Watching Kansas

Tomorrow, the State of Kansas start four days of hearings about the role of evolution, and how it should be approached, in the state’s science education standards. Already, the “venom has been injected by both sides in this debate”: What I think all scientists need to remember is that theories are based on the facts in hand, not the ones we can speculate about. Evolution may not appeal to the sensibilities of one person, or one group, but if you study the evidence and try to explain it you are inevitably led to the theory that systems evolve to adapt to their surrounding via natural selection. Just because you don’t like the theory of gravity doesn’t make it wrong. Science is not a consensus of opinions, but rather a consensus of facts.

That said, you gotta love some of the quotes in that “Kansas City Star article”:
I just mentioned above. For instance, one advocate of weakening the role of evolution in science education indicated that it was important to teach alternative hypotheses (not theories!) because we don’t know “how did a worm turn into an elephant? The answer is we don’t know, and I think students should know that.”

What a ridiculous statement! Here’s why:

* First of all, the premise is completely wrong. The statement is predicated upon the fact that worms and elephants are directly related by a chain of evidence. Is there even evidence that worms are a common ancestor of elephants? I don’t think anybody has ever tried to study their biological relationship, so perhaps the speaker’s energy would be best spent researching biological evidence to establish this unproven thesis rather than using it to make a point.

* We don’t know why a lot of things happen. Does that invalidate the theories of nature which are most capable of explaining them? NO! For instance, we don’t really understand where the transition between the quantum world and the classical world occurs. Let me give you an example. You have to treat the behaviour of a single proton, neutron, or electron using quantum mechanics. But if you start packing lots of nucleons together, along with lots of electrons, there comes a point where you can solve problems either with quantum mechanics or classical mechanics, because the scale of the system becomes large. But we don’t **know** what “big enough” is, and work is ongoing to study large atomic systems to see where the transition occurs. Does this inability to make a direct connection from nucleons and electrons to large atomic or molecular systems invalidate quantum and classical physics? NO! But it does mean that we must take careful measurements and devise clever experiments to understand the nature of the transition – the *evolution* – from the quantum world to the classical world.

I have to say that this “worm-elephant” quote almost makes the point: those who would soften the meaning of the word “theory” have tried to sound scientific while treating the principles of science with reckless abandon. To make a statement that a gap in knowledge directly invalidates a theory is amateur, at best, and is at worst dangerous and misleading. These people stand to massacre the purpose of science to fulfill their need to inject faith, belief, and mistrust into the educational system. They see science as a threat, when really it is science which is victimized in this process.

If the outcome of these hearings is to weaken science standards in Kansas, then woe be to the next generation of scientists raised in an atmosphere where the lack of facts, rather than the facts themselves, forge the theory.

The upcoming “debate on evolution” in Kansas

Last Friday’s “Talk of the Nation, Science Friday”: focused, in part, on the upcoming “debate” in Kansas on the theory of evolution and the beliefs of creationism and intelligent design. Many distinguished scientific socieities have refused to participate in this debate, arguing rightly that they do not get involved in “matters of faith” [1].

Give it a listen. It’s still scary to me that there is this push by advocates of so-called “intelligent design” to say that the theory of evolution should be taught in the context of its flaws, rather than its successes. Again, one would then logically have to argue that the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, the theory of electroweak and QCD dynamics, should all be taught from the perspective of their flaws rather than their successes.

I’d also recommend a recent article in the magazine “Skeptical Inquirer” [2]. This article makes several points that I’ve recently started to think about myself. First, that mystical beliefs are instill early in life by well-meaning parents and an antiquated religious structure “loath to amend … doctrine in the face of emerging scientific facts.” The article begins by pointing out that while the skill of processing and concluding, without rigorous investigation, probably assisted our ancestors, it is a dated process that should have withered in the face of scientific inquiry. However, the system of forming beliefs without evidence is still a widespread and powerful phenomenon.

The article goes on to frame the misconceptions that allow faiths like creationsism and intelligent design to flourish. First, science is not about gathering data to serve a hypothesis, but rather to eliminate hypotheses in the face of data. You test ideas against facts, not the other way around. “Creationists turned amateur scientists almost always fail to grasp this essential scientific precept and so unwittingly launch from false premises of all kinds of pseudoscientifc arguments in support of special creation.”

Second, a popular tactic among creationists is to assert that nothing can be known *absolutely* in science until every last detail is described with complete certainty. They point to “gaps in the fossil record, poorly understood aspects of gene function, and the mystery of life’s origins” to cast doubt on evolution. The point they have missed is that **theories are based solely on the evidence available for study and so cannot be refuted by speculation regarding those clues that remain hidden**. A theory is sound so long as it remains consistent with observations.

A good example of the latter is the Standard Model of particle physics. We particle physicists always say thay the Standard Model is “incomplete” and “cannot be a final theory of nature”. However, based on the data we have in hand, this is not true. The fact is that the Standard Model accomodates every observation made in physics for the last 300 years. It explains the structure of the atom, the spin of the electron, the burning of the sun, the observation that matter dominates over antimatter. It does, however, have glaring omissions. It doesn’t accomodate gravity and it doesn’t explain Nature above a certain energy. However, we cannot right now probe the regions of the universe needed to collect data to show *how* the Standard Model fails. That’s what the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is prepared to do when it begins operation in 2007.

Finally, the article indicates the fatal flaws in the reasoning used by creationsist and intelligent design adherants to justify their beliefs. They use what is called the “watchmaker argument” wherein Nature is “assumed to act randomly and possess no organizational tendencies.” However, this analogy fails in the chemical and atomic realms, where the laws of nature and their manifestation (chemical potentials, electric charges, energy barriers, etc.) quite naturally force order on the consituents of matter. Nature is self-organizing, and no observation has ever contradicted that.

The other favorite of creationists is to invoke the laws of thermodynamics – in particular the second law, which proclaims that entropy (disorder, as they say it) must always increase – to dismiss self-organization in Nature. If Nature always tends to disorder, only an intelligent designer could have created the Earth and its delights. However, here again we see a fatal misuse of real science to justify a hypothesis. The second law says that closed, isolated systems tend to disorder. The Earth is far from isolated, and is in fact bathed in energy from the Sun at all times. Energy and entropy can oppose one another, the former allowing organization to occur despite the latter. Here, again, the walls of Creationist Jericho are seen to be built upon poor foundations, held up by the wind of belief which blows in all directions.

I encourage you to check out this article. It’s quite a nice, focused read that will help explain why scientists don’t see a debate at all, but rather an issue of faith trying to impose on matters of fact.

.. [1] [2] “One Longsome Argument”. *Skeptical Inquirer*. Vol 29, No. 2. pp 18-22

Blechk — this week was too long…

**YAWN**. This was a loooooooooong week. When I was a graduate student it was “no big deal” [1] to have four 8-hour shifts, plus normal meetings and work.

Although I was expecting to sleep-in today, I was a little amazed that I slept until 1 pm. I can’t say I’ve done that for a very long time, probably since college. Despite needing the rest, sleeping that long never leaves me feeling very well. Thus, blechk…

I’ve got a nice restful weekend ahead, however. I have some cleaning to do (mostly done!), and a nice beer-centric social event to attend tomorrow (with physicists), but overall I have low expectations for my weekend!

.. [1] “No big deal” means in the short term – order 1 week. In the long term (several months) that kind of continued behavior led to exhaustion, depression, and hypertension. Blechk.

The stuff shifts are made of

Ah, shifts. I love them. It’s the stuff that brings you as close to the experiment as a casual particle experimentalist gets these days. If I were a systems expert, I have my hands deep in the warm guts of the detector every day. But I am not, and so this is as close as I can get to the experiment on a casual basis.

I’m in the Main Control Center of the accelerator tonight, on a “swing” shift from 4 pm to midnight. It’s the final three hours of the shift right now, and it’s been quite a ride. Since our start-up a few weeks ago, the Positron Electron Project (PEP) folks have gotten us up to very nice luminosities. The measure of a collider is its *luminosity*, the number of collisions per square-centimeter per second. We’re running at about 5×1033 collisions/cm2/s, which is a great place to be given we have only been running a few weeks. The BaBar experiment is taking data, the accelerator is cranking up the luminosity a few notches each day, and life is good.

As I said, it’s been an active shift. Beams up, beams down. Beams in collision, and beams out of collision (making for showers of radiation that the BaBar detector is a bit sensitive to). Detector up, detector down. But all in all, we’ve made remarkable progress for an experiment that wasn’t operating for eight months! I’m very proud of my colleagues in the accelerator division, and I am proud of the BaBar system experts who keep our machine running 24 hours a day.

Ah, the warm comfort of a running physics experiment!