Yes, We Can See Evolution

So Eduardo Porter wrote an article, in which he dabbled in Compulsive Centrist Disorder, arguing Dirty Fucking Hippies are wrong to oppose nuclear power. For the record, I think coal and natural gas plants should be decommissioned well before nuclear power plants are and that we should be investing in and developing thoriumbased or pebble bed reactors, which are much, much safer (cuz physics ‘n shit). That said, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned our current nuclear plants (got Fukushima?).

But here’s the thing–if you’re going to write about ‘anti-science’ attitudes, you can’t fire off howlers like this:

Joel Mokyr at Northwestern University, an expert on the history of science and technology, notes that the ease with which people accept scientific knowledge depends on how straightforward the proof is.

Einstein’s theory of relativity was readily accepted despite the fact that few people understood it because there were a couple of experimental results no other theory could explain. Natural selection is trickier.

“It is awfully hard to find a smoking gun” to prove evolution, Professor Mokyr told me. “This is by definition because the process is so slow.”

Ugh. First of all, we see evolution in action all the time. Antibiotic resistance comes to mind. Melanism as well. Second, evidence for natural selection abounds. This is easy to show (see point #1). Third, the opposition to natural selection (which really isn’t the theologically challenging part) is routed, not in evidentiary problems (I’m guessing most people don’t understand relativity either), but because of its philosophical and theological implications.

Are there no editors at the Times who actually edit?

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12 Responses to Yes, We Can See Evolution

  1. Not being a biologist I didn’t get particularly outraged at the lie about natural selection. I mean, it’s a lie, but it’s not the part that stands out. The part that stands out for me is the claim that relativity was readily accepted. Really?

    • bob says:

      Stephen G. Brush, a prominent historian of physics, recently published a study on how scientific theories have been received (Making 20th Century Science: How Theories Became Knowledge; Oxford Univ. Press, 2015). His chapter on relativity discusses different examples (e.g. “In France, relativity was ignored or rejected by most physicists until the 1950s, despite the efforts of its major advocate, physicist Paul Langevin, according to historian Michel Paty.”) Brush concludes the chapter with a (admittedly limited) statistical summary of reception studies in the book edited by Thomas Glick (The Comparative Reception of Relativity; Reidel, 1987): “of 191 scientists, mathematicians, and textbook authors in nine countries 137 favored relativity (7 of them having converted from initial opposition) while 54 opposed it.” Of countries with 10 or more scientists, mathematicians, or textbook authors in his study, the highest rate of acceptance was Poland (27 of 29) and the lowest France (7 of 18).
      Of course there were instances of scientists who immediately accepted and promoted relativity (e.g. Planck), and other prominent scientists who never entirely accepted it (e.g. Righi). But while there is not a single answer to the question of how scientific theories were received, it looks like relativity was generally well accepted fairly soon.

    • LucyM says:

      on acceptance of scientific explanations
      Dear dirty fucking hippy mad biologist – I really like your blogging style, and most of your putting the world to rights shit….and although I don’t have a blog so don’t really know what it’s like, I do know that pretty much everyone that does have a blog has to pick this sort of fight that are doing here, where the poor hapless other guy may or may not, but statistically speaking probably is largely innocent of the mud you’re about to throw at him, but that that is actually doesn’t matter because the shit you’re going to throw definitely applies to a lot of people who very plausibly might have said exactly what said. So fuck him for always making everything about him all the time, when not even this is about him because everyone give or take the odd dyslexic and completely stripping out autistic spectrum stupid fucks at an early stage of planning all this in a calm statistically literate well dressed and sexually appealing manner with overall scientific minded legitimacy. scientifically.

      Just kidding – but seriously fuck him and fuck the horse he rode in on.

  2. reginaldselkirk says:

    “This is by definition…”

    He’s pushing my buttons. Slow or not slow, it is not “by definition.”

  3. Net Denizen says:

    I actually pointed to the study of the swallows in Nebraska which developed shorter wings due to living near high-speed overpasses and needing the extra agility to swoop out of the way of oncoming cars to a republican anti-science type as evidence evolution is viewable. His return comment? “Duh, natural selection works but it’s not like they’re turning into a new species in front of our eyes”

    I had to point out that, yes indeed natural selection is the ENTIRE POINT of how evolution works so if you believe in one you must therefore believe in the other. He still maintains that evolution is strictly the emergence of new species and we just don’t see that on a macro level because it’s well understood that bacteria change rapidly but they don’t count because they’re not animals or something. Some people are just pre-determined to take the opposite position to reality sometimes…..

    • LucyM says:

      Your point is well taken Net Denizen, but actually in logic and fact inaccurate in a potentially, though not necessarily, and because its commonly said unlikely in your case intentionally, nevertheless misleading in the way and the when of when it gets said.

      What flaws it, is the sin of undeclared empirical/theoretical switching in terms of verification. You’re absolutely right about the observed minor differences in otherwise cladistically similar species with striking parity with observed minor shifts in the background environmental challenge. And the stuff about bacteria. And it is legitimate extrapolate from there over to full blown mind blowingly enriched biodiversity on a global scale. But only tentatively and with full disclosure, because otherwise are either are, or you are potentially seen to be, trying to sneak it along in the same class as your empirically verified kick off.

      This is important not for high principle necessarily, and definitely not for creationist mischief makers – no one cares enough about that and doing that for that can look suspiciously cryptic to a lot of very reasonable scientifically minded people.

      But there is a serious side effect to this sort of omission, and that is that when we do it, and repeat, and don’t really think about or take note that we are doing it, the gap in the middle where there is an open question scientifically speaking, actually closes..in our minds. And when that happens there is no ‘global’ version of our consciousness that sees that it happened, so in our subjective landscape of conscious intellectual and scientific awareness, the gap has vanished and so has knowledge that there ever was a gap.

  4. kaleberg says:

    It was an embarrassing piece for the New York Times. I have nothing against nuclear power except that we do it so poorly, and I’m pretty left wing myself. Porter just had to come up with something for balance, so he chose nuclear power. I’ll grant that a lot of opposition to nuclear power is visceral. Dangerous radiation is invisible to our senses, so it is kind of spooky. On the other hand, the opposition to nuclear is also a critique of our private sector which has not done a particularly good job. This is a good part of why the anti-nuclear movement rankles conservatives. In France, nuclear power is driven by the government, and their public private partnership does a fairly good job.

    I have no idea where Porter got the idea that relativity was rapidly accepted. If nothing else, it was often denounced as Jewish science, racially degenerate. You didn’t have to have to be a member of the Nazi party to lump relativity, quantum theory and abstract art into a vicious Zionist conspiracy. Even now relativity pisses off a lot of conservatives who conflate it with cultural relativism and probably a lot of other things. I suspect that a lot of conservatives haven’t made their peace with Newton, Copernicus or Galileo for that matter.

    • LucyM says:

      In saying “rapidly accepted” as a throwaway sentence, it is intrinsic that Porter high level summarized, and the 20,000 ft flyby on rapidity of Relativity acceptance is that it was rapidly accepted.
      High level summarizing is part of the necessary lubricant for lucid thought and discussion. It’s legitimate and accurate, in that it doesn’t go both ways whatever you want. It can be presented fallaciously the wrong way, and indeed pulling a fast-one like that is a common deceptive strategy in the affairs of humans. But it only goes one way fallacious free.
      If you go to detail nothing happens, ever, in a way that can be summarized the way it can at 20,000 ft. That’s just to different say, there is a reality involves levels of detail. If it wasn’t there would be levels of detail, there would be something else instead.
      In the case of relatively it was rapidly accepted somewhere that happened to be immensely influential with compounding characteristics, and that was the Red Shift which was already in play in 1915. Within a few years it reached Hubble and he published a cosmological picture that was at the time, impossible to even begin to make sense of, save with a context provided by General Relativity. That sealed the deal. It was rapid.

      • LucyM says:

        …not to mention the immediate media adulation on a worldwide scale, which translates directly to rapid acceptance by the overwhelming majority of anyone who is no one but gets a newspaper anyway

  5. LucyM says:

    One of the real obstacles to exploring problems or seeking next level paradigms, of natural selection, is how hostile to nuance that space is, simply because of the dominance of, on the one side basically religiously motivated perspectives, and on the other side the vast army of dogmatic and largely cynical Darwinians. And after that, there’s an ocean of theorizing that isn’t very plausible or interesting. So I mean, just from the position of wanting to google something, it’s impractical. You’re chances of finding something useful to what you’re grappling with feels like lottery numbers.
    The formal publications have their own problems, which are particularly bad at the moment, because what had been a stable separation between the empirical Life sciences and the theoretical community – the modern synthesis gatekeepers – has slowly worsened over the last couple of decades into a true schism. I would definitely say I’m a Darwinist in the ways that count, but that doesn’t mean the same thing as being aligned with the current community of abstract theorists. For one thing, I don’t think they have supported the experimental revolution, at all. What I mean, they haven’t really taken an interest. They’ve abdicated any kind of scientific responsibility to keep natural selection relevant in the real world challenges facing experimentalists. The last 30 years has seen an incredible revolution in Life Science, and the truth is, the abstract theoretical component has not contributed…and as a result have become pretty much irrelevant on the shop floor.
    The reason that is a dangerous position is because in one sense it has always been the case that the empirical side have varying levels of commitment to the abstract theoretical side. It didn’t matter because the theoretical community basically dominated. They had more clout, they were feared (in some appropriate tense) because they could win arguments if they went public. People like Dawkins with his popular science best-sellers, and so on. That long lazy summer of years is what conditions theorists now in their complacency. They have scoffed dismissively at developments like “The Third Way of Evolution”, because they’ve seen it all before and none of it went anywhere. They’ve skimmed over the sentiments expressed by the ringleaders, and they’ve noted the typical addling of misconceptions. Written a dismissal piece and then gone back to what they spend most of their time and energy doing which is regurgitating anti-theist positions, remaking the case for Evolution. Not because there’s a great need….which there isn’t…science is on very firm ground. Scientists are the new life guru’s, and really want to be as well, despite being in no better position than anyone else to be so. No, the theorists spend their time doing that creationism piece, because it’s easy, and comes with a guaranteed big cheer and if you play your cards right media interest too.
    So they’ve neglected developments in Life Science, and failed to keep natural selection relevant in practical ways. And they think it doesn’t matter the resentments of experimentalists because it never did before. But these experimentalists – this current community – are largely credited with delivering an empirical revolution of apparent understanding. That’s the big difference. The boot is on the other foot. Their foot.
    And theorists say “but look it’s addled with misconceptions so it won’t go anywhere”. I think they are basically right. But they don’t seem to get, is that in the current conditions, with Big Data, and inauthentic A.I. that can nevertheless blow your mind, with the commercial opportunities and the higher status given to experimentalists, this mistake could run for 50 years.

  6. LucyM says:

    madbiologist that was very uncool. It’s a criminal offense to zap someone, and I happen to have the equipment admissible in a court of law with precedence.

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