7/27/2008

VOX REPLIES

Vox replies to my earlier comments here. Again, I note that despite his reputation and ideological commitments, Vox asks a fair question:

Now, if New Scientist magazine is little more than puffed-up science fiction, perhaps Scott or another science enthusiast would be so kind as to direct my attention to a more reliable source of science information.

Well, I can certainly talk about the state of affairs, Vox! I'm sorry I didn't see this post and reply earlier. I've been at the San Diego Comic Con. Which raises a question...do you ever go to conventions?

Anyway, it's true that a lot of the stuff that appears in magazines like New Scientist is unreliable, broad and breathless to the point of distortion, and often pointing to unwarranted conclusions. To be fair, I think it would be hyperbolic the other way to call the piece in question 'science fiction'...more like 'science, misunderstood.' Drink deeply of the Pierian spring, and all that.

As far as a reliable source of information, Nature and Science are the premier general science journals and some of their overview articles are accessible to well-educated non-specialists, which would definitely apply to many, including Vox. The downside is that they tend to be expensive and time-consuming to appreciate. Conversely, the popular magazines are getting less informative all the time, sadly. Scientific American has pared much of its more difficult content, and Discover magazine has not only gone the same route, they both are starting to run terminally-vague and mystical-sounding articles about speculative areas in physics and cosmology.

So this is a more general problem than most folk realize, and it contributes to the problems, both real and imagined, of those Vox calls 'science fetishists' in that they would like science to be a generally-applied tool and (in some cases) the font of explanation. After all, if we can't generally rely on science magazines crafted for the general public to do a good basic job of presenting new findings, we're really in a lot of trouble.

It is in part why those of us who care about science and science education spend time blogging and such. In general, my advice to Vox and others is seek out not just publications, but look for writers of quality who are known for their commitment to accuracy and caution in describing new scientific developments. Carl Zimmer and Michael Lemonick come to mind.

9 comments:

Paul C said...

It strikes me that this guy's problem is not with science, but with science reporting. He mistakes science reporting for scientific research - assuming that what reporters write is what scientists think, assuming that what popular articles claim is what scientists predict, and so forth. We all know that communicating science is a fairly weak area, particularly in the popular press - and of course on blogs, which are a medium of personal communication rather than research, where one post might be (for example) about a comic convention and the next post about some new research.

In the case of New Scientist, shooting the messenger is a perfectly valid response, rather than blaming the original research. It always surprises me how people who are in general dismissive of the mainstream media nevertheless swallow what they read whole when it supports their existing prejudices.

Stan said...

I don't think you guys get the point here. First off, no one is going to analyze all the original research in order to form a world view. Second, it is annoying to try to discuss concepts based on 8 year old work, have that work denied, and then be referred to 50 year old work. Where is the "state of the art as of jan 1, 2008" documented? Scientists don't do this, as they would likely not agree as to what that "state of the art" actually is. It has been shown that most reports of original research, although peer reviewed, have not been replicated, and many are merely pleas for more money to keep the lab alive.

I suspect that scientists who are not involved daily in a progressing area also don't know what to believe based on a lack of decent documentation other than by "science writers".

Scott, you for example have kept denying any and all references that I have brought forth, because they didn't coincide with your opinion. Someone said that science is just the collection of opinions of the majority of scientists (or at least the loudest ones).

Determining how to think about a subject that is based on shifting sands is not easy. The dynamics make it seem highly unstable, and certainly an iffy proposition upon which to base a worldview.

Ian H Spedding FCD said...

In the now unimaginable world that pre-dated the Internet I worked in a press clippings library. One of my duties was to scan Nature, Science and New Scientist for articles that would be useful additions to our files of articles culled from various newspapers and magazines. These files were available for general news journalists to fill in background information for whatever story they might be working on at the time. For those of you too young to have encountered anything like it, think of it as a sort of Wikipedia on paper.

I had no special qualification for this role, other than a longstanding interest in science, so my selections were made on the basis of what I found interesting and what I could understand. There was method in this madness since most of the journalists were no better informed than I was and, in some cases, they did not have even that basic knowledge.

New Scientist was much the more useful for our purposes than the other two journals. No, it was not - and is not - a science journal in the sense that it publishes peer-reviewed research papers. As it says on its website, it reports on the latest advances in science and technology "in a stimulating, lively and authoritative way". Some of these reports are written by professional scientists themselves but all of them are pitched at the intelligent and interested layperson.

This inevitably means that there will be certain amount of distortion and truncation. Evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar, in his excellent little book The Trouble With Science, describes not just the difficulties of trying to simplify and compress a complex scientific case so that it will fit into the space allotted to it in New Scientist but also the frustration of seeing it edited for an emphasis he had not intended and given a title that he felt did not summarise the case he was trying to make.

That said, I know that many of those who try to report on science to a non-specialist audience go to great lengths to be as accurate as they can. No, reports in New Scientist are not as authoritative as those in Nature or Science, nor do they presume to be, but that does not mean that they can or should be dismissed lightly as "science-fiction".

Peer-reviewed scientific journals are an essential part of the scientific process but many of the papers they publish will never be read and understood by more than a tiny group of specialists. The popular science journals have a vital role in making science more understandable and hence accessible to the lay audience on whose support the whole modern scientific enterprise in part depends.

I remember a news piece from many years ago in Nature reporting how the leading scientific journals had become less and less comprehensible over the last century. It quoted a leading string theorist who argued that, because the theory could only be properly expressed and understood in the language of esoteric mathematics, there could never be a popular account of it. Against that we can set Richard Feynman's dictum that if you cannot explain your research to your grandmother then you probably do not understand it properly yourself.

It seems to me that the string theorist's belief is a counsel of despair. Science, and those who support it, must do everything they can to make sure its discoveries and insights are accessible to all.

Stan said...

It seems to me that physics is actually better at this than is biology. There are books such as those by Lisa Randall, that are by actual scientists and are accessible to the modestly literate. Even Einstein wrote on relativity at an accessible level.

Books about recent biological findings are marred by worldview statements and extrapolations, not to mention science worship, at least those with which I have become familiar. If there is a truly analytical overview of current biology available, I am unaware of it. (Kindly make me aware of one... thanks!).

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Stan, the purpose of biology as a science is not to 'form a world view.' Evolutionary biology is not a world view. Like every other branch of biology, it seeks to explain natural phenomena in terms of natural causes. In particular, evolutionary biology is concerned with explaining the diversity and distribution of life over time and space. We typically don't describe the range of questions inviting natural explanations in chemistry or physics as emblematic of a worldview. Why single out a branch of biology for these sort of metaphysical red herrings?

Look, evolution is a very big topic. It's definitely not the kind of topic that any group of scientists, no matter how eminent, can summarily redefine at a conference---which is the impression you would get from reading the article in question that prompted this post.

I don't believe I'm denying your references, though some of them are old. I believe what I'm doing is questioning whether you actually understand the literature you're grappling with. There is a vast difference between a topic like the units of selection (which remains contentious) and the simple question, long-settled, of whether you need mutation to generate genetic diversity.

With respect to the latter, I've maintained that (while ubiquitous and probable) mutation is not required in all cases. I've given examples of processes that generate variation other than point mutations and chromosomal mutations. You don't ever seem to be able to wrap your head around that, frankly, which is why you are now reduced to claiming that I'm denying your sources.

Why don't you just put your cards on the table? I suspect, based upon your statements, that you want to use probability arguments (which as an engineer you likely do understand) against TENS, particularly against the component that you think (mistakenly) relies exclusively on mutation.

You are misguided on this point, for a number of reasons:

1) There are processes other than natural selection that cause evolution

2) There are processes that generate variation other than mutation

3) Probability arguments that do not take into account the cumulative (non-random) power of selection are invalid

Stan said...

Scott,
I admit to feeling that you are stuck in a paradigm that you can't see from the outside-in... and you feel the same about me... stuck in a paradigm where I can't see into the mysteries of the interior truth.

Let's take your three claims:
1) There are processes other than natural selection that cause evolution

2) There are processes that generate variation other than mutation

3) Probability arguments that do not take into account the cumulative (non-random) power of selection are invalid

I have so far found no references that support the first two claims. I read all the references you provided, and they all... no exception... said the same thing: natural selection on mutation..

As for item three, such calculations are possible and necessary. A piecewise continuous calculation can certainly be done. However, it requires that a coherent set of mechanisms and processes be known. So such a calculation is not currently possible with any more credibility than the theory itself.

I have not attempted such a calculation because it requires the same guesswork and extrapolation that I deplore in evolutionary treatises. Regardless, the deep time of earth's habitable history is not infinite, and the calculation will not produce a 1.0 probability.

As for the coherent mechanisms and processes, if they are too complex to summarize, even at a conference of experts, doesn't that nullify the idea that the complexity is merely an appearance, that complexity doesn't really exist?

I admit to being stuck in a path of wanting answers to make sense.

Of course variation is caused by things other than mutation. I understand alleles just fine. What I don't understand is the resistance to terming such variation what it is: normal intra-genomic variablity.

Developing new capacities, organs, limbs, whatever, is not normal intra-genomic variability. It is change from within the normal distribution, to something outside the normal distribution.

Creating new organs while remaining inside the original, normal, intra-genomic distribution makes no sense. The only way that could make sense is if the normal genome already contained the genes, switched off or whatever, for the new organs. This idea creates a semi-infinite regress to the original DNA-bearing life, whose DNA contains all the genes for every possible living thing to come. But that would support ID, so it cannot be right; the genome itself must change in order to accommodate the new organs yet to come.

"evolution", "mutation", and "change" are three english words that all mean the same thing, unless their meanings have been "mutated", "evolved" or "changed" by biologists.

Change: 1. To be altered; to become different; to undergo variation; to be partially or whooly transformed;

evolve: 1. To develop gradually; to reach a highly developed state by a process of growth and change;

mutate: To change; specifically to undergo or to cause mutation;

mutation: 3. In biology, (a) a sudden variation in some inheritable characteristic of an individual animal or plant, as distinguished from a variation of resulting from generations of gradual change; (b)and individual resulting from such a change; a mutant.

(From the Latin "mutare" to change).


Also,

mu·ta·tion (my-tshn)
n.
1. The act or process of being altered or changed.
2. An alteration or change, as in nature, form, or quality.
3. Genetics
a. A change of the DNA sequence within a gene or chromosome of an organism resulting in the creation of a new character or trait not found in the parental type.
b. The process by which such a change occurs in a chromosome, either through an alteration in the nucleotide sequence of the DNA coding for a gene or through a change in the physical arrangement of a chromosome.

c. A mutant.

I can't help but feel that denying such a basic concept is couched in something other than disinterested reason. Or, the words mean something different in biologist-speak, but I seriously doubt that, having found confirmations in all my searches.

You keep making the case that I am too simplistic, that the problem is too complex, that I have not wrapped my head around it, implying agenda blockage.

I keep making the case that the basic fundamentals of reality seem to be violated here. I grant that no meaningful probabilities can be calculated in an environment of exclusion by the befuddlement of excessive complexity, feigned or not.

So I must remain skeptical until the befuddlement is replaced by something real and realistically analyzable.

In the meantime, evolution definitely is being used as a weapon in a culture war, regardless of whether scientists choose to acknowledge it or not. So I would like to understand if it deserves such a truth value, but so far I am not able to do so.

alison said...

Stan - for an example of a process other than natural selection that can cause evolution (ie a change in allele frequency in a population) you need look no further than genetic drift: the random loss or fixation of alleles in a population's gene pool. This can have quite significant effects in small, isolated populations.

As for generation of variation - the crossing-over & recombination of meiosis do this very well indeed. And there is also epigenetics - (the study of) heritable traits that are not dependent on the primary sequence of DNA (to quote PZ Myers).

Stan said...

Alison, thanks.

Genetic drift, as I understand it, which might be not well, does not leave the genome, it generally tightens it within the distribution as the Grants found in the Galapagos. And why would it not be thought to be caused by selection? I would think selection would be the cause, barring deviations in the epigenetics.

And epigenetics, as I understand it, which is definitely not well, involves genetic switching mechanisms which are "imprinted" using molecules such as methyl groups, or histone tail modification. Using such techniques involves enabling or disabling genes located in the DNA.

So there is still no new creation of genes for non-existing organs,limbs, etc., posited by epigentics, outside the event of an error or deviation (aka change / mutation) as far as I can tell.

So leaving the genome in order to create, say, warm bloodedness or feathers or whatever, still requires a deviation from existing mechanisms, processes, and procedures...again, as far as I can tell.

So what is there that obviates the need for a deviation from the original set of genomic characteristics?

emerod said...

From Scott:
3) Probability arguments that do not take into account the cumulative (non-random) power of selection are invalid

From Stan:
As for item three, such calculations are possible and necessary. A piecewise continuous calculation can certainly be done. However, it requires that a coherent set of mechanisms and processes be known. So such a calculation is not currently possible with any more credibility than the theory itself.

This is the problem with a "naturalistic" theory that gropes for evidence of actual processes after formulating its "model."

Scott, you need to lay your cards on the table. You know very well that even if all of your students completely accepted TENS as an explanation for "the diversity and distribution of life over time and space," only a small percentage will ever actually understand it in its simplified form. And only a small percentage of those will be able to keep up with the latest research and the latest versions of the theory; they will be the future scientists and, hopefully, science writers.

So, what exactly is the purpose of making sure that the great majority of people hew to the party line, if they don't really understand the science, if it doesn't really matter if it is "the truth" (as you say), and if it is not supposed to help them form a "worldview" (as you say)?

Why is it so important for all children and all pop science readers to believe in what they don't understand?