Eye on Science, Science Blog, Michael D. Lemonick, TIME

Are Darwinists Afraid to Debate?

That's the burning question asked by two representatives of the Discovery Institute in an op-ed in today's Dallas Morning News.

It seems that the supporters of Intelligent Design are running a conference at Southern Methodist University on "Darwin vs. Design." Some on campus apparently don't want it to happen. And most SMU scientists aren't planning to show up. Censorship! cry the Discoverists. An assault on academic freedom! What are the Darwinists afraid of, hmmm?

Give me a break. All this proves, once again, is that while the Discovery Institute doesn't have the first clue about actual science, it's very adept at the techniques of propaganda. The Institute is much too cagey to aim its spin at scientists, who actually know something about science, but rather at the average reader, who probably doesn't. What the DI does is present a long list of half- and quarter-truths and hope nobody will notice.

I noticed. First, it's always a bad idea to try and prevent free speech, no matter how dubious it is. Bad, bad SMU scientists. I think everyone should be allowed to speak, no matter how questionable their theories are. I was present in 1972 or so when Immanuel Velikovsky spoke at Harvard. It's a reasonable comparison, actually, because while scientists think Velikovsky's theories were absurd, nobody protested--but nobody was interested in debating him either.

Why? Because there was nothing to debate, just as there isn't with ID. It's not a scientific theory (the DI's protests to the contrary). Or rather, it is, but only if you admit, as leading ID proponent Michael Behe did on the stand at the Dover, PA school board trial, that science should also include "supernatural explanations."

I don't call that science, and neither to the vast majority of scientists. Most of ID consists of mostly untestable assertions (the few that have been tested have been refuted) that point to unexplained aspects of the natural world and say, in essence, "can't explain it at the moment, therefore some Intelligent Designer intervened."

If the DI had been around when people thought lightning was stuff the gods threw when angry, we might still not have electricity.

So the answer to your question, fellas, is that the Darwinists are afraid of two things. The first is giving you folks a shred of credibility by appearing in the same room with you. The second is that your piles of half truths will actually make people more ignorant.

Hope that clears things up for you.

Big Medical News! Do not read!

Just moments ago, the Archives of Neurology released a new study that shows an intriguing link between smoking, coffee-drinking and Parkinson's disease. When researchers at Duke University Medical Center compared people with Parkinson's with family members who didn't, the Parkinson's patients were half as likely to report they'd ever smoked, and a third as likely to be current smokers. They also were less likely to report being heavy coffee drinkers.

All of which means...well, nobody has the first clue. It's a relatively small study, with a few hundred subjects in each group. And there's no proof of cause and effect. It certainly doesn't mean you shouldn't stop smoking—or that you should start, if you don't. As the researchers carefully point out, smoking is really, really bad for you in all sorts of ways.

And this is why medical "news" can be so misleading if you don't know how to read it. The significance of this study is simply that it may, someday, give a clue as to the actual cause of Parkinson's. It hasn't done that yet. It doesn't offer any advice on behavior. For a scientist, it's useful. For the public, it's quite useless—or worse than useless, actually, since it will inevitably lead people to believe something that isn't true.

Nuclear Power Returns

Just three days ago, I was looking down into a deep pool of water at an unearthly blue glow. It was coming a collection of spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor--but not just any reactor. This is the Advanced Test Reactor, in the middle of a magnificent desert landscape, surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains, about 50 miles west of Idaho Falls, at the Idaho National Laboratory. This is arguably the epicenter of what enthusiasts call the Nuclear Renaissance. Thanks partly to global warming and partly to rising prices of other energy technologies, many people (including a co-founder of Greenpeace) think we're going to be getting a significant amount of power from nukes.

INL is where the world's first power reactor was built (it's now a funky museum--they've even got engine prototypes for an atomic-powered airplane that was a serious idea in the 1950s). And it's where components for the so-called Generation IV Nuclear reactor are being designed and tested.

To my surprise, it turns out that these new reactors, designed to operate at over 900 degrees C, aren't primarily for generating electricity--it's their amazing heat output that makes them valuable (we already have some pretty reliable designs for electricity-making reactors, and nobody wants to reinvent that particular wheel). The idea is that industrial processes that use lots of heat, like oil refining and the creation of hydrogen--also used in refineries, and also for making fertilizer--burn natural gas to get it. And that funnels huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Get the heat from nukes and you use less fossil fuel.

Today's nuke-boosters are much too sophisticated to think nuclear power doesn't carry dangers--but they're convinced the danger can be managed. I have to admit, they make a reasonable case.

Science vs. God, Redux

You may remember that last fall Time published a debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Both are respected scientists, but Dawkins is a militant (to put it mildly) atheist and Collins a born-again Christian—but one who has no trouble with evolution or other areas of science that some believers denounce.

Well, this past week, both Dawkins and Collins were guests on public radio's Fresh Air program, with Terry Gross (memo to Terry: have me on your program sometime. I'd be a terrific guest). In back-to-back shows, the two essentially recapitulated the arguments they'd made for an audience of editors for Time, and also in their respective books, Dawkins' The God Delusion and Collins' The Language of God.

In listening to them, I realized something that had only tickled at the fringes of my consciousness when I read the debate. And that is that, since both men are scientists, the whole disagreement boils down to a very simple question, which is embodied in Carl Sagan's famous dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For Dawkins (and I'll admit, for me as well), the claim that there's an omnipotent, supernatural, invisible being that knows what I'm thinking and can perform miracles is absolutely extraordinary. You can't disprove it (which is why I'm not an atheist)—but it's
way more extreme than the claim that, say, aliens crashed at Roswell. So for Dawkins an d me, you'd better come up with some pretty extraordinary evidence to convince me.

But it's clear listening to Collins that he doesn't see it as an extraordinary claim at all. And once you posit a God—based either on your own personal experience of something or on your parents' instruction—then all the rest, including miracles and noticing tiny sparrows falling from nests and so on—is pretty easy to swallow.

That, it seems to me, is the fundamental disconnect between the two camps—and I don't really see how it can be bridged. What do you think?

One More Scientific "Truth" Bites the Dust

We all know—I've written it a dozen times myself, and the textbooks all agree—that the extinction of the dinosaurs paved the way for the rise of mammals. With a whole bunch of ecological niches suddenly empty, our whimpering shrew-like ancestors (OK, maybe they didn't whimper, but gives you a feel for their utter insignificance) went through a burst of evolutionary innovation that led, to elephants, whales, Chihuahuas and us.

It's highly—but a paper published in today's Nature says it's probably wrong, or at least way oversimplified. Using both fossil and DNA evidence to assemble an evolutionary tree whose fruit is about 4,500 of the 4,554 known mammalian species, scientists have shown that the many of the primary groups mammals divide into, including primates and rodents, were already present at least 20 million years before the dinosaurs went bust. So the innovation was already happening long before the event we thought (until yesterday) triggered it.

Not only that: the real flowering of these groups into the thousands of species we know of today didn't happen until millions of years after the dinos were gone—so their demise doesn't explain that one either.

I'm a big proponent of the conventional wisdom in science, which sometimes makes me the target of cranks with supposedly brilliant theories. But watching the conventional wisdom demolished is among my favorite things, when it's done well.

About Eye On Science

Eye On Science

TIME contributing writer Michael D. Lemonick fills you in on what's hot, what's cool, what's controversial and what's just plain silly in the world of science. Comments encouraged.


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