Science Propaganda

I thought I’d do a quick rehash of an old post which is vaguely relevant to the still simmering controversy generated by the Cox-Ince editorial I blogged about before Christmas.

The legitimate interface between science and society has many levels to it. One aspect is the simple need to explain what science tells us about the world in order that people can play an informed part in our increasingly technological society. Another is that there needs to be encouragement for (especially young) people to study science seriously and to make it their career in order to maintain the supply of scientists for the future. And then there is the issue of the wider cultural implications of science, its impact on other belief-systems (such as religions) other forms of endeavour (such as art and literature) and even for government.

I think virtually all scientists would agree with the need for engagement in at least the first two of these. In fact, I’m sure most scientists would love to have the chance to explain their work to a lay audience, but not all subjects are as accessible or inspirational as, say, astronomy. Unfortunately also, not all scientists are very good at this sort of thing. Some might even be counter-productive if inflicted on the public in this way. So it seems relatively natural that some people have had more success at this activity than others, and have thus become identified as “science communicators”. Although some scientists are a bit snobby about those who write popular books and give popular talks, most of us agree that this kind of work is vital for both science and society.

Vital, yes, but there are dangers. The number of scientists involved in this sort of work is probably more limited than it should be owing to the laziness of the popular media, who generally can’t be bothered to look outside London and the South-East for friendly scientists. The broadsheet newspapers employ very few qualified specialists among their staff even on the science pages so it’s a battle to get meaningful scientific content into print in the mass media. Much that does appear is slavishly regurgitated from one of the press agencies who are kept well fed by the public relations experts employed by research laboratories and other science institutes.

These factors mean that what comes out in the media can be a distorted representation of the real scientific process. Heads of research groups and laboratories are engaged in the increasingly difficult business of securing enough money to continue their work in these uncertain financial times. Producing lots of glossy press releases seems to be one way of raising the profile and gaining the attention of funding bodies. Most scientists do this with care, but sometimes the results are ludicrously exaggerated or simply wrong. Some of the claims circulating around the time the Large Hadron Collider was switched on definitely fell into one or more of those categories. I realise that there’s a difficult balance to be struck between simplicity and accuracy, and that errors can result from over-enthusiasm rather than anything more sinister, but even so we should tread carefully if we want the public to engage with what science really is.

The Cox-Ince editorial is refreshingly clear about the limitations of science:

Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.

However, there is still far too much science reporting that portrays as facts  ideas and theories which have little or no evidence to support them. This isn’t science communication, it’s science propaganda and I think too many scientists go along with it. There’s a difficult balance to be struck, between engaging the public with inspirational but superficial TV programmes and explaining the intellectual struggles that science really involves.  Give the public the latter without any of the former and they’ll surely switch off!

Most worryingly is the perceived need to demonstrate black-and-white certainty over issues which are considerably more complicated than that. This is another situation where science popularisation becomes science propaganda. I’m not sure whether the public actually wants its scientists to make pronouncements as if they were infallible oracles, but the media definitely do. Scientists sometimes become cast in the role of priests, which is dangerous, especially when a result is later shown to be false. Then the public don’t just lose faith with one particular scientist, but with the whole of science.

Science is not about certainty. What it is a method for dealing rationally with uncertainty. It is a pragmatic system primarily intended for making testable inferences about the world using measurable, quantitative data. Scientists look their most arrogant and dogmatic when they try to push science beyond the (relatively limited) boundaries of its applicability and to ride roughshod over alternative ways of dealing with wider issues including, yes, religion.

I don’t have any religious beliefs that anyone other than me would recognize as such. I am also a scientist. But I don’t see any reason why being a scientist or not being a scientist should have any implications for my (lack of) religious faith. God (whatever that means) is, by construction, orthogonal to science. I’m not at all opposed to scientists talking about their religion or their atheism in the public domain. I don’t see why their opinions are of any more interest than anyone else’s in these matters, but I’m quite happy to hear them voiced.

This brings us to the question, often raised by hardline atheists, as to whether more scientists  should follow Richard Dawkins’ lead and be champions of atheism in the public domain. As a matter of fact, I agree with some of Dawkins’ agenda, such as his argument for the separation of church and state, although I don’t feel his heavy-handed use of the vitriol in The God Delusion achieved anything particularly positive (except for his bank balance, perhaps). But I don’t think it’s right to assume that all scientists should follow his example. Their beliefs are their business. I don’t think we will be much better off if we simply replace one set of priests with another. In this respect I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Higgs who has recently described Dawkins as “embarrassing”.

So there you have my plea for both public and scientists to accept that science will never have all the answers. There will always be “aspects of human experience that, even in an age of astonishing scientific advance, remain beyond the reach of scientific explanation”.

Can I have the Templeton Prize now please?

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33 Responses to “Science Propaganda”

  1. Yes, I’d agree with a lot of this although could you please elaborate more with an example or two of:

    “However, there is still far too much science reporting that portray as facts ideas and theories which have little or no evidence to support them. This isn’t science communication, it’s science propaganda and I think too many scientists go along with it.”

    Re atheism and science, I again agree that the two needn’t be antagonistic or even related in many fields (e.g. what does the Bible have to say on superconducting magnets or vice versa?). However. whilst I’m not a huge fan of Dawkins, I think Higgs over-stepped the mark by saying:

    “Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”

  2. Hi
    Some reflections on these issues can be found here:

    I would recommend chapters by Wolvaardt and Radford!!
    I can send these on request

  3. I expect it matters how one defines “fundamentalist”, but I’d imagine in the public eye (certainly in the UK, can’t speak for US or elsewhere), being one would involve forcing, sometimes violently, doctrine on the unwilling or the unbelieving. Whilst Dawkins is known for being vehemently critical of theists, I’m not sure a “Dawkinian” political party would stretch to the extremes of the Taliban or loonier end of the US Evangelical Right.

    Thanks for the link.

    • telescoper Says:

      “Fundamentalist” simply means someone who follows a strictly orthodox religious doctrine. I’m neither a Christian nor a Muslim, but it seems to me that the so-called Christian fundamentalists of the American far right follow a creed that has little to do with the teachings of Christ, and I suspect the same is true of the Taliban. I’m not sure what the proper name is for such people. I know what I call them.

  4. I do not agree with Peter.

  5. I did not know that the link to my book would come up in glorious technicolour! Sorry! Still, read Tim Radford!

  6. “God (whatever that means) is, by construction, orthogonal to science.”

    For some definition of God. Not the definition used by most people who call themselves religious. Barrow and Ellis are not typical here. The point is that many religions make claims which are directly contradicted by science. Revisionists, accommodationists etc often claim that such things are not to be taken literally, but as metaphors. First, I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that things were not intended to be taken literally before science came along. Second, not everything is to be taken as a metaphor, but there is no way to find out what is and what isn’t (of course, they make it up as they go along). Third, this is often used as a catchphrase. In some cases, one can ask “A metaphor for what?”

    The blog http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/ often discusses such issues, with many pundits (not just Dawkins) making rational (not fundamentalist) arguments in favour of the stance that there is a conflict between science and religion, at least as these terms are understood by most people. Can one construct definitions which are, by construction, orthogonal? Sure. Will this actually shed any light on the real conflicts which occur? I doubt it.

    I’m reminded of a story about a person (don’t remember where) who had the citizenship of the country he lived in, perhaps was even born there, but was of immigrant extraction and obviously foreign looking. After being abused by some right-wing punks, he stated that they were stupid because he was actually a citizen of the country and not a foreigner, and so should not be object of xenophobic actions. But obviously he was, because the definition of foreigner was different for his abusers than it was for him. I often see the accomodationists in the same light as this guy being beaten up and waving his passport.

    • Phillip regarding “evidence that things were not intended literally before science came along”, if you google “Litera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria” etc. (Wikipedia spells it “Littera” for some reason) quite a lot of interesting history comes tumbling out.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    Oddly I was writing an email on part of this subject, namely God and science, when I clicked on Peter’s blog to see what was new. When debating the existence of God with secular physicists I use three arguments. In no particular order:

    1. The laws of physics, the software of the physical universe, are beautiful aren’t they – that’s what appealed to you about physics in the first place. WHY are they beautiful, if not that they were designed by Someone having high aesthetic sense? (NB This is an argument for an intelligent designer deity, not specifically for Christianity.)

    2. Physical science came to maturity on the only one of dozens of human cultures across history and geography in which most people believed that the Bible was true. If the Bible isn’t true then that would be a HUGE coincidence, would it not? (In fact the connection is that the Bible says that the Creation is real and is ordered by God, and that we may understand that order because we are made in the image of its creator. Buddhists, for instance, believe that all differentiation is illusion.)

    3. About two centuries after modern physics got started, it had developed enough to be applied to the entire universe (Einstein’s general theory of relativity). The result: there was a beginning, subsequently called the Big Bang. Before this insight, science had had nothing to say about what happened if you extrapolated arbitrarily far back in time. Now open the Bible; what is the very first line? IN THE BEGINNING… So, 4000 years after God told Moses that there was a beginning, man figures it out in his own strength and there is accord, not discord. (The issues about the length of the 6 YOM of creation are very secondary to this accord.) Moreover Buddhists believe that the universe was eternal, so science actually picks out Judaeo-Christianity (and Islam) as right and other religions as wrong here. (Aside: Einstein also tells us that time itself began at the Big Bang, so that asking what happened before it is rather like asking what is north of the North Pole. This view provides the best solution I know to the regress problem of who created God: the question implicitly assumes a time-ordering which is not the case.)

    This consistency between science and scripture comes as no surprise to me, because I believe God designed the laws of physics and God wrote the Bible. But like Phillip I accept that there is some disagreement between the two so that they are not orthogonal – miracles. In Matthew 14 we read of Peter walking on water and sinking as his faith wavered. Unless you are going to distort the words to the point of dishonesty like liberal theologians do, there is no way that physics will be able to explain that. (To deal with the liberals, recall that the text means what it was intended to mean to simple folk 2000 years ago, not to modern semanticists.) Here you have to go with either science or scripture, and they disagree. After my adult conversion I eventually reached the point of view that miracles are somewhat analogous to a playwright walking on to the stage during a performance of his play – because he has a more important point to get across. But I have no problem in agreeing to disagree with secular colleagues.

  8. V interesting post. One solution might be to have much more science in the broadsheets written by working scientists who have some training in writing for a popular audience, and less by journalists with a basic science degree. It is very much the latter who tend to present scientific discoveries as facts, because that is how information was presented to them as undergraduates (the contingency of information only becomes clear for those who go on to do research). I was very disappointed to discover recently that a well-known science writing course at MIT is now taken mostly by journalists interested in science, rather than research students learning to write for a popular audience…

  9. I largely agree with your stance, but, like Phillip, I’m dubious about the claim that God is “orthogonal” to science. Many (most?) religions make specific claims about the natural world (a particular individual rose from the dead, for instance), which are certainly not orthogonal to science.

    You can certainly interpret the sentence “God is orthogonal to science” narrowly enough to make it true, but under such an interpretation it becomes so narrow that it’s not all that relevant to the usual science-religion arguments. In my country, for instance, people all too often base public policy (especially related to education) around the idea that the earth is 6000 years old. God may be orthogonal to science, but what these people think God wants them to do certainly isn’t.

    I always had the same problem with Steven Jay Gould’s essay on “Non-overlapping Magisteria,” which adopts a similar stance. He more or less defines “religion” to be “questions of ethics and meaning.” But to many religious people, that’s not all that the word refers to. The magisteria fail to overlap because he defined them not to overlap. That’s a tautology, not an argument.

    Despite this, I’m far more sympathetic to Gould’s stance than to that of the hardline atheists like Dawkins. Strident language like Dawkins’s is, it seems to me, actively harmful to science. There are a lot of people out there who are religious but not (yet) anti-science. By insulting and demeaning them, Dawkins et al. seem to be doing their best to push them into the anti-science camp.

    I don’t think that the word “fundamentalist” is quite the mot juste for people like Dawkins, though. I prefer “jackass.”

    • telescoper Says:

      OK, I should have said that “what I think of as God is orthogonal to what I think of as science”..

      I admit however that I think more of science than I do of God.

    • First, I agree that Gould’s NOMA idea is silly. Generally, I tend to like his writing, though in a couple of places I think his Marxist beliefs tend to distort his view of reality. Interestingly, he is probably the best known popular writer from his field, but is something of a maverick (though any debates between Gould and colleagues are nothing compared with the creation vs. evolution debates—this gets back to the original topic, i.e. confusion of healthy debate within a field with “these guys don’t even know what’s right, so anything goes”). The same is true of Steven Pinker. And, too a lesser extent (with regard to popularity, not maverickness, Roger Penrose). I don’t know what is cause and what is effect here.

      With regard to Dawkins, I’ve read only a couple of his books, one of his traditional popular books and The God Delusion, the latter because I bought it as a paperback on impulse at a train station because I needed something to read. I don’t see him as aggressive, fundamentalist etc at all, though of course if one defines every stance which is not accommodationist as aggressive and fundamentalist then of course the tautology is true. (To be fair, he has also been the subject of unfair criticism, as when a journalist claimed that the fact that his ancestors were involved in the slave trade somehow made his scientific ideas less believable.)

      I think it is important to remember that he is neither preaching to the choir (or cheering for the pep squad, to use a silly non-religious metaphor) nor trying to convince religious fundamentalists, but is aiming primarily at people who haven’t made up their minds.

      Neither to preach to the choir nor to convince Anton but for the enlightenment of our Gentle Readers, I present my brief rebuttal to the three points:

      1. The fact that the laws of physics are beautiful (assuming we agree on this, whatever it means) does not necessarily imply that they were created by an intelligent designer. One could argue that this is a by-product of evolution, since joy in solving problems had survival value or whatever. (Even if it did imply an intelligent designer, the “ergo Jesus” which is commonly concluded is a complete non sequitur.)

      2. I do believe it is a coincidence, but not a HUGE one. Of course, science really took off when the Church started losing power and scientists were no longer burned at the stake, so I would argue “despite” instead of “because of” here. One could argue that rap music developed in Christian countries, but I don’t know what that tells us about God or about rap music.

      3. By this argument, all religions which have a beginning must be right, at least on this point, but of course they disagree on others. So, the fact that a religion is right on this point doesn’t tell us anything about whether it is right on other points.

      At least you admit that there is a conflict between science and miracles, rather than trying to argue for a metaphorical interpretation or that the laws of physics allowed miracles back in Bible days (in which case they wouldn’t really be miracles).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        “At least you admit that there is a conflict between science and miracles, rather than trying to argue for a metaphorical interpretation or that the laws of physics allowed miracles back in Bible days (in which case they wouldn’t really be miracles).”

        And they wouldn’t really be laws either! We share a low opinion of the liberal-Christian view, anyway. Let me add that I don’t ‘admit’ there is a conflict – I assert it.

        Gould’s strongest critic is probably Simon Conway Morris, a Cambridge prof of evolutionary biology who is leading the view that evolution is actually a fairly convergent process. For instance, eyes, or at least optical sensors, appear to have evolved independently several times, and all are of basically the same design; whereas Gould insists that evoutionary trajectories are strongly divergent – what physicists and mathematicians would call sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

        To my fundamentalist brethren in faith, I offer two arguments for evolution that I don’t think they consider they have knocked down yet: (1) the workings of animal and human bodies resemble the plumbing and wiring in a building that has had many extensions added to it one by one, different extensions for each species; whereas if you were designing each species from scratch you would do it differently. Abundant examples are found in “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin. (2) At the genetic level, the arguments of Graeme Finlay, a medical geneticist who shares my theology, are devastating to creationists:

        http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2008/PSCF6-08Finlay.pdf

        http://www.cis.org.uk/ireland/documents/God&Science_Paper2_Finlay.pdf

        I have a low opinion of Penrose outside his fields of expertise; but please say more of Pinker.

        Regarding your response to my three arguments:

        1. You suggest that human perception of beauty in the laws of physics is a by-product of evolution. Maybe, maybe not, but this is beside the point, which is that there IS beauty in the laws of physics and why should that be?

        2. Please note that I said “Physical science came to maturity on the only one of dozens of human cultures across history and geography in which most people believed that the Bible was true.” I did NOT say “in which most people were committed to living the message of Jesus Christ.” Head and heart are not identical. In this difference is the explanation for why so-called Christian Europe has as savage a history as anywhere else. If you want the definition of a Christian you should look in the Bible, for any person can *claim* to be anything. It remains significant that science began in a culture that, unlike many, believed that the world was objectively real and had order in it that humans could comprehend – all ideas that came from the Bible. (The ancient Greeks never contemplated designed interventionist experiments.)

        3. This was another consistency argument, not a deductive proof. Please don’t write as if I was presenting it as one.

        Finally, happy new year Phillip! I see that you beat me to be the most prolific commenter on this blog in 2012.

        Anton

      • The criticism of Dawkins for being descended from slave owners was particularly silly. The same issue of the Guardian that had that Peter Higgs quote had another stupid criticism of him: the Chief Rabbi of the UK (or some such thing) called him an anti-Semite because of his description of the barbarism of the God of the Old Testament. To even the most cursory reader, it’s clear that Dawkins has disdain for all Gods, not this one in particular, so only by willfully misreading him could one come to this conclusion.

        You’re right that he’s not one of the worst of the strident “anti-accommodationist” atheists, but it still seems to me that his stance is likely to repel the people he is (or should be) most interested in convincing, namely religious people who are or could be sympathetic to the scientific world view. The rhetoric of a phrase like “The God Delusion” is clearly designed to insult such people, and there’s no better way to stop them from listening to what you have to say.

  10. For interesting reasons, worth looking into, your views on science and religion has stirred more reaction than what I think is the more important aspect of “science communication”. I’ve been having a bit of a discussion with Emily Winterburn (http://scienceanddomesticity.wordpress.com/2012/12/28/science-wars/) on the subject, and been asking mainly what they are actually doing.

    In any case, I agree with your views on it generally coming out as science propaganda. There seems to be an idea that science needs to raised to some kind of “artistic status” (if that makes any sense), when I personally believe that science doesn’t need to be “raised” anywhere, it already occupies a prestigious status in society. The question, however, would lie (like you said) in the balance “between engaging the public with inspirational but superficial TV programmes and explaining the intellectual struggles that science really involves”.

    In any case, I realise this comment isn’t really going anywhere besides saying that I agree with you. Thanks for elaborating on a theme with which I’m struggling.

  11. “Gould’s strongest critic is probably Simon Conway Morris”

    And vice versa. Actually, Conway Morris has many critics, and is much more a maverick than Gould.

    “leading the view that evolution is actually a fairly convergent process. For instance, eyes, or at least optical sensors, appear to have evolved independently several times, and all are of basically the same design; whereas Gould insists that evoutionary trajectories are strongly divergent – what physicists and mathematicians would call sensitive dependence on initial conditions”

    Gould wrote a whole book—with Conway Morris in a starring role—about contingency. Like most things, the exact outcomes of processes do of course depend on initial conditions, chance etc. This is not in conflict with the fact that similar solutions evolve for similar reasons. If Conway Morris sees a conflict here, then he is one of the few who does. I gather it is not convergence which most people criticize about Conway Morris, but rather his idea that evolution is somehow directed, with humans an obvious goal. There is much discussion of this on Jerry Coyne’s blog.

    Think of the weather: As noted in the famous butterfly effect, the particular conditions somewhere are sensitive to former conditions elsewhere. No surprise here. But also no surprise that hurricanes, say, look quite similar to each other. No conflict. Every year, we expect hurricanes in the Caribbean, but the exact damage depends sensitively on past conditions.

    Pinker is a bit of a maverick in that he is generally on the left politically but argues against the idea of a blank slate (and wrote a whole book called The Blank Slate) and accepts many of the conclusions of evolutionary psychology. Again, no conflict; just because some types of behaviour are the result of evolution means neither that they cannot be changed nor, in some cases, that they shouldn’t be changed.

    “You suggest that human perception of beauty in the laws of physics is a by-product of evolution. Maybe, maybe not, but this is beside the point, which is that there IS beauty in the laws of physics and why should that be?”

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You make it sound like there is some sort of objective beauty, as noted by your capital letters, whereas beauty in this sense is that which is perceived to be beautiful. At least among naturally occurring things, in general it is safe to eat things which taste good and not to eat things which don’t. This is not because of any objective good taste, but rather because this behaviour is favoured by evolution.

    “Finally, happy new year Phillip!”

    Likewise!

    “I see that you beat me to be the most prolific commenter on this blog in 2012.”

    I do what I can to maintain my fame. :-)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Which was Gould’s book about contingency, please? Conway Morris’s is “Life’s Solution” (2003). Part of it is a little frayed because SCM proposed that something like humans would always come into being in the right environment, and our observed rarity is because the right planetary conditions are rare. They are starting to look relatively common. But SCM makes some great points about evolution at the biochemical level – he argues, for instance, that there is no other way to fix CO2 than chlorophyll and hence green plants. Whether he is right I have no idea, but I can see the logic and I don’t think that such claims are committing the sin of teleology.

      “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You make it sound like there is some sort of objective beauty, as noted by your capital letters, whereas beauty in this sense is that which is perceived to be beautiful.”

      I don’t agree. That people are not unanimous on the criteria for beauty in no way disproves the notion that beauty exists objectively.

      Your last comment puts me in mind of the fact that, in the past decade, quiz nights have become popular in British pubs. Any analogy in Germany?

      • “he argues, for instance, that there is no other way to fix CO2 than chlorophyll and hence green plants.”

        I’m sorry, but this is hogwash and I sincerely hope that Conway Morris did not write this because if he did, just about any undergraduate in biology would be able to point out his error. Many of the models I work with incorporate such processes. Many archaea and anaerobic bacteria use such autotrophic processes.

        If you doubt me, a trivial search for “Carbon Fixation” on the “font of all wisdom and knowledge” (Wikipedia) will list several alternatives.

      • Oh, I should also point out that photosynthesis is a relatively late occurring process in the history of life on this planet and if this was the ONLY way to fix CO2, then, well, things would have turned out quite different and we probably wouldn’t be here arguing the point.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Adrian,

        I stand corrected. That was partly faulty memory and partly inexpertise in biochemistry. As to whether you actually disagree with SCM, I’m not sure. The relevant passage is p106-11 of (my hardback of) Life’s Solution. He does suggest that if we were to discover another life-bearing planet then it would have plants and animals and the former would turn CO2 to O2 by photosynthesis using chlorophyll. This conclusion was previously hinted at by one George Wald. SCM also says there that photosynthesis is very ancient, having been performed by cyanobacteria, and that carbon isotope ratios dated at 3.8 Ga appear to have gone through such a process long before the planet was oxygenated. I am hoping to learn more from any reply you give.

      • “Which was Gould’s book about contingency, please?”

        Life’s Grandeur: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, starring Simon Conway Morris.

        “Conway Morris’s is “Life’s Solution” (2003). Part of it is a little frayed because SCM proposed that something like humans would always come into being in the right environment, and our observed rarity is because the right planetary conditions are rare.”

        How many hundreds of millions of years did it take for multicellular life to arise? How many hundreds of millions of years were dinosaurs the dominant land species? Most of the mass of living things has always been in bacteria. Humans have been around for a relatively short time. Inevitability this isn’t. If one argues that the conditions weren’t right until recently, then one is arguing that our existence is due to contingency.

        Which last comment and why does it remind you of a quiz night? (The answer to the first question might answer the second as well.) I don’t think there are quiz nights here, at least not nearly as many as in England. But I wouldn’t be the person to ask, as I never go to pubs here. “Pubs” in the English sense really don’t exist here. Yes, some or all of the functionality is available elsewhere, but it’s not really the same. One of the two things in England I miss are the pubs, where quite different types of people have a common ground. (The other is the living folk-music tradition.)

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Now you’re really confusing me, as Gould has written “Wonderful Life: the Burgess shale and the nature of history” and “Life’s Grandeur: the spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin”. Either might be the one you mean. I am familiar with the first.

        “How many hundreds of millions of years did it take for multicellular life to arise? How many hundreds of millions of years were dinosaurs the dominant land species?… Humans have been around for a relatively short time. Inevitability this isn’t.”

        I have no idea whether Conway Morris is right or not, but time is not an argument against him if the processes involved are slow. The guy is a full prof of this stuff, which neither of us are; I think you would do well to read him in his own words before making a decision.

        Some people get local fame by regularly winning pub quiz nights in their village (although you do best within as large a team as permitted, of course). I know from my 3 months in Garching that there is no exact equivalent of the English pub in Germany, but still pretty close. What happened to folk music in Germany and when? It must have had a tradition once.

      • Hi Anton,

        I’ve not actually read any of Conway Morris’ work, so I can’t say whether I agree or disagree. Photoautotrophy (the process whereby organisms use light as an energy source to metabolize and fix essential elements such as carbon) is a complex one and comes in many forms. I suspect that if life is discovered on other planets, it will use something like photosynthesis because the free energy available is greater than many of the chemosynthetic pathways. We know for a certainty that photosynthesis is not essential for life – this is beautifully demonstrated by the abundant and diverse life forms at hydrothermal vents. I strongly suspect that that is where life got started. In terms of the evolution of metabolic processes, photosynthesis is a latecomer and there is plenty of evidence for this (banded iron formations, isotope ratios etc.).

        As for life on other planets using chlorophyll, maybe, but I doubt it. Even on Earth there are many photopigments, though chlorophyll is the major one (but even that comes in multiple forms). There are several advantages to this – different species with different suites of accessory pigments are able to compete for different narrow wavelength bands of light for example. So I would strongly suspect that some form of photopigment would be used. In fact, some people (I can’t recall who off the top of my head) have done simulations of the spectrum available to organisms on other planets and speculated about the types and colors of the photopigments that may develop under such skies. In other words, the type of photopigment depends largely on the available wavelengths of light.

        Photosynthesis is actually a phrase that hides much complexity. In coarse terms it is subdivided into the light and dark reactions. The light reactions involve a photopigment (e.g. chlorophyll) and capture photons in given wavelength bands (depending on the photopigment) and allows for the generation of ATP. These reactions do not fix carbon. The dark reactions (so called because they do not require photons and proceed quite merrily in the dark) are the ones that actually fix the carbon and involves the enzyme RuBisCO in a cycle called the Calvin cycle. It is RuBisCO that starts the fixation of CO2, chlorophyll just captures the energy required for that (and other) processes to proceed.

        One then has further wrinkles, such as bacteriorhodopsin which can act as an energy pump by capturing photons to form the energy for metabolic processes. In addition, there are nice sea cucumbers (animals) that have developed the genetic machinery (presumably through horizontal gene transfer) to produce chlorophyll, but cannot photosynthesize because they lack the cellular structures (chloroplasts). However, feed them phytoplankton and they incorporate chloroplasts from those cells intact into their body and can then photosynthesize quite happily. You can apparently keep these guys alive for months without feeding them, only giving them light.

        On a related but different note, I find it humbling and fascinating having worked in two scientific disciplines, the current one being highly interdisciplinary. It has both increased my appetite for learning new things and enhanced my appreciation for the depth of other fields. At the risk of making gross stereotypes, there are some physicists who treat other disciplines as trivial and scientists in other disciplines as fools who can only benefit from the wisdom of the physicists. Similarly, there are those in other disciplines (e.g. biology) who view those from other disciplines with deep suspicion or dismiss them out of hand. Both attitudes are detrimental to the advance of our understanding. To have a dialogue between disciplines requires hard work and learning, often more than one can get by reading the popular literature. But the fruits of that work are frequently highly rewarding.

        Now, since Philip gets the prize for the most frequent poster on Peter’s blog, do I get a prize for the longest, verbose, rambling posts?

        Belated Happy New Year to you all. Now back to preparing for the first lecture of class, which is on Monday!

        Adrian

      • Now you’re really confusing me, as Gould has written “Wonderful Life: the Burgess shale and the nature of history” and “Life’s Grandeur: the spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin”.

        Sorry, it’s the first one. As I hope my weather example demonstrates, there is no conflict between contingency and convergence. Chaos (in the mathematical-physics sense) has many examples where these go hand in hand: the details depend sensitively on initial conditions, but certain patterns arise naturally.

        What happened to folk music in Germany and when? It must have had a tradition once.

        I think the main problem is a throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater overreaction to tradition in the wake of the Second World War. Obviously, it was good to make a fresh start and get rid of bad old traditions, but some equated old with bad and got rid of all traditional stuff as a matter of principle.

        However, that’s only one aspect. Even before that, there wasn’t as strong a tradition as in England. The fact that “classical”, “serious” or whatever music was dominated by German composers for a long time might have attracted more musicians to this type of music whereas in other places other types of music were more popular alternatives. Also, some aspects of folk music have to do with national identity, but Germany as a unified country didn’t exist until relatively recently and even today is highly decentralized. Also, its many neighbours (9) mean that it has much more influence from the borders than England. Sweden also has few neighbours and has long been a unified (and centralized) country and has quite a lively folk-music tradition.

        In the 1970s (and later, paler reunions), the group Ougenweide revived some old music; they are the rough equivalent of Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention in England. However, this was a rather isolated occurrence whereas Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span are the rockier end of a continuum extending through Dave Swarbrick, Martin Carthy etc through Martin Jenkins, the Watersons, June Tabor etc.

        There are quite a few groups now which play some sort of mediaeval and/or Renaissance music, ranging from more punk types with bagpipes (for some reason, mainly from the East) such as Corvus Corax, through groups like Estampie which are mainly “traditional” musicians (and studied with Harnoncourt etc) but with connections to more modern types of music through to groups like Freiburger Spielleyt who are quite “serious” and really the Renaissance equivalent of other groups who play Baroque, Classical, Romantic etc music. In some of the repertoire of these groups there is overlap with folk music, but it’s really something different. Of course, there are many English folk songs which go back to the middle ages (Child ballads etc), but the difference is that there is an unbroken tradition going back to then, rather than a revival.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Yes, Volkmusik does not sound a particularly happy word in view of Germany’s 20th century history. But they carried on playing Wagner, didn’t they?

        In the 1970s I saw Steeleye Span and (as support band) Gryphon, who played a mix of Renaissance and electric instruments, and I was also taken with an album by the French group Malicorne. NB I saw Steeleye in the same Manchester concert hall where a purist in the audience famously shouted “Judas” at Dylan a decade earlier when his set moved from acoustic to electric. Folk has come a long way.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thanks Adrian. Interesting!

  12. As a non-academic lay person who has had his world view expanded immeasurably during the last decade through the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris etc I feel compelled to respond in defence of Dawkins ( not that he needs it) to the charges that he uses vitriol and is embarrassing.

    Firstly, in my humble opinion, Dawkins wrote The God Delusion not as a rallying call to atheists to go on the march with him leading us into battle against religionists but more as a wake up call to the public in general. By exposing the atrocities and abuses still being committed by religion today he has not only knocked many fence sitters onto the side of atheism but has catalysed a debate amongst religions themselves which might ultimately save lives. If you feel the exposure of genital mutilation of young women, slicing off the foreskins of toddlers, stoning to death adulterers etc etc is using vitriol then what would you rather? Maybe Dawkins should have ignored these truths for fear of embarrassing the sensitivities of fellow scientists who have religious pals!

    Maybe your position is that scientists taking such stances whether in their own names or in the name of science, should simply keep their noses out and avoid embarrassing their peers. Perhaps Bertrand Russell’s fellow philosophers were embarrassed by him or the world of journalism was embarrassed by Hitchens. To imply that scientists should avoid uttering truths which may embarrass their peers because some of them may be religious smacks of cowardice and I find it sad and disturbing that Peter Higgs and yourself feel the need to adopt such a stance.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “By exposing the atrocities and abuses still being committed by religion today he has… knocked many fence sitters onto the side of atheism”

      Can you back that claim up with evidence please? Others (of diverse views) feel that Dawkins’ sheer stridency is doing atheism a disservice.

      • Richard Dawkins’ website has a “converts’ corner” page where he has collected emails from readers of his books who have lost their religious belief as a result:

        http://old.richarddawkins.net/letters/converts

        There are also emails from people who are not convinced by his arguments:

        http://old.richarddawkins.net/letters

      • Independent evidence would be more convincing. But if it is really called ‘converts’, this form of atheism seems a religion in all but name.

        I myself like Gould’s views. There may be cases where there is overlap or conflict but by and large the orthogonalism works well. And I have not yet seen a convincing and meaningful ethics derived from science.

      • I’m sure the “converts” bit is tongue in cheek.

        If you see orthogonality, then your idea of religion is quite different from that of most religious people. Yes, science doesn’t provide ethics, but science/religion is a false dichotomy here. Just because science doesn’t provide ethics doesn’t mean that any sort of religion is meaningful.

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