Misuse of scientific arguments

When I was in my first or second year of college, a friend of mine who belonged to a fundamentalist Christian church in Sri Lanka said that he had heard of a convincing scientific proof against the theory of evolution. He said the proof centered on the concept of entropy. I had already heard of the term entropy at that time, but I definitely did not understand the concept, since I had not as yet studied thermodynamics in any detail.

Anyway, my friend told me that there was this law of physics that said that the total entropy of a system had to always increase. He also said that the entropy of a system was inversely related to the amount of the order and complexity in the system, so that the greater the order, the lower the entropy. Since I did not have any reason (or desire) to challenge my friend, I accepted those premises.

Then came the killer conclusion. Since it was manifestly clear that the theory of evolution implied increasing order (under the theory, biological systems were becoming more diversified, complex, and organized from their highly disordered primeval soup beginnings) this implied that the entropy of the Earth must be decreasing. This violated the law of increasing entropy. Hence evolution must be false.

It was a pretty good argument, I thought at that time. But in a year or two, as I learned more about entropy, that argument fell apart. The catch is that the law of increasing entropy (also known as the second law of thermodynamics) applies to closed, isolated systems only, i.e., systems that have no interaction with any other system. The only really isolated system we have is the entire universe and the law is believed to apply strictly to it.

For any other system, we have to make sure that it is isolated (at least to a good approximation) before we apply the law to it, and this is where my friend’s argument breaks down. The Earth is definitely not a closed system. It continuously absorbs and radiates energy. It especially gains energy from the Sun and radiates energy into empty space and it is this exchange of energy that is the engine of biological growth.

So nothing can be inferred from the entropy of the Earth alone. You have to consider the entire system of the Sun, the Earth, and the rest of the universe, and you find that this leads to a net increase of the entire closed system. So the second law of thermodynamics is not violated.

You can have decreased entropy in a part of a system provided the entropy increases by more than that amount in another part. As an analogy, consider a sock drawer in which you have black and brown socks randomly mixed together. This is a state of low order and hence high entropy. If I now sort the socks so that all the black socks are on one side of the drawer and all the brown on the other side, then the sock drawer has gone from a lower to a higher state of order, and hence from higher to a lower state of entropy. Is this a violation of the second law? No, because it ignores the fact that I was part of the system. I had to use up energy to sort the socks, and in that process my entropy increased more than the decrease in entropy of the sock drawer, so that there was a net increase in entropy of the combined system (sock drawer + me). Strictly speaking, I was also in contact with the rest of the room since I was absorbing and radiating energy, breathing, etc., so if you wanted to get to an even better approximation to a closed system to be even more accurate, you had to take the entropy of the room into account as well.

This is why physicists believe that after the Sun eventually burns up all its nuclear fuel and ceases to exist, the Earth will inevitably fall into disorder, assuming that we haven’t destroyed the planet ourselves by then. (As an aside, Robert T Pennock in his book Tower of Babel says that some creationists believe that God created the second law, with its increasing disorder, as part of his punishment for Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.)

Once I understood better what entropy was all about, that was the end of the entropy argument against evolution, at least as far as I was concerned. Non-physicist scientists generally caught on to the fact that people were using the entropy argument fraudulently against evolution and were able to debunk it whenever it came up, so that nowadays one rarely hears that argument. One still occasionally comes across the entropy argument used in this fallacious manner, however, and it may still have power over the scientifically naive.

But even if the entropy argument itself has largely disappeared, other ‘scientific proofs’ against evolution and for the existence of god have arisen in the wake of so-called intelligent design (ID) and I will look at those arguments in future postings.

Science and trust – 3: The Sokal affair

In 1996, NYU physicist Alan Sokal published an article titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity in the journal Social Text, a publication that deals with the sociology of science. The same day that the journal appeared, Sokal published another article in the magazine Lingua Franca (which stopped publishing in 2001) exposing his other article as a hoax. He said that he had mimicked the dense and obscure style of some branches of the arts and humanities (especially the post-modernist philosophers and the area known as cultural studies), but had loaded the paper with citations to well-known people in that field and had asserted conclusions he thought would be pleasing to the editors.

A nice wikipedia article on this hoax explains Sokal’s rationale for it and the response by the embarrassed editors of Social Text:

In their defense, the editors of Social Text stated that they believed that the article “was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field” and that “its status as parody does not alter substantially our interest in the piece itself as a symptomatic document.” They charged Sokal with unethical behavior and suggested they only published the article as it was because Sokal refused to make changes they suggested and it was of relevance to a special issue they happened to be preparing.

Sokal argued that this was the whole point: the journal published articles not on the basis of whether they were correct or made sense, but simply because of who wrote them and how they sounded. [He said] “Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.”…..The controversy also had implications for peer review. Social Text had dispensed with peer review, hoping that this would promote more original, less conventional research, and trusted authors of prospective articles to guarantee the academic integrity of their work. Social Text‘s editors argue that, in this context, Sokal’s work constituted a deliberate fraud and betrayal of that trust.

To my mind, this episode does not reflect well on any of the parties involved. First, if the editors of Social Text decided to dispense with peer review for the (perfectly acceptable) reasons given, then they should have on their editorial board a diverse enough group of people to make judgments about papers. They clearly did not in this case. Either the editors did not have the competence to judge the quality of the paper or they did not give it enough scrutiny.

It also is the case that in academia there is an undesirable element of ‘physics envy’, and the editors were clearly thrilled that a real physicist from a reputable department was publishing in their social science journal, presumably giving their journal greater credibility. It was probably this reason that enabled Sokal to persuade them to publish his paper despite some initial reservations they had about it.

On the other hand, it was not good of Sokal to take advantage of the absence of peer review to get his article published. The elimination of peer review imposes a greater obligation on authors to be more self-critical and scrupulous and to not to take advantage of those journals, because the journal editors are deliberately making themselves more vulnerable.

It is said that if you are invited into the home of a friend and steal a small amount of money that is lying around, you are committing a worse moral offense than if you break into your friend’s safe and steal a very much larger amount from their safe. Because it is not the magnitude of the amount stolen that is a measure of the crime, it is the degree of violation of the trust.

If Sokal had not exposed his own hoax, what would have most likely happened is that the article would have either been ignored (since it had no content most readers would have been simply baffled by it) or at some time later, a more discerning reader would have exposed it as a fraud. It would not have done any harm to the field itself, just like most scientific errors or fraud.

So what did the Sokal hoax accomplish? Unlike ‘hoaxes’ that are part of a research study to study the processes of research and publication (see my earlier post for examples of this), the main result of this was to make the editors of Social Text look foolish and incompetent. There was no other benefit that I can see. Sokal himself is aware ethical issues involved because he says: “Of course, I’m not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust” and tries to explain why it was justified.

I don’t think that that his reasons were enough to justify playing the trick. I believe that trust among researchers is a valuable quality and I would hate to see researchers squandering it away.

POST SCRIPT: Tracy Kidder to speak at Case

Tracy Kidder, the author of the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world which I wrote about earlier is the speaker at the Fall Convocation on Thursday, September 1 at 4:30 pm in Severance Hall.

The event is free and open to the public but prior registration is required. For more information and registration, go here.

Science and trust – 2

As I discussed in an earlier posting, trust plays an important role in science. It is hard to imagine science functioning as well as it does if everyone started being suspicious of each other. I see disturbing signs of this recently in the field of medicine. Increasingly, academic research on new drugs is being funded by private pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in the results coming out in favor of whatever drugs they are trying to market. Thus they can exert subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on the researchers to manipulate the results, since they are controlling the flow of money. This can raise suspicions about the credibility of the scientists who do this kind of sponsored research.
[Read more…]

Science and trust

My first scientific paper involved correcting an error made by others in an earlier paper published on the same topic. The error was a very simple one (a plus sign had been replaced by a minus sign) but had been buried in a complicated calculation that made it hard to detect. However, the consequences of the error were quite significant and had caused some puzzlement amongst the physicists in that subfield.

Ironically, some years later I too made a sign error in a published paper and my error was pointed out by someone else.

This kind of mistake and correction happens in science. Scientists are generally cautious and careful (otherwise they cease to be taken seriously by their peers) but are not infallible. And when they make a mistake, they are corrected by their peers, either in print or in private, and they move on. It is almost invariably assumed that the error was an honest mistake, not an attempt to cheat. Scientists trust each other.

In fact, the whole enterprise of science is based on trust and could not function otherwise. This does not mean that there are no checks in the process but those checks are not designed to catch fraud.

The process of peer review is one such measure. In this process, once the editors of a journal receive a submission, they send it out to (usually) two or more scientists who work in the same field to review the paper and recommend one of three actions to the editors – accept, reject, or make revisions.

I have had my papers reviewed by anonymous peers and have reviewed the papers of others. The point of the review is to check for clarity and completeness and proper methodology. The reviewer does not usually try to reproduce the paper’s results but instead tries to get a feel for whether the paper’s conclusions make sense and are consistent with other information. The reviewer assumes that the authors are honest, that the data given is correct, and that the calculations the authors say they made using the data have been done with due care.

So how do errors and fraud get caught? The way this usually happens is when another scientist wants to build on the previous published work and extend it or take it in a new direction. Then that scientist usually begins by trying to reproduce the results of the earlier work, and it is because of this that errors usually get detected. This is why reviewers try to make sure that all the information necessary to reproduce the results is present in a paper, even if they do not actually check the results themselves, so that future work can be built on it. (This is how the two errors that I was personally involved in got detected.) Clearly the chances of errors being detected become greater if the original work has major significance since then many people want to take advantage of that work and try to reproduce the results.

An example of this process at work occurred just this month with the important issue of global warming. While there is an emerging scientific consensus that it is occurring, there are disagreements over details. As the website What’s New reports: “One detail was records that were interpreted by a group at the U. Alabama in Huntsville as showing that the troposphere had not warmed in two decades and the tropics had cooled. However, three papers in Science this week report errors in the Alabama-Huntsville calculations. It seems that warming of the troposphere agrees with surface measurements and recent computer predictions. The group at Alabama-Huntsville concedes the error, but says the effect is not that large. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

If no one else cares about the work or is unaware of it, errors can remain undetected. Since trust is assumed, it is possible for an unscrupulous author to abuse that trust and to falsify and fabricate data and results and get their work published. But to remain undetected over an extended period of time usually means that the work was not considered of much use to begin with and was ignored by the scientific community.

Another way in which trust manifests itself in science is that unless there is some reason to suspect otherwise, scientists assume that whatever gets published in a journal (especially one that is peer-reviewed) is correct, even if they do not know the authors personally or even know the field. So scientists quote each other’s work freely, and often base their own papers on the work of others without knowing for sure whether that work is correct or not.

This might seem to be a risky thing to do but it is this very interconnected nature of science that keeps the system functioning. If at some point a result shows up that is plainly wrong or does not make sense, people can sometimes trace through the network of connections and find the original error that triggered the problem. Thus even errors that have remained undetected for a long time can suddenly surface because of research done in a seemingly distant area.

Given this feeling of openness and trust, it is possible to manipulate the system and get fraudulent results published. This can be for bad reasons such a deliberate fraud for personal gain (say because the authors are trying to pad their resumes or are trying for fame and hoping not to get caught). These are clearly wrong. But there are reasons for faking that, at least on the surface, may be good and these raise ethical issues that I will examine in a the next few postings.

Should all scientists try to accommodate religion?

Within the scientific community, there are two groups, those who are religious and who hold to the minimal scientific requirement of methodological naturalism, and those who go beyond that and are also philosophical naturalists, and thus atheists/agnostics or more generally “shafars”. (For definitions of the two kinds of naturalism, see here).

As I have said earlier, as far as the scientific community goes, no one really cares whether their colleagues are religious or not when it comes to evaluating their science. But clearly this question matters when science spills into the political-religious arena, as is the case with the teaching of so-called intelligent design (ID).
[Read more…]

Scientists’ Achilles heel

I was reading an article the other day about how, during the World War II, the US government assembled a team of anthropologists to investigate whether there were any fundamental differences between the Japanese “race” and white people which could be exploited to wage biological warfare that would harm them only.

The anthropologists found no differences and that particular war plan was abandoned. This is consistent with our modern scientific consensus that “race” has no biological markers and only makes sense as a social and cultural construct.

But the interesting point is that the anthropologists were told to not consider the ethical implications of their work, and that ethical issues would be taken into account by others when decisions on implementing the biological weapons were made. And presumably, the anthropologists went along with that.

This is the Achilles heel of science, the fact that so much of our work can be easily twisted to serve ends that we might not approve of. And yet we do it anyway. The allure of science is such that it draws in people to work on problems that could, with a few slight modifications, be used to harm innocent people.

Physicists are perhaps the most culpable. After all, we have been responsible for the invention and development of atomic weapons that, in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million people. And when one counts the deaths from ore conventional weapons that physicists have helped bring into being, the numbers run probably into the tens, if not hundreds, of millions.

(Some physicists have refused to go along with this. Physics Professor Charles Schwartz at the University of California, Berkeley felt that university federal-funded science (especially physics) was so closely tied to the Pentagon that he refused to ask for grants and started to advise physics students on how to avoid getting sucked into making the Faustian bargain with the military machine. This seriously hampered his career but he stuck to it.)

How can physicists do our research and still sleep at night, knowing the purposes for which it might be used? I think we do the same thing that the anthropologists did. We avoid thinking about the ethics of our actions and hope that others will take ethics into account in due course at the appropriate time. We hope that policy makers will not take advantage of the science we develop for evil purposes, although time and again that hope has proven to be ill-founded. Or we persuade ourselves that while we may be doing something evil, we do it in the cause of preventing an even greater evil. Or we say that on balance science does more good than evil and has saved millions of lives in other ways. (A few of us may actually believe that developing weapons is a good thing and suffer no angst at all.)

All these things are true and they do provide some consolation. But they never quite wash away all the blood on our hands and I think that we physicists justifiably bear a burden of guilt that academics in other disciplines such as (say) history or English or music do not.

In his memoir A Mathematician’s Apology, written in 1940, G. H. Hardy takes pride in working on pure mathematics because he felt that it was “useless.” By this, he did not mean that it was of no value (he loved the beauty of the subject) but that he felt that, unlike applied mathematics, his field could not be used for evil purposes, that it had no applications at all to the outside world. But time has proved him wrong, and mathematics results that might have been considered too esoteric to have any real usefulness then are now being used in all areas.

It is probably safe to say that there is no area of science or mathematics that is immune from potential misuse. Apart from avoiding science altogether, perhaps our only option is to simultaneously work to prevent governments from using our work for destructive purposes.

POST SCRIPT

The Knight Ridder newspapers say that President Bush has endorsed the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in schools. This should not be too much of a surprise. He has been saying similar things in the past.

False memories

The person being interviewed on the quirky NPR radio program This American Life told a story that happened to him many years back. He had been walking with his wife in New York City when he saw Jackie Kennedy across the street waving at him. Since he did not know her, he looked around to see if she was waving at someone behind him but there was no one there. Not wanting to snub a former first lady, he waved back genially just before a taxi halted before her and he realized that she had merely been hailing a cab.
[Read more…]

Catholic Church reversing course on evolution?

It was only on May 19 that I compared religious reaction to two major scientific revolutions, those identified with Copernicus and Darwin, and showed that in each case religious objections to the new theories only arose more than a half-century after the theories were published, and then began with Protestants, rather than the Catholic Church. The religious opposition may have been slow in coming because it took some time for the theological implications of the new cosmology to be realized. In fact, the religious opposition was rising just about the time that the scientific debates were ending, and the scientific community was coalescing behind the new theories as more and more supporting data were coming in.
[Read more…]

What, me worry?

As we are all aware, efforts by intelligent design advocates to have their theory labeled as science have been getting a lot of media attention, since they have been somewhat successful at persuading some school boards around the country to either include some versions of it in their curricula or to insert language disparaging evolution. The most recent events occurred in Kansas as the elected school board seems to be on its way to changing their science curricula to accommodate the ID agenda.

At some level I am concerned about these developments because it seems to me to be a blatant effort to redefine science to serve a political and religious agenda and I think thata such attempts ought to be resisted.

In the long run, however, I am not too concerned because I am certain that this effort will fail. One of the advantages of looking at things with a historical perspective is that one sees how similar efforts have fared in the past. And on this score, things do not look at all good for ID supporters. There are many precedents to draw upon. The attempts in 1925 (highlighted by the Scopes trial) to forbid the teaching of evolution and the attempts in Louisiana and Arkansas in the 1980s to mandate the teaching of creation science were debacles for their proponents and similar to earlier attempts such as the Catholic Church’s attempt in 1616 to ban Copernican theory or the Soviet Central Committee’s attempt in 1948 to dismiss Mendelian genetics as a “bourgeois pseudo-science.” All of these political attempts to influence the way science worked not only failed but are now widely viewed as embarrassments for the people who tried to thwart the progress of science.

One reason that political attempts to promote ID will fail is that science does not belong to one country and one cultural or religious tradition. It is true that modern science draws much of its heritage from the knowledge generated in the early Greek-Arab communities, but it now belongs to the world. Science is one of the truly transnational enterprises and it is amazing (and to me exhilarating) that scientists all over the world can agree on what is good science without paying much attention to where it originates.

Even at the time of Copernicus, science was not limited to one region, but with the rapid communications that we now have, science clearly cannot be controlled within one nation. So even if ID supporters were successful beyond their wildest dreams, and the entire US congress and the White House agreed that ID was the only theory that should be taught in US schools and universities and passed a constitutional amendment to that effect, the negative effect of such actions on science worldwide would be minimal. The rest of the world would just go ahead.

At the time of Galileo, the Catholic Church had arguably more global influence on the world of ideas and yet, despite the far reach of the Inquisition and its ability to torture scientists (recall that even Galileo was made to recant his Copernican beliefs under threat of torture from the church) and have books banned, the geocentric model of the universe was soundly rejected and the Catholic Church still has not lived down the ignominious role it played then.

I predict that the same thing will happen again with ID. In the age of the internet, it is hard to imagine that what constitutes science can be defined according to the religious persuasion of one country. I expect that in the future, people will marvel at the idea that ID ideas and their young-Earth creationist fellow-travelers were ever taken seriously. Could it really be, they will ask themselves, that people in the 21st century actually thought that the Earth was 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, or that God intervened to create something so mundane as the bacterial flagellum?

So on a world-wide scale and in the long term, the caravan of science will move on. But that does not mean that in the short term science in the US will not be hindered by the adoption of ID ideas in science curricula. One result of widespread actions along those lines might be a shift the center of gravity of science away from the US.

Such shifts have occurred in the past. In the early 20th century, Germany was the foremost country for physics, and the US was a backwater. When one looks at the names of those associated with the revolutions we now call modern physics, Germany’s pre-eminence becomes apparent. Students went there to learn from the masters, and in turn contributed to the building of the scientific strength in that country. But Germany’s attempts to stamp out ‘Jewish science’ resulted in the migration of many of their most creative scientists to other countries, including the US. Students followed them and in fairly short order Germany lost its position as the physics superpower. It has never recovered from that.

It is not hard to imagine that if science in the US comes under political control, scientists and future students will migrate to those countries where they can investigate freely. Scientific ideas are not bound by geographic boundaries. For example, it should come as no surprise that restrictions on embryonic stem cell work in the US was followed by the recent announcement that South Korean scientists have created new lines of embryonic stem cells for research. South Korea is emerging as the leader in this area of scientific investigations. I would not be surprised if researchers in that field start migrating out of the US if the restrictions here continue. The pattern of scientific migration that physics initiated prior to World War II might be repeated now with biotechnology.

So the efforts of ID, young-Earth, and creationist advocates will not do much harm to science itself, but could well, over time, result in the US losing its present position as the leader in scientific research.

POST SCRIPT

There will be no posts for the next three weeks. Posting will resume on Monday, June 27, 2005.

For those who are interested in the topics that are discussed here but came to the blog late, you can check out the archives. All the posts that I have made (since I began posting every weekday in January 26, 2005) can be found there. Unfortunately they have not been sorted into categories but the search feature of this blog is a good way of finding topics that interest you.

The changing problems of science and religion

In the previous posting, I discussed some of the problems that arise is reconciling science and religion. These problems change with time as our understanding of science changes and the explanatory powers of science encompass more and more phenomena.

For example, in the pre-Copernican era, one could have had a model of God that is much harder to sustain in the light of post-Copernican scientific developments. This was because the universe then was seen as consisting of a spherical Earth located at the center of a finite universe and surrounded by a concentric rotating sphere in which the stars were embedded. (See Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution for a detailed history.) People thought that the stars were very small objects, and thus the outer sphere containing them could be quite nearby.
[Read more…]