Posts Tagged denialism

Biogeography

This post turned out ramblier than expected. Sorry about that: it seems to be happening more and more lately. My forum posts tend to be a bit more coherent.

Alright, let’s present some more evidence for evolution: in this case, the evidence that Darwin used to convince his peers. Back in the 19th century, there was a very sparse fossil record, no understanding of genetics, and organisms changing over time hadn’t even been observed, yet Evolution still had enough evidence behind it to convince the scientific community and smack down the existing dominant theory (Intelligent Design: 150 years out of date).

What made up the shortfall in other areas, and what Darwin spent much of his book outlining, was biogeography: the relationship between biological life forms and the area’s they inhabit. Explorers were in vogue at the time, so there was a lot of data available on the distribution of various types of creatures across the globe, and of course Darwin got the chance to witness it first hand in the form of the Galapagos finches (Dude spent 7 years of his life studying oysters, but somehow it’s the few weeks watching finches that everyone remembers him for).

What Darwin noted was the fact that, as geological separation increased, so did biological separation. The animals close to each other would be more similar than the animals separated by hundreds of miles. Animals separated by water or desert or mountain ranges would diverge even more extremely.

Australia’s marsupials are the boring textbook example of this, and everyone’s heard that one before, so to mix things up let’s go for a more interesting and complicated example. Besides, small furry mammals are overrated: there are equally adorable creatures amongst the other families.

Who’s an adorable blind fishy? You are! Yes you are!

Some fairly recent DNA analysis determined that the closest relative of a species of blind Australian cave fish isn’t another type of Australian cave fish at all: it’s a species of (equally blind) cave fish found in Madagascar, on the opposite side of the indian ocean.

At first glance, this hardly seems like evidence for evolution: quite the opposite, in fact. These fish aren’t built for travelling: swimming across the Indian ocean isn’t a simple proposition when you’re less than 10cm long and blind, not to mention adapted for freshwater. So how do two closely-related species of effectively-immobile organisms end up on opposite sides of the ocean?

That’s where geography comes in: specifically, plate tectonics.

I assume we’re all familiar with Gondwanaland, the supercontinent that split apart in the cretaceous? As you can see by this map, Australia and Madagascar were connected by Antarctica, implying that the common ancestor of these fish lived at least 100 million years ago. This matches up with a load of other biological evidence for the Gondwanaland split: the few marsupials that survived the rise of placental mammals outside Australia are all on other subcontinents of Gondwanaland, the Jurrasic-era dinosaur species that lived in South America are identical to those in Africa and Antarctica. On a less charismatic scale the pattern still holds true: all of Madagascar’s freshwater fish groups, exhibit relationship patterns related to the breakup of Gondwana (some are related to groups in India/Sri Lanka, and others to groups in Australia) including our cave fish.

It’s this culmination of evidence that makes Evolution such a certain thing, but also makes it so hard to convince denialists of its veracity. The evidence for evolution often can’t be summed up with soundbytes or images: with moon-landing denialists you can show off photos from the lunar reconnaissance orbiter, with cryptozoologists you can point out that the requirement for a stable population means at least 100 sasquatch individuals wandering the mountains. There’s very little like this for evolution, because the evidence is strongest when taken next to all the other evidence, giving denialists an easy out: by picking holes in a single element at a time, they never have to confront the overwhelming mountains of evidence behind them.

HERV’s are one of the most concise and definative arguments for evolution I’ve found, and even they depend on a pattern, rather than an instance. Fossils like Archae and Tiktaalik help, but are also easy to dismiss: “there are no transitional fossils” makes for a better soundbite than “the term is misleading since all fossils are transitional to one extent or another, but several fossils display transitional features including…”.

Screw it, here’s a chainsaw rover:

And you thought the Terminator was scary

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Bill Nye is not appropriate for Creationist Blood Pressure

Recently, Bill Nye [the science guy] produced a video called “creationism is not appropriate for children”. It’s fairly short and he doesn’t go into much detail: mostly a bunch of assertions on Bill Nye [the science guy]’s part. From what I’ve seen it shouldn’t be difficult to support those assertions with evidence (they’re nothing particularly controversial), but Bill Nye [the science guy] doesn’t bother: he simply presents them as is. Really, it’s more a presentation of an opinion, rather than a particularly detailed or thorough takedown of creationism.

Now I’m Australian, so until recently I’d never heard of Bill Nye [the science guy] (Note: I have been assured that “the science guy” is a mandatory part of his name and that if you don’t use it he magically scientifically appears and beats you over the head with a Bunsen burner). I understand he’s a science communicator and used to have his own TV show, but the remainder of my understanding of who he is and what he does comes almost entirely from Randall Munroe.

So what I find interesting about this case isn’t Bill Nye [the science guy]’s opinions on creationism. I don’t know the guy, and his opinions are really pretty standard stuff amongst people with any understanding of science: the video itself is about as controversial as a NASA engineer saying the moon-landing hoaxers are a bunch of loons. What I find interesting has been the denialsphere’s reaction to Bill Nye [the science guy]’s opinions on creationism. It seems like every creationist of note suddenly went critical.

There’s enough atomic energy stored in creationists to melt the crust off the earth. (it’s funny ’cause it’s true)

Various creoblogs have been tearing ineffectively at him, and there have been more than a few video responses, including white-background parody’s from groups as well known in the misinformation sphere as Answers In Genesis.

“… the complete lack of a genetic mechanism that allows organisms to gain information”? If this blog was a drinking game, I’d be insisting everybody take a shot right now.

So what I want to know is: why is it that this particular video of a guy on a white background garnered such a reaction? There are plenty of more vehement, more eloquent, more thorough and more fact-oriented video’s on YouTube condemning creationism, some of them from well known and popular people. But it’s Bill Nye [the science guy] that gets all this attention. Why?

It can’t be the format: a YouTube interview is hardly anything new.

I think it might be partly the content. Bill Nye [the science guy] provides an emotional argument: a plea to get back to real science in America. This is in many ways more persuasive than a step-wise, fact-based argument… but it’s also the creationist community’s home turf, which allows them to engage on their own terms. Since Bill Nye [the science guy] didn’t provide immediate facts to back up his assertions, the creationist responses can be simple denial: they are under no burden to prove otherwise, and the audience for all their exposure to “both sides of the argument” is no more informed than they were before.

Mainly, though I think it’s a matter of the source. Bill Nye [the science guy] is well known, and not in the same way that evolutionary scientists like Dawkins are well known. He is a scientist, yes. But far more importantly to the denialists, he’s a TV personality.

Bill Nye [the science guy] isn’t an authority on scientific matters: one of the “experts”. Denialists have done a fine job of slandering the very concept of expertise over the years, to the point where amongst their audience scientific experts are less trusted than weathermen (and in the case of climate change, I mean that literally). But Bill Nye [the science guy] is more than just one of the faceless experts: he’s someone that introduced people to science, showing them how it worked and that it worked. He showed people the side of science that wasn’t the dry academia we’d seen in school. It’s easy to accuse a faceless consensus of experts of lying to you, but Bill Nye was someone people came to know and trust. And that, I think, is why the denialists are so apoplectic about Nye: they have plenty of experience denying facts, but it’s harder to combat the opinions of someone your audience knows and trusts.

Interestingly, this hypothesis means it’s Bill Nye [the science guy]’s status as a science communicator, not his status as a scientist, that so scares the denialist community. This makes sense: almost all scientists in relevant fields support evolution without hesitation and have done so for a long time, but this means very little to the denialists: they are far more concerned with convincing the public than convincing the scientists. It’s the science communicators who are in direct competition with them for the trust of the public.

In some ways, science communication is a science unto itself (or maybe an art?) but communicating science is certainly not the same thing as teaching it. Successfully communicating science…. hmm… actually, there’s too much down that damn rabbit hole to go into in the last few paragraphs of this post, so I’ll leave Communicating Science as a topic for a later blog post. Suffice it to say, I think that at the point our society is at, science communication is almost as important as science itself.

Certainly science communication makes me hope that my work on Species will create something more lasting than an interesting game. Plus, if I can piss off the denialist community by even a fraction of the amount Bill Nye has done with his video, I’ll be laughing.

Oh wait I forgot to AAAARGH PLEASE NO NO NO NOT THE BUNSEN BUR-
Qu.

“Serious Question: in a fight between Bill Nye and Adam Savage, who would win?”

(EDIT)

Dammit, now I’m wondering just how much energy really is contained in creationists. Let’s find out:

(We’ll confine ourself to American creationists since the statistics are better and, as Bill Nye [the science guy] says, modern creationism is a primarily an American phenomena)

Average Human Weight (male, US) = 88.6 kg
Average Human Weight (female, US) = 77.2 kg
Average Human Weight (US) = (88.6 + 77.2) / 2 = 82.9 kg

US population = 314,289,000 people (2012)
Creationist Percent of the US population = 43% (2007)
Number of US Creationists = (314,289,000 * 0.43) = 135,144,000 people

Mass of US Creationists = 135,144,000 * 82.9 = 11,203,440,000 kg

c = 299,792,458 m / s

E = mc^2 = (11 203 440 000) * (299 792 458) ^ 2
= 1.00e+27 joules
= 239 000 teratons

For comparison, the Chixlub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs has been estimated at a mere 100 teratons (a teraton is one million megatons). So for the sake of a comprehensible mental image, imagine more than 2000 “world killer” meteorites hitting America at the same time. (And in case you were wondering, this math puts the energy yield of a single person at 1780 megatons: our largest nuclear weapons (the full-yield tsar bomba) don’t even come close at 150 megatons).

Clearly there is only one sensible conclusion to draw from this: creationists are the power-source of the future. Somebody get those buggers running on treadmills!

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Abiogenewhat?

Okay, as much as I enjoy telling the development saga, it’s past time for a rant against ignorance. It’s like running for charity, only replace the foot blisters with throat ulcers and the happy children with offended denialists.

Upon what topic of irredeemable stupidity should we feed this rant monster, so it can grow into a big and healthy eldritch abomination whose only desire is to see this world die in internet flame wars? Irreducible complexity? Second law of thermodynamics? Micro vs macro evolution?

No… I’m going to go earlier than that, to a pet hate of mine. The claim: “A cell can’t form by chance.”

From experience, this claim is often accompanied by a bit of good ol’ statistical abuse. The claimant will find a protein, calculate the probability of that protein being that protein, and show off the result as if adding enough to the exponent somehow makes a number important. Here’s a good example from Talk Origins:

”The proteins necessary for life are very complex. The odds of even one simple protein molecule forming by chance are 1 in 10113, and thousands of different proteins are needed to form life.”
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. 1985. Life–How Did It Get Here? Brooklyn, NY, pg. 44.

Of course, anyone with a basic understanding of statistics and a good pair of heavy boots can kick your ass over this. It’s possible to use the same logic to “prove” that Hydrogen can’t possibly be more common than all the other elements, because each naturally occurring atom only has a 1 in 91 chance of being hydrogen. Besides, the sheer extent of lies upon misinformation upon things-deliberately-overlooked involved in getting these sort of numbers normally indicates the person using them is either a professional charlatan or copy-pasting from the website of a professional charlatan. If you’re interested, check out Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations on Talk Origins. I know it’s a little dated, but it’s a fine start. I’ll stay here and deal with the simpler aspect of the claim, using slightly smaller words, not least because I don’t understand all the big ones.

So improbable... not.
(img src: http://www.astrobio.net/pressrelease/83/one-handed-life)

A common answer to the cell-forming-by-chance claim (aside from the fact that the original reproducer is believed to have been far simpler than a modern cell, and was probably little more than a fairly complicated molecule in the right solution to allow it to “reproduce”) is that the forming of the “first cell” has nothing to do with evolution. And that’s perfectly true: this is the domain of abiogenesis, and an acceptance of the still-relatively-young science behind abiogenesis has bugger all to do with accepting the oversized mountains of evidence for evolution. Even if abiogenesis turns out to be a load of rubbish when it comes to explaining the existence of life on earth, evolution remains a highly convincing explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

But that answer is also a cop-out. Abiogenesis is still the most likely method by which life arose on our planet, and as a hypothesis it’s a heck of a lot more complete than the juvenile concept anti-evolutionists so often seem to have of it: namely, that the pieces of a cell “rolled together” purely by chance.

As already stated, the original reproducer was most likely little more than a complicated organic molecule that made copies of itself. Even so, this still sounds like a complex thing to have come about at first, (well, not really: “Self-replicators can be incredibly simple, as simple as a strand of six DNA nucleotides (Sievers and von Kiedrowski 1994)”) until you realise that it didn’t just “come about”: it was the end product of a long chain of natural biochemical reactions, which are far from uncommon. They’re everywhere, reacting with each other and with the results of their own reactions.

Sadly accurate

Given the size of our planet, and the incomprehensible time-frames we’re talking about, is it really so hard to believe that the right sequence of biochemical reactions could result in some sort of imperfect chemical replicator?

Now if you’re a denialist, there’s a good chance you are even now rolling your eyes and saying “it’s all just speculation, he has no evidence”. To which I say: Yes. You’re right, it is speculative. That’s the nature of abiogenesis. We’re talking about microscopic chemical reactions that happened billions of years ago: what “evidence” could we possibly produce aside from a plausible, reproducable path from chemestry to life? We don’t have a TARDIS. But we do have the ability to reason, and sometimes the similarities are striking.

The ‘evidence’ for abiogenesis is that there is life on earth now, and that it wasn’t always there. From these two facts, we can offer plausible explanations, and try to prove them wrong one by one until we’re left with only one option. This is where denialists fail at science. They offer implausible explanations, then try to prove the plausible ones wrong.

I’m not saying there wasn’t a deity who intervened directly and breathed life onto our dead earth 4 billion years ago, or a race of organic engineers who designed the earliest life, or a temporal traveller who accidentally dropped his sandwich in a rock pool. All of these things are possible, in the same way that me being a brain in a jar, or having been created memories-and-all last Thursday, is possible.

But they are not the most likely, plausible, or scientifically supported explanation. That would be Abiogenesis.

/rant
Qu

* * * * * *

“The year is 2033. The last survivors of the Flame War have fled into underground bunkers beneath the shattered remnants of the once great social networking sites. The surface world is given over to unrestricted porn and 4chan mutants. Humanity teeters on the dark brink of extinction.

But we are those who will never give in to despair. We will return to our shattered internet, though it costs us our lives, our very identities. We do not forgive. We do not forget. But we will rebuild.”

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