hot news in science. The paper would then be sent out to independent referees who would scrutinise the
contents, decide if the evidence presented supported the conclusions. Almost certainly the paper would be rejected, and the reasons for the rejection would be explained to you, just as I rejected Annie's experiments at first, and explained to her what I thought she was doing wrong.

You would be annoyed, as she was, go back, collect more evidence, seek more advice, improve your techniques, and eventually submit another paper answering the objections of the referees. This too might well be rejected.Then you might begin to ask yourself if there could be any other possible explanation for the marks that you have taken to be footprints. Do the marks have _all_ the necessary properties that fossil footprints are bound to have? And if they have, you would collect more evidence, rewrite the paper once again, submit,
rewrite, until at last you accepted you were mistaken, gave up, or the paper was published. Of course giving up is the least satisfactory outcome; but you would have the consolation that times change, and if your
conclusions are correct, another scientist could make them, and publish them at some future, more propitious time.

I don't know what the outcome of such an exploration would be. However,that is the way to participate in the scientific dialogue. I will say this though: If at last you overcame all objections you would be welcomed as a
hero of science.

Sadly, it happens that some people are not interested in the scientific dialogue. They jump to conclusions they are pre-disposed to believe for extra-scientific reasons. Some believe that the inferences about the age
of fossils drawn from the rocks are mistaken. They believe that the Bible states that the world is only a few thousand years old, rather than the millions inferred by the scientists, and that therefore the scientists must be in error. The mixture of footprints, if it is real, is evidence that the evolutionary hypothesis is falsified. It would prove that the theory of evolution is wrong to people who do not necessarily believe the divine revelation.

Careless thinkers might be led by such a finding to accept that the revelation claimed as being divine is in fact divine, and the proof of the error of the theory of evolution would help to lead lost sheep into the Christian fold. Careful thinkers, though, would not make the logical blunder. If evolution did not take place as our current scientific understanding concludes that it did, this fact provides no positive evidence in favour of the idea of divine creation. (Remember science and revelation cannot be logically reconciled.) The scientists would develop a new _naturalistic_ account of the origin and diversification of living things,and this new account would be as devoid of supernatural causation as the one it replaced. This theory would be presented to the scientific community, criticised, and if it accounted more satisfactorily for the evidence, would replace the obsolete theory of evolution, and the scientific dialogue would continue without end.

One alternative to engaging in the scientific dialogue is to write a book.Publishers are not like scientists: scientists are concerned with sharing in the construction of the scientific account; publishers print books to make money. If money can be made from it, you will find a publisher willing to print any kind of meretricious trash. You can even cover all the costs of publishing yourself, and simply pay a publisher to print your book.

This means that the content of the book is not necessarily evaluated, scrutinised by experts, and revised in the light of their comments. It is evaluated in terms of the amount of money it will make. I have a little admiration for the people who claim 'The bible says it, I believe it, and there's an end of it.' I have no admiration for the people who distort science for money and sell mendacious books that prop up the ignorant by purporting to provide scientific evidence in support of their failing faith.

The title alone of Baugh's book is enough to inform those qualified to judge that the book is scientifically worthless. You don't need to read
one page to know that. But books that confirm what someone believes already, or that confirm what someone would like to believe, are bound to attract uninformed readers. The average reader can tell if the book is
comprehensible to the average reader, but the average reader is not equipped to comment if the content is worth the bother of understanding it.

Let us look at some more of Baugh's recorded claims. These are quoted from
http://members.aol.com/Paluxy2/whatbau.htm

'Some of Carl Baugh's more outlandish claims, contained in his videotape _Panorama of Creation_, are as follows:

1. Before the Flood, the earth was surrounded by hydrogen which was so cold it was metallic and this collapsed when God shouted. This is nonsense. It is impossible that such a surrounding cloud of hydrogen
could ever be cold enough, especially in such proximity to the earth.

[Also, a solid shell of metal of any kind surrounding the Earth would be unstable and would crash to the surface. (This dynamical fact lies at the heart of Clerk Maxwell's proof that the rings of Saturn cannot be solid.) Also notice that the claim, involving a supernatural entity, God, is not a scientific claim, and is not amenable to to scientific analysis.]

2. People could hear the 'singing' of the stars before the Flood. Apparently the metallic hydrogen (which could not have existed) enabled this to happen.

3. People could 'feel' the time before the Flood.

4. People can affect radioactive decay rates with their minds. There is absolutely no evidence for this.

5. Eggs do not hatch outside the earth's magnetic field. Baugh claimed that NASA did an experiment demonstrating this. Absolute nonsense.

6. Granites (which contain radioactive elements) are not exploding because they are in 'perfect balance'. However, radioactive elements do not normally 'explode' of course - that requires very special conditions which are not easy to arrange (if it were otherwise, every terrorist group would have atomic bombs!). Even pure radioactive elements will not [necessarily] 'explode', so the fact that granite does not has nothing to do with
'perfect balance' of the granite.

7. He argues that, in some way, radioactive minerals align themselves with the magnetic field, which is nonsense.

8. He says that people were smarter before the Flood, attributing this to a supposedly higher oxygen pressure. There is absolutely no evidence that high oxygen levels would make people more intelligent. He talked nonsense about 'four molecules of oxygen', linking this to his subsequent theories about oxygen saturation. Furthermore, there is no basis for his extravagant claims about the curative effects of high oxygen pressures - if it worked as he claims, paraplegics would be lining up to be treated (many hospitals have suitable hyperbaric chambers).'

I added the comments above in square brackets.

When extraordinary claims are made scientists examine them very carefully. In the age of the world-wide web life this is very easy. I found the above information by Googling 'Carl Baugh'. His scientific ideas are nonsense, not only for conventional scientists, but also for other young-earth creationists who accuse him of misleading fellow Christians.

What makes me most angry and unhappy about this whole literature is the accusation that people like me, people who have spent decades of their lives educating students, deliberately and satanically mislead them, the accusation that knowing better, we deliberately distort our teachings to lead young people away from Christ. It simply isn't true.

For many years I taught material not just about evolution, but about the social responses to evolution, especially in America, especially about the Creation Science movement, and latterly the Intelligent Design movement. Evidence of my authority to do so includes my attendance, and presentation of a paper at the international conference held at Concordia University, Wisconsin at couple of years ago on the subject of
_Intelligent Design and its critics_.)

I was always glad that the friend and colleague with whom I shared this teaching, is an ordained minister of
the Episcopal Church of Scotland, and the Anglican Chaplain to the University of Aberdeen. He and I together were always at pains to separate the science from the religion; and he showed by his example, as well as his arguments, that there is nothing incompatible in accepting the theory of evolution and being a committed Christian.

So why was Baugh's book published? The usual answer, the P. T. Barnum answer: There's a sucker born every minute.

To review a book of Baugh's on the subject of evolution without at least acquainting yourself with the orthodox and the unorthodox writings on palaeontology and evolution is staggeringly hubristic.

Other readers may feel that my response to this review is disproportionate, ungallant, unkind. I am doing the reviewer a service that few scientists would do. Most scientists, if they bothered to read such a review at all, would say to themselves 'a fool writing nonsense for fools' and therefore a person of no account, intellectually contemptible, not worth the bother of responding to. I have taken a different view. People
interested enough in such matters to write, even if their writings are mistaken and naive, deserve to be informed. The least that my response proves is that right or wrong, there are more opinions about the origin and diversity of life than are proposed by Carl Baugh.

Finally, I am not asking anybody to believe that what I have written about science is definitive. You must take my word, as a scientist, that I am telling you the truth as I understand it, but I could be mistaken. There is only one way to come to an informed opinion on scientific matters, and that is to do what I encourage my students to do: to read widely, think hard, discuss, debate, and come to your own conclusions. If you do that you will, in time, become equipped to come to your own rational conclusion about the writings of Carl Baugh.

John Ollason, D.Sc

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About Me: I used to work at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, a lecturer in ecology.