maandag 9 december 2013

Intelligent Trickery

A Reflection on the tricks used by Intelligent Design fanatics

While browsing Scopus today, I came across a peculiar article by Mark Pretorius, entitled The remarkable cell: Intelligently designed or by evolutionary process? So, I sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the show. This article, published in a “peer-reviewed” journal (I’ll come back to that later…), was an advertisement for Intelligent Design. Despite the misleading argumentation, this article provides a nice insight into the tricks used by ID-fanatics.

1. Focus on your idea and briefly mention the other
This trick emerges in the first paragraph, where the author mentions how Genesis explains the origin of everything. Even with a quote from a recent article (compared to Genesis) by Keil and Delitszsch (1981). And then he briefly mentions the natural process in one sentence with one reference: “Conversely, there are many who believe that rather than a causal creator, one must appeal to random chance as the only explanation for the beginning of life (cf. Beatty 2009:64–70).”
2. Authority (= real scientists) said so
In the article there are several quotes of highly respected scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, expressing their view that everything is intelligently designed. I especially like the reference to Charles Darwin, who once stated: “I do not think that I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s Natural Theology.” (Paley is the philosopher who came up with the metaphor of the Watchmaker) So, if I would write I really enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series, does that mean I believe in magic?
Furthermore, he mentions an article published in Nature by Gribaldo et al. (2010). He explicitly writes Nature to show it is real science. This article “raises questions of whether an evolutionary perspective can adequately account for the complex birth of these cells in life’s history.” So, I took a look at the original article and found out it does not make such a claim. One sentence in the conclusion even states: “We encourage biologists working on Archaea to interpret their data in an evolutionary framework.”

 3. Give wrong information that fits your idea
It is strange to see that supporters of Intelligent Design are sometimes quite unintelligent. One section of the article is entitled, Anatomical Homology (Convergence). In the first paragraph he even indicates that convergence is common ancestry. This is a fundamental flaw. If you go to Wikipedia (which is open to everyone and provides simple information) and look up the definitions of homology and convergence. You will find this:
Homology: “existence of shared ancestry between a pair of structures, or genes, in different species. A common example of homologous structures in evolutionary biology are the wings of bats and the arms of primates. Evolutionary theory explains the existence of homologous structures adapted to different purposes as the result of descent with modification from a common ancestor.”
Convergence: “the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages. Convergent evolution creates analogous structures that have similar form or function, but were not present in the last common ancestor of those groups.”
This took me about 5 seconds… Why did the author not check his information properly? Oh, wait…

 4. It is a peer-reviewed journal
I promised to get back to this in the introduction. The article is published in a journal which is peer-reviewed. Moreover, the article appeared on Scopus! But a closer look at the journal ,called Verbum et Ecclisia (what’s in a name), reveals it is “ [a] theological research journal that challenges traditional discourses within and between the fields of biblical, religious, social and human sciences as well as the constructive engagement with the natural sciences. It is an instrument of engagement between theological disciplines, on the one hand, and theology and other disciplines, on the other.” ID'ers are creating (my excuses for the lame word play) their own journals, so beware!

dinsdag 26 november 2013

Jim "Phenotypic Plasticity" Carrey

A very short reflection on the phenotypic plasticity of Jim Carrey.
I am a big movie fan. And since a couple of years I am collecting DVDs from several actors and directors. Yesterday a certain evolutionary proces, called phenotypic plasticity, reminded me of one of my all time favorite actors, Jim Carrey. Why him? Let's first look at the role of phenotypic plasticity in evolution and everything will become clear...
Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of an organism to change its phenotype in response to changes in the environment. The adaptive advantage of this process seems clear. Organisms that can react to (sudden) changes in their environment or can survive in different environments, have a huge advantage over organisms that can't.
How thus this relate to the Canadian actor Jim Carrey? I think he is the pinnacle of phenotypic plasticity in the actor's world. First, his face can be moulded into unimaginable shapes (see video). And second, he has produced successful films in different genres. He started as a comedy actor (obviously), but also starred in dramatic movies (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and thrillers (The Number 23). Hence, my link between Jim Carrey and phenotypic plasticity.

donderdag 21 november 2013

The Razor's Edge

A short reflection on Occam's Razor with reference to the great Australian Hard Rock band AC/DC*.
A few days ago I came across an article in the Journal of Biological Education, entitled Students' arguments on the science and religion issue: the example of evoutionary theory and Genesis. I started reading it and on the 8th page I had to stop reading to reflect. The authors quoted one of the participating students:

"Someone who wants to form an opinion on this topic is overwhelmed by the number of scientific facts [about something] which is unimaginably big, happened on an unimaginably long time ago and is beyond all imagination of everyday life. Religion is more familiar."
So this student adheres to a religious explanation for the biological diversity we see around us, just because it is more simple. I am not saying that religious people are "simple minds" , but rejecting an entire theory because the "alternative" is more simple doesn't seem to indicate a high level of intelligence.

But then I hit me (I was Thunderstruck!). Scientists do it all the time, they prefer the simpler explanation. Think of parsimony or Aikake Information Criterion (AIC). So, fellow scientists, you should not Fire Your Guns at Creationists on this issue. This time, you should agree with them (If You Dare). But if a scientist huddles together with Creationisme, he puts his reputation on the line and risks losing his funding. And as we all know, Money Talks in science...

Where did this preference for the most simple explanation in science comes from? Are You Ready? Well, from William of Occam, an English Franciscan friar. So, a religious philosopher has a huge impact on the way we do science today. They Got You By The Balls! But don't worry, science does not rely solely on this principle. Other philosophers, such as Karl Popper, have directed science into the position it is now. I should thank my PhD promotor, Herbert Prins, for pointing this issue out to me during a coffee break. I should give him a Mistress for Christmas... This points out the importance of coffee breaks (and good music) in science.

*All the bold phrases are tracks on the 1990 album The Razors Edge by AC/DC