The Falsehoods

Biology is harder to learn than quantum physics. Why? Because most people think they totally get biology, but everyone knows nobody gets quantum physics. Therefore, any effort to explore quantum physics will result in new learning, but people rarely learn new biology. The bottom line is that our brains are full of biology, which would be good if most of it did not consist of falsehoods.

~ ~ ~

The things that people know already often need to be removed from the brain prior to teaching new stuff. This may seem a little offensive to some, but really, it is easier to just admit it. I’m not saying that everything I might ever tell you about evolutionary biology, for instance, is necessarily true and correct, but in most cases (unless you are an evolutionary biologist) it will be more on the mark than the stuff you learned in Kindergarten or the stuff you learned by simply absorbing the information in which we are all steeped, daily. Personal experience and the nature of the media dumbly conspire to prepare students to fully misunderstand even the most basic concepts in evolutionary biology. These things … the things taking up valuable brain space but that deserve no place in your grey matter … are The Falsehoods.

I have a long list of them, which apply mainly to college Freshman. My wife Amanda, a High School Biology teacher, has a list too, that applies to high school students. (How romantic was that, when we each learned that the other had a Falsehood list!!! I’ll never forget that day… Oh, but I digress..)

My list is long, but the key elements can be summarized quickly, as follows:

Falsehoods about Evolution:

  • 1.Evolution is goal directed and progressive. When you look at an evolutionary story, you can see that all along there was a certain direction in which the evolutionary process was moving.
  • 2.Species can be organized on a scale of primitive or simple to advanced and complex. One thing this means is that there are “living fossils” among us. Some of those “living fossils” are actually specific human cultures, societies, or races.
  • 3.Natural selection is all about “survival of the fittest”
  • 4.Things that are natural are generally good, while things that are unnatural are generally bad. The naturalness of something is the best guide for it’s goodness.
  • 5.Evolution is “only a theory” and can therefore be proven wrong at any moment.


Falsehoods about how nature works:

  • 1.Nature maintains a balance. If nature is perturbed, it will come back into balance eventually.
  • 2.Individual animals typically act for the survival of their species. A trait that enhances the ability to act for the survival of the species will be selected for. Darwin said that.

Falsehoods specifically about human evolution:

  • 1.Humans evolved form apes.
  • 2.Evolution has stopped for humans.
  • 3.Serious scientists often entertain the question: “Has evolution stopped for humans?”

Falsehoods about behavior:

  • 1.Genes code for behaviors.
  • 2.The earlier in the life cycle, the more genetically controlled the individual is.
  • 3.Culture overrides or compensates for biology.
  • 4.Culture is quick and adaptive, but biology is ponderous
  • 5.An adopted baby is not the biological offspring of her mother.

What I call “Us vs. The Other” falsehoods:

  • 1.Primitive cultures are in balance with nature, while complex civilizations are usually not.
  • 2.Primitive cultures are primitive, while complex civilizations are complex.
  • 3.You have to be smarter to live in an industrialized (western, complex) society.
  • 4.Civilization will not collapse.

The Common Nonsense Falsehoods:

  • 1.You can get a free lunch.
  • 2.Rich people have fewer babies than poor people.

Remember, these are falsehoods. I once had a student who studied this list thinking they were all truehoods. He got a perfect score on the midterm exam. Unfortunately, it was not a perfectly good score…

I’ve blogged about this topic before, but at the moment, I’m re-writing all of the falsehood essays and trying them out on you.

What are your falsehoods? — You must have a list somewhere —

More Falsehoods !!!

This post is one of a series on the topic of falsehoods. The following is a list of falsehoods posts in order:

Comments

  1. #1 Chani
    August 17, 2009

    I never realized it, but I also have a similar list. It is the same old things, tromped out over and over again, that just makes me roll my eyes and try to correct.

  2. #2 Virgil Samms
    August 17, 2009

    3.Natural selection is all about “survival of the fittest”

    This seems alright to me. It’s just that most people’s concept of “fitness” is too simplistic.

    2.Primitive cultures are primitive, while complex civilizations are complex.

    I don’t see how this can be false, since it is tautological.

    1.You can get a free lunch.

    I actually did this once.

  3. #3 Azkyroth
    August 17, 2009

    “If you ignore them, they’ll leave you alone eventually.”

  4. #4 Noam GR
    August 17, 2009

    “2.Rich people have fewer babies than poor people.”
    This isn’t true? I was under the impression it was. I’ll check this out later.

    But you really have to explain this one:

    “5.An adopted baby is not the biological offspring of her mother.”

    How is this not true?? If she didn’t give birth to the child, then by definition it’s not her biological *offspring*.


    http://noamgr.wordpress.com

  5. #5 Brian
    August 17, 2009

    That evolution is a theory is a falsehood? Really? In what way? And we didn’t evolve from apes?
    I am puzzled, why are these wrong? Correct me, I don’t like being wrong!

  6. #6 Stephanie Z
    August 17, 2009

    Never pulled them into a list, maybe because they’re not as grouped around a single topic.

    1. We improve life by decreasing discomfort.

    2. Parents know what’s best for their children/have their children’s best interest at heart.

    3. Social welfare programs require a cost/compassion choice.

    4. One person getting a raw deal out of an impersonal system means the system is corrupt, rather than impersonal.

    5. All politicians are corrupt.

    6. Introverts don’t like people.

    7. Our individual experience of the world around us is a decent proxy for that world, or at least originated in it.

    8. Meditation is good for me.

    9. News can be unslanted.

    10. Talent is entirely inborn.

    11. Talent is entirely learned.

    12. A reader is a passive vessel, with no responsibility for their interpretations.

    13. Anybody can write a book.

    14. Arrogance is always bad.

    There are, of course, more. Maybe later.

  7. #7 Azkyroth
    August 17, 2009

    And we didn’t evolve from apes?

    Humans did not evolve from any of the modern species classified as “apes.” The evidence strongly indicates that our last common ancestor with them, however, would also have been classified as an “ape.”

  8. #8 Charles
    August 17, 2009

    Reminds me a bit of a book that I co-wrote: The Top 10 Myths about Evolution. Shameless self promotion, yes, but it does seem relevant in this case.

  9. #9 Benjamin Franz
    August 17, 2009

    #5 Brian:

    Evolution is not just a theory. It is also observed fact. Much as gravitation is both theory and fact.

    Humans did not evolve from apes. They are apes.

  10. #10 sailor
    August 17, 2009

    On the one hand, We didn’t evolve from apes because we are apes. On the other hand we did evolve from other apes.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Brian:

    That evolution is a theory is a falsehood? Really?

    That is not what the “falsehood” states. Please read it more carefully. Really!

    And we didn’t evolve from apes?

    That is a falsehood in a couple of ways, and the sentence is also correct in a couple of ways.

    It is a falsehood when used in a derogatory way to make people run away from evolution, not because of what it says, but because of what is assumed. That is a bit nuanced, but it is important.

    But the real falsehood here may be the word “from,” to the extent that we are “still” apes. Or, as we would say in Minnesota: “We are apes yet.”

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Virgil:

    The “survival of the fittest” falsehood is a falsehood because people do not have a sophisticated view of fitness. This is true with many of these falsehoods: They may actually be quite true but only to those 2% of people who are prepared to understand them correctly. So, since this is really language we’re talking about, they count as falsehoods.

    The primitive cultures are primitive etc. is the biggest of all of the falsehoods. Again, this is linguistic, but that does not make it a trick question. The phrase “primitive culture” is 99.999999999999% of the time used to refer to dark skinned people living in rural settings as horticulturalists, pastoralists, or foragers. When people say “Primitive culture” that is what they mean, virtually without exception.

    Those cultures are not primitive. Tautology broken.

    Regarding your free lunch: Someday they will make you pay!!!!!11!! Mark my words!!!

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Noam (#4): No, it is not. I know you were under that impression, that is why it is a falsehood!!!! That and the baby one … I’ll visit each in time .

  14. #14 Nathan Myers
    August 17, 2009

    Arrogance really is always bad. It’s synonymous with poor listening skills. If you think you’re smart enough that it should earn you forgiveness for arrogance, you should also think you’re smart enough to continue learning. People who really are smart enough that they really would be forgiven arrogance aren’t arrogant. They got that smart by being good listeners. What they hear isn’t what you would hear.

    A theory is something that generates testable hypotheses. If, as with the “Aquatic Ape Theory”, the hypotheses it generates can be knocked down without new data, it’s a bad theory. If, as with “God-did-it”, they can’t be tested at all, it’s a bad theory. If, as with “String Theory”, they can’t even be expressed, it’s a crazy theory, and everybody involved should be honest and admit they’re just wild and woolly mathematicians, not scientists at all.

  15. #15 Sam
    August 17, 2009

    1. Nobody gets quantum physics.

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Stephanie: Nice list.

    Nathan: Maybe. But are the String Theorists arrogant? Or at least, are they very tied up with themselves?

  17. #17 Fargo
    August 17, 2009

    One of the things I’ve run into, with myself, is working from an outdated base of knowledge. Having had a large number of advanced biology classes a VERY long time ago and then going into computers left me with this sort of knowledge fossil that is only revised/refreshed slowly and rarely deeply.

    Eventually I taught myself to be hesitant in all forms of certainty, which, thus far, has served quite well.

    There’s one for you- “What I’ve learned is derived from a complete understanding of the subject”.

    Explaining evolution to people, in my experience, requires hitting them with a big stick until they shut up. Even then I suspect they’re interpreting everything I say through some hellish anthropomorphic filter where evolution “wants” or “strives towards” things.

  18. #18 Joe M.
    August 17, 2009

    ADD TO: “Us vs. The Other” falsehoods?

    5. Everyday racial classifications map biological variation between major human groups.

    [No matter how I try to reword this it comes out as a "trick answer." You can probably do a better job here ...]

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    1. Nobody gets quantum physics.

    That would have to be number one, yes.

  20. #20 Nathan Myers
    August 17, 2009

    … are the String Theorists arrogant?

    Not in my personal experience, although I haven’t met them all. They’re just not scientists, but that’s no crime. It’s a shame, though, how they are displacing scientists from physics departments, en masse. Physics as a serious field will take whole generations to recover.

  21. #21 Jared
    August 17, 2009

    I have a few biological falsehoods that particularly piss me off:
    1) Mutations are truly random (they are predictably random with certain mutations being more likely than others and some types of mutations being more common than others)
    2) Bacteria are something we should all get rid of (yes, like that pesky normal skin flora that fights infection)
    3) DNA is information
    4) Some organisms are “more evolved” than others (or even describing an organism as “evolved from” or “evolved into”–no organism evolves, populations evolve over generations)
    5) The dichotomy of diseases only being pathogenic or genetic in nature (or the trichotomy bacterial, fungal, or viral)
    6) Incredulity proves anything about evolution
    7) Just because the explanation requires the use of metaphor means it cannot possibly be correct (since when does reality have to fit our language?)

    I’m sure I can come up with more that haven’t been listed, I just don’t like thinking about them, (I just finished dealing with an elderly relative who had to be rushed to the hospital due to the condition I found said relative in) and want to just sit and read for a while…

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Jared: Please expand on”

    “DNA is information”

  23. #23 dzdt
    August 17, 2009

    Regarding common nonsense #2 “Rich people have fewer babies than poor people” — in the U.S. this is the true demographic trend. See e.g. http://www.russellsage.org/chartbook/householdform/figure4.5/view. In what sense is this a falsehood?

  24. #24 dzdt
    August 17, 2009
  25. #25 Jared
    August 17, 2009

    Greg, that would take a while, can I shoot you an e-mail instead?

  26. #26 noam GR
    August 17, 2009

    Are some of them trick questions then? Because I can find plenty of references that explicitly say that poorer people do have more kids:

    “Countries with the highest fertility rates per woman tended to have a much lower gross national income per capita than countries with the lowest fertility rates.”
    from the CMAJ Oct. 2007

    And, anecdotally, having lived in South America, it’s not uncommon for poor families to have 4 or more children, while you don’t see the same in middle class families.


    http://noamgr.wordpress.com

  27. #27 Joshua Zelinsky
    August 17, 2009

    “Culture is quick and adaptive, but biology is ponderous”. Can you expand on why you think this one is false? It seems to me that cultures do change much faster than humans evolve. Is the problem “adaptive”? I’m a bit confused by this one.

  28. #28 Stephanie Z
    August 17, 2009

    Nathan, it strikes me as fairly arrogant to declare that, just because you can’t conceive of an appropriate use of arrogance, there is no such thing.

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    dzdt: Don’t worry, I’ll get to that. Your data are not really that useful because it includes only people with children. Add the 17-30 y.o. incarcerated and the homless ec. and the diff. between 2.28 and 2.44 starts looking pretty small.

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Jared: Thanks, got the email.

    Noam: I will talk about this later but I assure you that if you tried to compare fertility in Nigeria with fertility in Canada of, say, geese, you would get a D on your ecology final.

    This is one of the more precoius falsehoods, one that people get really mad about being told is wrong.

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Josh: I’ll give you one item (which is key) as food for thought.

    Consider parental investment. Consider marriage. consider the relationship (ideally) between age of marriage and age of first birth.

    Now, look at changes in marriage age and changes in first birth age in various societies in transition. In what way is culture keeping up with the curve here?

    OK, one more: Two words … disease of civilization . OK, that we three words. If culture is so freakin’ smart, why do most Americans die of what they eat? Huh? Why!?!!?

  32. #32 Michael
    August 17, 2009

    On the birth rate, the difference between 2.28 and 2.44 is pretty small but the difference between 1.53 and 5.01 is a bit more significant (Canada and Nigeria).

    Of course there’s no reason to think that income is the driving force (as opposed to a heap of other factors). But if geese in these 2 countries had comparable differences in any factor I’m not sure why you think I’d get a D for pointing that out.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Why would you compare canada and nigeria?

    You would get a D if you suggested that a single factor that can’t be compared between to populations was the factor. The analog for geese might be comparing length of daytime sun in June between Canada and Nigeria. If, instead, you noted that these two countries are very different, have only a minimally overlapping economy, very little movement between them operate in different trade systems, are temperate/subarctic vs. tropical,etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. and are therefore not really comparable, you would get a B. If you went on to point out the reasons that people would still insist on making the comparison, you might then get an A!

  34. #34 Jared
    August 17, 2009

    I was always under the impression that, to see if there is a socioeconomic difference in childbirth, you need all other factors controlled for; to make any comparison of ANYTHING, you need to have data sets which are similar in all other aspects excluding the two you are correlating. Even then, it would be a stretch to say socioeconomic status is the cause and increased children is the effect as it could just as easily result from the inverse.

    Seriously, why won’t eugenics myths go away?

  35. #35 Chrissl
    August 17, 2009

    5. An adopted baby is not the biological offspring of her mother.

    I suspect the kicker here is the word “biological.” An adopted child is usually not the *genetic* offspring of her mother, in that the sense that the mother contributes nothing directly to the child’s genetic makeup. But once the child is adopted, the parents certainly provide all of the *other* biological inputs exactly as they would do for their genetic child — food, clothing, education, physical and emotional care, et cetera. I don’t think anyone would claim these are “insignificant.”

    As my mother, who had two birth-children and two adoptive children, put it, “Who gets up in the middle of the night when they’re sick to their stomach? That’s the REAL parent!”

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    August 17, 2009

    Chrissl: Well done.

  37. #37 Nathan Myers
    August 18, 2009

    Greg: So, trick question, then.

    Stephanie: Name-calling is a poor substitute for a convincing presentation, but I suppose sometimes a substitute is all you have.

  38. #38 Woof
    August 18, 2009

    Aviation Falsehood: Wings produce lift because the air on the top of the wing has to go farther than air on the bottom, thus it goes faster, thus it has lower pressure.

    Several times a year I scream and throw things when I see that one.

  39. #39 Stephanie Z
    August 18, 2009

    Nathan, you didn’t ask to be convinced.

  40. #40 Anon
    August 18, 2009

    If anybody is interested in the statistics (from http://www.gapminder.org/ )

    Children per woman (total fertility) / Income per person (GDP/capita inflation adjusted $):
    http://tinyurl.com/dz87qa

    Same as above but Canada & Nigeria highlighted.
    http://tinyurl.com/qj2oza

  41. #41 Monado
    August 18, 2009

    Woof, I think I was taught that in school: Bernoulli’s Principle, physical origin of lift.

  42. #42 travc
    August 18, 2009

    Woof, do you have (or have link for) a concise form of the most recent explanation? I’d say “correct explanation”, but it seems to me we still don’t have a very good grip on this one. I wasn’t really satisfied with what current flight training manuals have on the topic, though good news, it isn’t the common falsehood.

    A few notes on the other falsehoods:

    For “living fossils” and “primitive” vs “complex” orgnaisms:
    I enjoy noting that every extant species on Earth has evolved for the same amount of time.

    “DNA is information”:
    Actually, saying anything physical is “information” is a pet peeve of mine. The state of an object (or more commonly a population of objects) can encode information.
    More fundamentally, the word “information” is pretty much meaningless with saying what that information is “with respect to”. A map is just a piece of paper with lines on it unless those lines correspond to roads in the real world. A DNA sequence (regardless of the entropy value) codes information only if the sequence corresponds to something. Evolutionary biology wise, the operative correspondence is with fitness.

  43. #43 MPL
    August 18, 2009

    Re Nathan (No. 14)

    Arrogance really is always bad. It’s synonymous with poor listening skills.

    No it isn’t. Arrogance is defined as “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). I think it quite possible to listen carefully and still act overbearing.

    A theory is something that generates testable hypotheses.

    I believe that you are alluding to the falsificationist demarcation criteria, yes? According to String Theory by J. Polchinski (via wikipedia) “All string theory models are quantum mechanical, Lorentz invariant, unitary, and contain Einstein’s General Relativity as a low energy limit.” Therefore, string theory makes testable hypotheses, but most of them are the same as other theories. There’s lots of interpretations of quantum mechanics too (e.g. Bohm, Copenhagen, Stochastic, etc), but that doesn’t mean quantum mechanics is unscientific. Plus, there are conceivable tests of string theory, they just can’t be executed with today’s technology. Relativity didn’t have many new tests possible in 1905 either.

    It’s a shame, though, how they are displacing scientists from physics departments, en masse.

    (No. 20)

    Picking two schools arbitrarily, Harvard and Caltech, I see two “Mathematical Physicists” at Harvard out of 62 people on the faculty page, and four people in “string theory” out of 52 at Caltech. The majority of the faculty at both schools appear to be experimentalists, especially in non-particle physics fields. If that’s your idea of en masse, I’d hate to know what you’d think if you had to use both hands to count the number of string theorists in a department.

  44. #44 Nathan Myers
    August 18, 2009

    MPL: It is the string theorists themselves who say they cannot devise practical experiments to test it. To understand what is changing in physics departments, it does not suffice to look only at the present faculty, which represents the sum of changes up to the present. (Are you familiar with the derivative?) Try listening well in an overbearing manner sometime and see how it goes.

  45. #45 Stephenk
    August 18, 2009

    Travc

    there isn’t a concise form of the “most recent” explanation however:
    http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/airplane/bernnew.html
    gives a pretty good summary of the discussion.

    What is taught to pilots (and others) since forever is more about expediency in teaching ideas than a detailled engineering model. “Modern” principles of flight portions of books for pilots (at least the ones I’ve seen recently) still concentrate heavily on the “Bernoulli” ideas. This doesn’t mean the more curious, both instructors and students, don’t understand that there is a bigger picture. In fact the first subheading in chapter one of Langewiesche’s 1944 book (Stick and Rudder) says “Forget about Bernoulli”. So some people have understood the issue for 60+ years (and now you can see why I put scare quotes around “most recent” in my first sentence).

    As a corollary (I assume you have an aviation interest) see if you can find any flight reports by test pilots from the first world war era or thereabouts. Their explanations of what they were doing with the planes they were flying were completely wrong. IE they were flying them and manipulating the controls OK, just they didn’t seem to consciously understand what they were actually doing!

    No, the real issue in the principles of flight thing boils down to what an old instructor told me many years ago:

    “A plausible lie is better than an incomprehensible truth”

  46. #46 Michael
    August 18, 2009

    I see — I guess I should have clarified: by “comparing” Canada and Nigeria I meant “noticing the existence of the 2 different data points”. Of course the fact that the 2 countries differ in income (or GDP etc) says nothing about whether this has anything to do with how many children people have.

    Sorry, Greg, just to clarify — do you mean that once a proper analysis of factor correlation is done across a wide range of data points, income ceases to be a predictor of number of children and the difference between the 2 data points in question is due to complex interactions between a set of OTHER factors?

  47. #47 brand0con
    August 18, 2009

    1. Evolution is goal directed and progressive…

    Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed as of late but I contend that Robert Wright’s stance on the matter is a bit more compelling. In short, evolution has a distinct trend toward ever more complex organisms which in time will produce more non-zero sum games and inevitably forming a more stable and morally bound existence for said organisms. Outliers can certainly be cited (especially within human existence) but overall progress on a grand scale should be recognized. To Wright, this is indicative of not necessarily an end goal, but rather a direction toward moral progress and cooperation.

  48. #48 toto
    August 18, 2009

    I understand that most of these depend on the interpretation of specific words, but:

    2.Species can be organized on a scale of primitive or simple to advanced and complex. One thing this means is that there are “living fossils” among us.

    “Living fossils” (extant species that are morphologically very close to their distant ancestors) do exist. I’m not sure how one would interpret this into a falsehood.

  49. #49 Michael
    August 18, 2009

    Wrights story (at least as seen from some of his BloggingHeads talks) seems simplistic and a bit vacuous — for example what does it mean for complex non-zero-sum interactions to be more “stable” than their counterparts? This is open to empirical questioning and I don’t see how this is supported. When a relationship turns from non-zero to zero-some, would that be “moral regress”? If so, have there been more moral “progresses” than “regresses” in the last few billion years?

    As for movement towards complexity, there are heaps of counterexamples — for instance mass extinctions where ecosystems vanish and are eventually replaced with others (which aren’t necessarily of greater complexity).

    Finally, even granting some measure which makes humans the most complex organisms, humans could well be dispacing other species at a rate whereby the overall complexity of the biosphere is decreasing.

  50. #50 Nathan Myers
    August 18, 2009

    toto: Lots of creatures look a lot like their distant ancestors because their ancestors hit upon a body plan that works better than small variations on it. That doesn’t mean the pace of adaptations has slowed, it only means that the changes aren’t easy to see. Komodo dragons look like varanid lizards of the past, but drool 600 different toxins. As travc noted, “every extant species on Earth has evolved for the same amount of time.” The degree of fine-tuning possible in something as complex as a living creature — any living creature — is truly dizzying.

  51. #51 MadScientist
    August 18, 2009

    @Noam #4:

    “An adopted baby is not the biological offspring of her mother.”

    There are a number of ways in which that statement can be wrong. The most obvious one is that the baby’s mother is the biological mother. DUH! This is true even when the adoptive mother is not the biological mother. Historically there are cases of women giving up their child shortly after birth and then adopting them later – strange but true.

    Then the more tenuous interpretation would be what you mean by “adopted”, because all babies adopt their parents. We also say that a parent adopts the child. It’s more obvious perhaps in animal husbandry – we say for example that the cow adopts its calf or else it rejects its calf.

  52. #52 Russ
    August 18, 2009
    • * Evolution has stopped for humans.
    • * Serious scientists often entertain the question: “Has evolution stopped for humans?”
    • * Culture is quick and adaptive, but biology is ponderous

    I’m interested to see the extended answers to the above, which seem to be related. It’s not obvious to me why culture working in tens or hundreds of years shouldn’t be described as more adaptive than biology being altered by evolution over tens of thousands – why didn’t evolutionarily modern humans ten millennia ago invent string theory? Or toasters?

    I saw Pharyngular dismiss Steve Jones apparent contention that “evolution has stopped for humans”, but frustratingly just by stating that it was obvious rubbish, not why. It seems to me that culture is working much more quickly than physical environment to change who and what we are.

  53. #53 MadScientist
    August 18, 2009

    I like the “must be smarter to live in a city” one. I’m always grumbling about how city folk are so clueless they’d die of starvation if they were taken away from the city. Having watched Australian aborigines hunt (and having done my fair share of trapping long ago) I can say that gathering food is hard work. It takes certain skills that most city folk simply don’t have because they don’t need it to survive in the city. I’m sure trappers hunters and the aborigines all find those “stupid city folk” very amusing because they can’t even do the simplest things like find water and catch food.

    Now for more falsehoods on how nature works, how about:

    * The earth is cooling, not warming.
    * Humans can’t affect the earth’s climate.
    * Carbon dioxide doesn’t cause the atmosphere to get warmer.

    Oh damn, just go to any climate denialist website; they have the whole list.

    The “civilization will not collapse” is really one of the most remarkable falsehoods. If you point out to other people that numerous civilizations have collapsed in the past, they respond with “oh, but that can’t happen to us” and they proceed to make up nonsense in support of their strange belief. Australia has been on the brink of collapse for well over a decade; it is overpopulated and does not have enough water reserves to support the current population. It will only take one good drought and many of the cities on Australia’s east coast will be gone. Destructive practices on many fronts ensure that the situation will only get worse and not better. The civilizations on many small islands in the Pacific ocean are also threatened. There are huge global threats which most people aren’t even aware of – marine stocks are being decimated; basically nothing effective has been done since we’ve seen the utter destruction of large aquatic systems such as Monterey Bay in California. Many coral reefs that I used to visit as a child are devastated; while many tourists may remark about how beautiful a few of these places are, they are desserts compared to what they used to be.

  54. #54 Tinna G. Gígja
    August 18, 2009

    “Historically there are cases of women giving up their child shortly after birth and then adopting them later – strange but true.”

    And this tells us what, exactly?
    I’m not sure what the point is…

  55. #55 csrster
    August 18, 2009

    “Extinct species must be inferior to surviving species.”

  56. #56 csrster
    August 18, 2009

    “Rich people have fewer babies than poor people.”

    Is the comparison
    -Between groups within a given society
    -between socities
    -As a function of time within a given society ?

    I could easily imagine that the answers would be different in the
    three cases.

  57. #57 sailor1031
    August 18, 2009

    “Wings produce lift because the air on the top of the wing has to go farther than air on the bottom, thus it goes faster, thus it has lower pressure”…..they taught us this in ground school long ago but omitted to mention that it doesn’t work well if you have have a zero angle of attack, still less if the angle is negative. Ever wonder why you had to pull the nose up so much doing those slow flight exercises? As for world war 1 aviation an old RCAF bud of mine had a RFC flight manual from 1915 which stated “it is important not to get into a spin as once you do so it is difficult to see what can be done about it”. some brit understatement there, i’d say.

  58. #58 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    August 18, 2009

    A couple of things to agree on, but I am coming late to a great thread (as usual;)

    Regarding Natural Selection and “survival of the fittest.” I think a great deal of bloodshed could have been averted had the phrase been “Survival of the fit,” also with the caveat that “Fit today isn’t necessarily fit tomorrow.”

    Regarding Stephanie’s “All politician’s are corrupt.” I always hated that one, knowing several politicians who are emphatically not corrupt. I also hear it as a defense when someone is caught and convicted, and the defender happens to like that politician. It seriously grated on me when people used it to defend Nixon after Watergate.

    I have a falsehood or two, and perhaps someone with actual knowledge of the issue will correct me.

    1. “Abiogenesis is separate from evolution.” I can’t see how this is possible, considering that there is no clear definitional separation between “almost life” and “life.

    2. “The Big Bang happened c. 13.7 GYA.” If I understand event the faintest of it, it is still “happening” as the universe expands faster than light can keep up. We are now in the Big Bang.

    3. Non-expressed DNA is “junk.” A common ancestor of the modern sharks carried genes for fingers, but forgot about hands. It’s kind of cool, actually.

  59. #59 travc
    August 18, 2009

    Stephenk, thanks for the link on aerodynamic forces. My brother-in-law just finished getting his commercial pilot’s license, and a conceptual understanding of how planes (and their instruments) work was a big part. When something goes wrong, you can quickly get into the realm of inadvertently running an experiment which tests your theories. Falsehoods can be deadly.

    On “complexity” and evolution: You can prove that evolution increases complexity under some conditions, but only if you actually bother to define complexity rigorously. Otherwise your talking philosophy or metaphysics.
    (Here is a PNAS paper with an approach to the problem.)
    http://www.pnas.org/content/97/9/4463.full

  60. #60 Greg Laden
    August 18, 2009

    MadScientist [52] …. Or, to put a finer point on it, “The earth is cooling therefore there is no global warming” (because the earth is cooling)

  61. #61 Greg Laden
    August 18, 2009

    I think a great deal of bloodshed could have been averted had the phrase been “Survival of the fit,”

    That may fix part of it, but the “survival” part is still broken.

  62. #62 Greg Laden
    August 18, 2009

    brand0con: (46) What exactly do you mean by complexity? Define it please. Is a mouse more or less complex than a monkey? Rat vs. mouse? Please give examples.

    The word “complexity” often means very different things do different people so it the term is key to an argument it must be defined.

  63. #63 KeithB
    August 18, 2009

    Greg Wrote:
    “1.Primitive cultures are in balance with nature, while complex civilizations are usually not. ”

    Reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” will put you straight on this one!

    (What *was* the guy thinking when he cut down the last tree on Easter Island?)

  64. #64 greg laden
    August 18, 2009

    According to J.D, he was thinking “The data on this deforestation thing are not all in yet!”

  65. #65 JohnV
    August 18, 2009

    “there we go, that’s the last time I’ll ever have to clean up leaves in the fall”

  66. #66 KeithB
    August 18, 2009

    GL wrote:”The data on this deforestation thing are not all in yet!”

    Does this mean he was a Republican? 8^)

  67. #67 MPL
    August 18, 2009

    Re. Nathan (No 43),

    To understand what is changing in physics departments, it does not suffice to look only at the present faculty, which represents the sum of changes up to the present.

    Very well. Returning to Caltech, and tabulating their Physics Faculty page, then sorting by year PhD granted (as a proxy for the unavailable year-of-hire), Caltech has hired 2 string theorists out of 15 over the last twenty years. At that rate, the faculty would have 7 proportionally (to 51 total).

    (Are you familiar with the derivative?)

    I think, as a math grad student, the concept might have been mentioned to me once or twice. I think you meant “the integral” though, since you were talking about the “sum of changes”.

  68. #68 Stephenk
    August 18, 2009

    Travc,
    the thing about training pilots is to give them a conceptual framework such that they can get an understanding of what the aeroplane (and its parts) do or can be expected to do. However, this can be based on “untrue” principles as in the Bernoulli lift example. That is, not completely true or even a convenient fiction, as long as it does the job!
    The “falsehoods” can be functionally true. A good example from the past is celestial navigation. Treat the heavens as though mounted on a crystal sphere, works good enough to find your way around the earth.
    Did you never wonder why, as in the Bernoulli example, something that is known to be not the full story is pervasive and more or less the received wisdom and has been that way for at least 60 years (and drives Woof mad!).
    The answer is that (despite what pilots themselves think) they often only have a very a superficial bit of knowledge because that’s all they need*.

    The “we need to know a lot of stuff, cos things can go wrong and we don’t want to learn on the job” is a real issue. But is actually solved in a different way than relying on the conceptual abilities of the individual pilot to pause and nut out the problem. Your BIL will likely never get put into a position where he will need to “experiment” to test his conceptual knowledge, even when things go wrong. Not because he knows a lot about planes and flying but because a large part of his training is really about rote learning of specific actions to follow under particular circumstances, be they normal or unusual. His training won’t cover every concievable situation, but it will cover more situations than most pilots ever see in their lifetimes. And then if he doesn’t follow the SOP as an actual commercial pilot he won’t be working for long.

    All the preceding sounds harsher than it is meant to be. The best pilots learn more than they need to because that’s the mark of an intelligent human being, but that’s also true of the best of any trade, profession or craft.

    *Just out of interest I got my old (Australian, Trevor Thom) pilot training books for the commercial license out and it is mostly what I remember, lots of definitions and how to use tables and graphs already available. EG 1st volume approx 250 pages, has 6 pages on turning. There are a number of force diagrams (not to scale), illustrative pictures (which take up more than 3 of those pages) and a graph of load factor vs bankangle, but no maths to speak of.

    (From someone who has been flying for 30 years and instructing nearly as long)

  69. #69 Woof
    August 18, 2009

    Stephenk:

    (and drives Woof mad!)

    Quite often that’s an awfully short trip!

    From someone who has been flying for 30 years and instructing nearly as long

    That could have been me… I grew up (starting at age 2) flying with my grandfather, who ran an FBO in North Little Rock AR and was an A&P mechanic and flight instructor.

    I think that part of my rage at the Bernoulli falsehood is that it was what I was taught from an early age. Then I learned some physics. I was lied to all those years!!!

    BTW, what does the FAA use on its exams these days?

  70. #70 Siamang
    August 18, 2009

    Russ Wrote:

    “I saw Pharyngular dismiss Steve Jones apparent contention that “evolution has stopped for humans”, but frustratingly just by stating that it was obvious rubbish, not why.”

    By what mechanism should evolution stop for humans?

    Do we still have differential selective pressures? Yes.
    Do we still have genetic variation? Yes.
    Do mutations still create new genetic variation? Yes.

    “It seems to me that culture is working much more quickly than physical environment to change who and what we are.”

    UM, our culture IS changing our physical environment probably more rapidly than most other times in our genetic history. A few generations ago, your forbears were living in a different climate, with very different levels of heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other exotic compounds. They lived in an environment with much less diversity among bacteria and viruses that they might have come in contact with over their lifetimes. They lived in a MUCH, MUCH different biological environment with much much different threats to survival than we face now.

    And those threats are absolutely not static here in 2009. When’s the next killer virus going to emerge, and what will it attack, perhaps not the immune system like AIDS. What will increased global warming do to our environment? Will malaria be a greater threat over more of the planet?

    Evolution is most broadly described as the change of the frequency of certain alleles among a population over multiple generations. So ANY differential selective pressure produces evolution. Every mutation produces evolution.

    The only organisms that do not evolve are those which are extinct.

  71. #71 Blake Stacey
    August 18, 2009

    Hypotheses which cannot yet be tested by experiment are, like experimental results which currently lack a unifying theory, the natural consequence of living at the frontier of knowledge.

    Also, η/s = 1 / 4π.

  72. #72 Anon.
    August 18, 2009

    I’m failing to see how a list of falsehoods that doesn’t include explanations as to why those statements are false is of much use as a teaching tool considering how persistent falsehoods are in memory even after correction.

  73. #73 Anon.
    August 18, 2009

    I can’t recall the source, but I believe there was a learning experiment where people were presented with false information and then a correction of that information and after, people most often tended to remember only the false claim, not the true one.

    In other words, isn’t a list of only falsehoods merely going to reinforce belief in those falsehoods rather than debunking them?

    For instance, with the claim that the poor have more children than the wealthy, unless I follow up on that information, all that’s happened is that piece of information has been reinforced. Not only have I not been disabused of this falsehood, my conviction toward that false view is strengthened.

  74. #74 Stephanie Z
    August 18, 2009

    Anon., see:

    I’ve blogged about this topic before, but at the moment, I’m re-writing all of the falsehood essays and trying them out on you.

    This post is an introduction.

    The study you refer to is exactly the problem Greg is complaining about. The difference between that experiment and this post, however, is that in the study, the falsehoods were labeled as truth. They aren’t, here.

  75. #75 Die Anyway
    August 18, 2009

    Damn, I hate being “teh grammar nazi” but sometimes I can’t help myself…

    >1.Humans evolved form apes.

    …from apes

    I haven’t fallen for most of those “myths” but some, as pointed out by others, rely on very nuanced meanings. Item 1 under Evolution is one of my pet peeves. Even some of the better nature shows on PBS make that ‘goal directed’ mistake: eg. “The frog had to evolve a poisonous skin to avoid being eaten by snakes.”
    As for survival of the fittest, I tend to think that a large part of evolution is driven by catastrophe. The nominally fittest members of a population may be wiped out by flood, fire, or similar natural occurrence leaving the weaker, less-adaptive members to carry on. Sort of a “survival of the luckiest”.

  76. #76 Nathan Myers
    August 18, 2009

    MPL: I think you meant “the integral” though, since you were talking about the “sum of changes” No, you were (in effect) talking about the sum, and I was expressing surprise that you had confused x with Δx. (It’s the more surprising from a would-be mathematician.) To be precise, I meant “difference”, because faculty are discrete, but “derivative” was close enough, by analogy, and “difference” would have been ambiguous in context.

    But getting back to the subject, my information about physics faculties comes from graduate physicists complaining about a bias in openings offered, in years past. If, in fact, such things aren’t (any longer?) so bad as they said, then physics isn’t in as much trouble as I feared. Maybe only particle physics is in trouble. Are condensed-matter and plasma graduates finding appointments?

  77. #77 Greg Laden
    August 18, 2009

    Die Anyway: Good, but you are laboring under two fallacies.

    1) “from/form” is a typo, not a grammatical error. But thanks for pointing it out; and

    2) The “survival of the fittest” falsehood is not wrong because of drift (the random stuff you are talking about). Drift is important, but natural selection speaks only to the non-random element.

    Not that Natural Selection actually speaks …

  78. #78 foolfodder
    August 18, 2009

    “Things that are natural are generally good, while things that are unnatural are generally bad. The naturalness of something is the best guide for it’s goodness.”

    When I witness someone express such a sentiment my reaction is usually (to myself) “what the hell does ‘natural’ even mean? (in the context)”.

  79. #79 Lucas
    August 18, 2009

    “For instance, with the claim that the poor have more children than the wealthy, unless I follow up on that information, all that’s happened is that piece of information has been reinforced. Not only have I not been disabused of this falsehood, my conviction toward that false view is strengthened.”
    Check:
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0999/is_7200_318/ai_55182433/
    Income per capita is not the best predictor of birth rates.

  80. #80 Chris
    August 18, 2009

    Actually, poor people do TEND to have more children. Comparing two arbitrary data points (ie. Canada vs Nigeria) can’t prove any correlation, but if you look at fertility rates for whole countries, there is a very strong relationship.

    http://www.indexmundi.com/g/correlation.aspx?v1=67&v2=31&y=2004

    another misconception
    “I don’t need to understand statistics/math to be a biologist”

  81. #81 Christophe Thill
    August 18, 2009

    I learned one new falsehood in the comments at Pharyngula:

    – The farther you go back in time, the harder it will be to find fossils

    Actually there’s a grain of truth in it, as primitive creatures were made of flimsier stuff than tetrapods. But fossilisation processes have always been the same…

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/08/i_look_forward_to_the_new_gene.php#comment-1853385

  82. #82 Greg Laden
    August 18, 2009

    Chris; Are you making the argument that GDP is a measure of poverty?

  83. #83 MPL
    August 18, 2009

    Re 75

    Everyone always has trouble finding appointments. It’s academia, that’s how it is.

  84. #84 becca
    August 18, 2009

    *Cancer is a disease
    *One can think accurately consider ‘biological diversity’ using mostly metazoans as examples
    *Malaria is caused by a virus
    *Heritability only relates to DNA
    *Triclosan is healthy

  85. #85 Christophe Thill
    August 18, 2009

    Concerning revenue vs family size, the example I know best is my own country (France). We know that the largest families are found at both ends of the social ladder. On top, they are often associated with strong traditional Catholic values. Two particularly prolific categories: physicians and army officers.

  86. #86 Greg Laden
    August 18, 2009

    We know that the largest families are found at both ends of the social ladder.

    That tends to be the pattern in western countries. The other pattern is complaining about the poor dark skinned people having babies and not really saying anything about the rich people having babies.

  87. #87 Larian LeQuella
    August 18, 2009

    Love the blog. May I “borrow” your list, blog for http://factsnotfantasy.com/evolution.html?

  88. #88 Jared
    August 18, 2009

    Here’s a few more
    1) a certain amount of vitamins and minerals are necessary for proper bodily function, so getting more of them can’t possibly hurt
    2) intuition and “common sense” are reliable guides to reality
    3) first hand accounts are reliable
    4) healthy foods are expensive or time consuming

  89. #89 Eric Suh
    August 18, 2009

    Isn’t GDP/capita a useful proxy for wealth? There’s certainly a strong anti-correlation between birth rate and GDP/capita in the graph that Chris showed, and similar trends in the 1975 data in the following paper. The trend becomes more complex in the newest data, but who knows why. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v460/n7256/full/nature08230.html

  90. #90 inverse_agonist
    August 18, 2009

    Just to take issue with StephanieZ’s point about meditation, it really is good for you:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19432513

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18387018

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16272874

    It’s probably not good for you for the reasons given by its proponents, but it is good for you. Society implicitly recognizes this with the saying “take a deep breath and count to ten.” A novice zazen practitioner might be told to count their breaths up to ten and start over. It won’t cause the cessation of all suffering, but it will make you feel better if you stick with it for a while. This can be useful…

  91. #91 MPL
    August 18, 2009

    GDP isn’t the best proxy for wealth—for one thing, things cost different amounts in different countries. Purchasing Power Parity is a better measure, which tries to estimate that effect.

    More to the point, poverty is being unable to satisfy your “basic needs”. That’s a more complicated issue than “dollars per capita”. For one thing, you’d have to figure out which needs are “basic” first.

    I don’t have any data on this, but I would love to see some: besides family size relative to income, what are the childlessness rates relative to income? If you only count sizes of families, you won’t count people without children at all.

    I do know that urbanization has an enormous impact on family size (they get smaller), even in the absence of income change [citation missing].

  92. #92 Doug
    August 18, 2009

    I love biology, but in my case I honestly can’t say that it’s harder to learn than quantum physics. My college transcripts would back me up on this.

  93. #93 daedalus2u
    August 18, 2009

    There is such a thing as homeostasis.

  94. #94 Tinna G. Gígja
    August 18, 2009

    Jared: “healthy foods are expensive or time consuming”

    I live in Iceland. Since most everything has to be imported, prices are fairly high. Add the collapse of our currency…

    Fish, for instance, is healthy (or is that another fallacy?) and Icelanders fish a lot. However, most of the fish is exported, since the fisheries get a better price that way. Because of the higher price they get for exports, they also raise the price of locally sold fish – otherwise they would be “discriminating” (and probably breaking the law) by selling it to foreigners for a higher price (not sure of the logic behind this one).

    Therefore, fish has become somewhat of a luxury for those unlucky enough to not have a fisherman in the family. Don’t even get me started on the prices of salmon or trout.

    Of course, if you classify an endless diet of chicken (now 45% water!), ketchup, noodles and fairly old potatoes (new ones are too expensive) as ‘healthy’, your point might apply to Iceland as well.

  95. #95 Tinna G. Gígja
    August 18, 2009

    Also: “Organic means healthier” which is related to “Natural is better”…which can lead to the horror of “Natural/alternative medicine can’t possibly be harmful, because it’s natural!”.

    I hear crap like this way too often.

  96. #96 Blake Stacey
    August 18, 2009

    My comment #71 was aiming for the truth; a falsehood would be, “Wolfing down the jerk chicken from Punjabi Dhaba just now was an unalloyed good idea.”

  97. #97 Steve
    August 18, 2009

    Here’s my list:

    1) Making a list of stuff one thinks that other people get wrong* is probably not such a productive idea for furthering one’s own knowledge or the knowledge of others.

    * Exception: unless it is as a teacher thinking about what students get wrong on the course material being taught

  98. #98 Jared
    August 18, 2009

    Steve, I’m not sure about you, but I’m sure Dr. Laden is a professor, I am a guest lecturer at some local high schools when they get into those lovely little murky waters about evolutionary biology or scientific ethics (remember, one cannot talk about religion, this makes it REALLY like walking on a knife edge).
    Additionally, it can be useful to compile a list for even the lay person who thinks he or she understands something since, by people who are familiar bringing these fallacies to light, he or she may be motivated to further explore these concepts.

    Maybe that’s just how I look at it because I’m curious to a fault….

  99. #99 yolio
    August 18, 2009

    My dictionary defines arrogance as “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” The trouble is that two people may disagree strongly on the correct assessment of one’s abilities or importance. In the slave days, mainstream society would consider it arrogant for a black person to think of themselves as a worthwhile human being. This is a context where having some arrogance could be a really good thing.

  100. #100 Stephanie Z
    August 18, 2009

    yolio, I’m going with the MW definition of “offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.” It ties a bit more closely to your point about who chooses to be offended, which was one of my objections to the falsehood.

    Also, in a lot of ways, the quest for new knowledge is an arrogant task. “I will learn something no one else has ever known.” So is engaging in creativity, as well as attempting the “impossible,” such as reforming health care in the U.S. All good things.

  101. #101 Rachel
    August 18, 2009

    Can we see your wife’s list, too, please?

  102. #102 Greg Laden
    August 18, 2009

    Rachel: good question. Many of ours were the same. A couple of others I’ve integrated above. Here are some others (keep in mind she’s using this in 10th grade biology):

    Darwin discovered evolution.
    There are only winners and losers in evolution.
    Extinction is rare.
    Science and Scientology are not the same things.

  103. #103 Keith Harwood
    August 18, 2009

    On quantum mechanics:

    We play peek-a-boo games with babies to teach them that things they can’t see still exist.

    Then when they get to second-year physics we have to teach them that it’s not true.

    My grand-daughter has worked out the Law of Conservation of Pussy Cats. She sees a cat walk behind an obstacle and looks to see it come out the other side. Eight months old and she’s already ruined as a physicist.

  104. #104 Greg Laden
    August 18, 2009

    Keith: I have recently been thinking something similar. We really have the potential for understanding or believing things that are spookier than quantum mechanics and all this subatomic stuff. We really have to teach the ideas earlier, and not teach so much stuff that has to be unlearned.

  105. #105 Woof
    August 19, 2009

    Greg -

    and not teach so much stuff that has to be unlearned.

    Actually, I think you’d need a 24/7 sensory deprivation tank.

  106. #106 Isabel
    August 19, 2009

    “4.Things that are natural are generally good, while things that are unnatural are generally bad. The naturalness of something is the best guide for it’s goodness.”

    What on earth does this have to do with evolution?

    Humans and other apes share a common ancestor.

    “*One can think accurately consider ‘biological diversity’ using mostly metazoans as examples”

    Good one. I would add ‘One can understand everything important there is to know about evolution using mostly metazoans (especially vertebrates) as examples”

    And

    Everyone in ‘poor’ countries is poor, and everyone in ‘rich’ countries is rich. And all white people are rich, and all POC are poor. Also: POC did all the hard work of building the US and white people sat back and reaped all the benefits.

  107. #107 Isabel
    August 19, 2009

    “2.Primitive cultures are primitive, while complex civilizations are complex. ”

    This wording is very murky. It’s tricky comparing a culture to a civilization. Many cultures can exist within one civilization for example. ‘Advanced’ civilizations actually are extremely complex. But they are made up of many subcultures within the various strata that may individually be equivalent to the complexity of a pre-literate culture. When you think about it, much of what makes ‘civilizations’ complex is the (actually quite uncivil and often downright inhumane) stratification of the human beings comprising them.

  108. #108 José
    August 19, 2009

    Science and Scientology are not the same things.

    What! I’ve wasted my life! Good thing I have my Christian Scientist training to fall back on.

  109. #109 paul
    August 19, 2009

    Falsehoods about behavior:

    1.Genes code for behaviors.

    Eh? so my sexual desire is cultural??

  110. #110 DuWayne
    August 19, 2009

    Name-calling is a poor substitute for a convincing presentation, but I suppose sometimes a substitute is all you have.

    What name calling exactly there Nathan? You mean the part where Steph mentioned that making assumptions can be rather arrogant? Because that’s not name calling.

    You are a pedantic, arrogant little prick.

    That’s name calling.

  111. #111 DuWayne
    August 19, 2009

    My favorite falsehoods;

    1) Cocaine is physically addictive.

    2) Addiction is a sign of weakness.

    3) Welfare is a cost/compassion tradeoff (yes, I like it exactly the way Stephanie put it).

    4) Psychological addiction is a sign of weakness.

    5) Psych meds are a sign of weakness.

    6) There is such a thing as a physical/psychological dichotomy when it comes to addiction.

    7) Psychotherapy of any sort is useless.

    8) Psychoanalysis is complete bunk (it is only mostly bunk).

    9) Successful psychotherapy requires the therapist to be well trained in the art of psychotherapy.

    10) Successful psychotherapy requires the adjunct use of psychopharmaceuticals.

    11) The only way for psychopharmaceuticals to be useful, is as an adjunct to psychotherapy.

  112. #112 Neil B ♪
    August 19, 2009

    Common false IMO presumption among scientists and philosophers: the universe is completely describable (in principle) by mathematics, leading some to Modal-realist type “explanations” for our and other universes and their properties. Proponents argue that we not distinguish substantive from conceptual worlds. (Examples: Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis, Wheeler’s “it from bit.”) MUH rightly acknowledges there is no strictly logical way to define “material existence.” If no other distinctions matter, then every “mathematical structure” has to exist with equal standing. This addresses the logical peculiarity of only one or some “possible worlds” being brute facts of existence.

    The MUH is subject to two basic criticisms. First, its extravagance may imply Bayesian expectations contradicting our experience – such as types of unruliness that still permit our existence. Second, is our universe fully describable by pure mathematics? Some contend that physical existence or special features like consciousness are indeed beyond logic and math, but distinctly real anyway. Possible example: genuine unpredictability (such as imagined for quantum randomness) can’t be output from a true “mathematical structure” because of the logical entailments therein. Furthermore, the wave function as realistically imagined has no elegant way to contract upon observation, due to issues like relativity of simultaneity. (Collapse also violates t-invariance.)

  113. #113 Jared
    August 19, 2009

    Wait, cocaine is not physically addictive? I thought it altered dopamine receptor levels (via down-regulation) resulting in an interrupted reward pathway (similar to, but more strongly than, nicotine addiction). How is that not a physical addiction?

  114. #114 Tinna G. Gígja
    August 19, 2009

    “Science and Scientology are *not* the same things.”

    That is a fallacy?…or did that ‘not’ just sneak in there? Could you elaborate?

  115. #115 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Tinna… you are correct, the “not” snuck in there. So to make it a fallacy, just add an extra “not” at the end.

  116. #116 bks
    August 19, 2009

    There most certainly is such a thing as a free lunch. No one is being charged for the billions of years of R&D invested in producing grain and meat. As long as the sun keeps shining, we get to surf the energy wave. Sometimes I think that scientists are more confused about the second law than is the general public.

    –bks

  117. #117 Ty
    August 19, 2009

    The sun is not cost free. Living near it has serious consequences.

  118. #118 KeithB
    August 19, 2009

    bks wrote:
    “No one is being charged for the billions of years of R&D invested in producing grain and meat.”

    I know what you mean, but as with most R&D efforts, it took the dedicated hard work of engineers (over thousands of years!) to make the R&D efforts pay off. Have you ever seen the wild ancestor of maize?

    Another related falsehood:
    Primitive Cultures simply adapt to the environment, they don’t actively change it.

  119. #119 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Keith: I like that falshood, but I treat it as a subset of the “primitive cultures are in balance with nature” falsehood.

    And yes, just as there is a cost to living near the sun, there is a cost to the use of grains. A huge cost.

  120. #120 Russ
    August 19, 2009

    @Siamang:

    UM, our culture IS changing our physical environment probably more rapidly than most other times in our genetic history. A few generations ago, your forbears were living in a different climate, with very different levels of heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other exotic compounds. They lived in an environment with much less diversity among bacteria and viruses that they might have come in contact with over their lifetimes. They lived in a MUCH, MUCH different biological environment with much much different threats to survival than we face now.

    Ok, but is a human individual’s “fitness” in the modern environment strongly related to genetic traits, or is position in society a better predictor? My genetic makeup is not significantly different to my ancestor a few generations ago; unless the environmental conditions you mention make particular gene expressions less fit, they don’t act as a selection pressure.

    And those threats are absolutely not static here in 2009. When’s the next killer virus going to emerge, and what will it attack, perhaps not the immune system like AIDS. What will increased global warming do to our environment? Will malaria be a greater threat over more of the planet?

    But I don’t expect the solutions to the problems of AIDS, malaria or a future killer virus to be an evolved immunity in the population; I expect the solutions to be technical. If it’s not, the game changes and most of us are fsck’d.

    Evolution is most broadly described as the change of the frequency of certain alleles among a population over multiple generations. So ANY differential selective pressure produces evolution. Every mutation produces evolution.

    My apologies – I was thinking of evolution as “evolution by natural selection”, and concluding that in modern society “unnatural selection” (changes guided by agency rather than environmental pressures) are likely to take effect much more quickly; that the noise of random mutation disappears under the signal of deliberate manipulations, and modern selective pressures are artificial.

    The only organisms that do not evolve are those which are extinct.

    Does editing your own genes to achieve a specific goal count as evolution?

  121. #121 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Does editing your own genes to achieve a specific goal count as evolution?

    Russ, by the definition I gave it would have to. And in this way evolution could be goal directed. So temporarily the falsehoods collapse.

    But as we know from Science Fiction, it would backfire and we would just need to add a new falsehood: “The mad scientist can achieve greatness”

  122. #122 Jared
    August 19, 2009

    Actually, Russ, the directed selection does not drown out mutations; look at various dog breeds for examples of how random mutations can still accumulate in dog breeds, first one I can think of is ectropion in the Vizsla. Random mutations (particularly recessive ones) still arise drift around in populations even if they are highly selected.

  123. #123 mike ferrell
    August 19, 2009

    Good post. But why do you claim that biology is harder to learn than quantum physics? I have learned evolutionary biology fairly well, for a layman, by reading good books. Quantum physics is much more daunting, due to the mathematics involved and the queerness of the phenomena in itself.

  124. #124 PoxyHowzes
    August 19, 2009

    Regarding the “natural” discussion, I once responded to the “Homosexuality Isn’t Natural!” argument by pointing out that clothing is decidedly unnatural (even the bible says so) while fruits (especially) often ferment entirely naturally to produce alcohol, such that animals get drunk eating them.

    My conclusion was that if we wished to live a “natural” life, we should all party naked.

    I believe I had the last word that time.

  125. #125 jdhuey
    August 19, 2009

    There are a number of facets to the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’. One is that every benefit comes with a cost, and if that benefit is to realized then somebody (or something), somewhere, somewhen must pay that cost. The other is that there is always an opportunity cost to any activity – eating that lunch cost you the opportunity to eat some other lunch (at that same time). And, of course, there is the more prosaic and cynical (but probably true) consideration that the reason somebody gave you that lunch was to extract some type of benefit from you. So, ‘free lunches’ are never free but they can be cheap (to you).

  126. #126 garg
    August 19, 2009

    I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation for this yet:

    # 5.An adopted baby is not the biological offspring of her mother.

    A biological “parent” may be a biological provider/biological caretaker but a biological provider/biological caretaker is not necessarily the biological parent (genetically related).

    What is the significance of the word “parent” then? In scientific terms, parent seems like the ancestor. In sociological terms, it can mean adoptive parent.

    I understand what biological parenting is and now a non-parent can provide biological sustenance for a child but “biological offspring” is still the genetic descendant of a parent.

    This doesn’t seem like a scientific falsehood any more but instead sounds like an argument over semantics.

  127. #127 becca
    August 19, 2009

    “But I don’t expect the solutions to the problems of AIDS, malaria or a future killer virus to be an evolved immunity in the population; I expect the solutions to be technical.”
    Ah, the joys of the immune system.
    Unless by “technical” you mean something like “removal of standing water to prevent mosquito breeding to prevent malaria” (which is a perfectly legitimate strategy), I strongly suspect solutions to these problems to be very much on the interface of evolved immunity and technical.
    Developing drugs and insecticides should involve consideration of evolution of microbes and vectors. Evolution matters a lot on a human time scale, and microbes are good to help us remember that. I’m less convinced the line dividing natural and artificial selection is all that important.

    @Greg- technically, getting a vaccination is intentionally editing your own genes (even if only the genes of your B cells). I would not say it’s doomed to backfire; though you can argue about whether the limited heritability of that special case counts as evolution.

  128. #128 Jonathan
    August 19, 2009

    ^ I’m with above.

    # 5.An adopted baby is not the biological offspring of her mother.

    I’m actually finding it very difficult to find text or anything to support this. Everything everywhere uses the term biological in this context as relating genetically.

  129. #129 Greg Laden
    August 19, 2009

    Johathan, I think you’ll find that I often say things that are not to be found on Google. That’s why I’m here. I’m not a search engine!

    That falsehood is inspired by Sarah Hrdy, and is outlined in her book “Mother Nature” … And, I’ve just posted my post on that particular falsehood, so you can check out the argument there.

  130. #130 delzoup
    August 19, 2009

    Due to the current tenor of some of my recent arguements…

    Dna = ethnicity
    White is culturally empty
    Indigenous cultures don’t change

  131. #131 Wayne Radinsky
    August 19, 2009

    I have to speak up here.

    “Primitive cultures are primitive, while complex civilizations are complex.”

    Doug Robertson has shown that “complex” civilizations actually do more information processing than “primitive” civilizations, and therefore they really are more complex. He made order-of-magnitude estimatations of the information processing capabilities of different human civilizations at various points in history.

    See:

    http://www.amazon.com/New-Renaissance-Computers-Level-Civilization/dp/0195121899/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1250724110&sr=1-3

    And:

    “Evolution is goal directed and progressive.”

    Evolution IS goal directed in the sense that on a planetary scale it tends to produce higher and higher levels of peak complexity. “Peak” is a key word because higher peak complexity does not mean less complex forms disappear (bacteria still exist etc). The explanation for this is very complicated which is why most people either think evolution is goal directed in some primitive way (evolution “wants” the frog to have a poisonous skin, to borrow a previous responder’s example) or they think evolution is completely goal-less (like you, apparently). However Eric Chaisson has explained the tendency towards higher levels of complexity as a result of principles of thermodynamics in physics.

    See:

    http://www.amazon.com/Cosmic-Evolution-Rise-Complexity-Nature/dp/0674009878/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1250724317&sr=1-3

    So, unless you know something I don’t, you’re wrong on these two.

  132. #132 Burt
    August 19, 2009

    As a conscious mind contains only beliefs, all falsehoods are subjective beliefs.

    Some subjective falsehoods:

    Objective reality exists.
    Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolution are NOT “Just So Stories”
    Consciousness is an emergent epiphenomenon.
    Free will does not exist
    The end justifies the means.
    Peace can be achieved by violence.

  133. #133 Jared
    August 19, 2009

    Please elaborate on how “Free will” exists, also how consciousness is not an emergent phenomenon, also how evolution is a story, also how objective reality does not exist…come to think of it, explain yourself…

  134. #134 Nathan Myers
    August 19, 2009

    Burt: Peace has been achieved through violence. Look up “Albigensians”. Let’s just say the Albigensians are at peace.

  135. #135 mrG
    August 20, 2009

    Here’s one: Just because someone is a blogger and a professor does not necessarily mean they are right.

    I so wish some of my professors had been among your students. Would have been a pleasure to watch :)

  136. #136 toto
    August 20, 2009

    The idea that evolution by natural selection has stopped in humans is bizarre, because there are many obvious example of recent selective sweeps:

    – Skin colour. One of the several mutations that geve Europeans their lily-white complexion seems to have arised c. 5-10Ky ago. Incidentally, skin colour genetics are one of the many clues to our common African (dark-skinned) past: East Asians and Europeans obtained their lighter skin through different mutations.

    – Blue eyes: the mutation for “pure” blue eyes apparently appeared 6-10Ky ago.

    – Lactase persistence. This one is interesting because it’s not tied to obvious climatic pressures, and has wide distribution (as well as large gaps) around the world.

    Also: Evolution does generate more and more complex forms, simply because it generate more forms, period. Some of these new forms are bound to be more (or less) complex than their ancestors, just by chance. That’s not a tautology (it implies that biology is always able to generate more complex forms), but there’s no need to invoke some purpose or “drive” towards complexity. Read this.

  137. #137 J.J.E.
    August 20, 2009

    @ Jared | August 17, 2009 7:46 PM

    4) Some organisms are “more evolved” than others (or even describing an organism as “evolved from” or “evolved into”–no organism evolves, populations evolve over generations)

    I think it is fair to say that some genomes are the descendants of fewer rounds of replication and less exposure to mutation, sampling, and selection than other genomes. This might satisfy somebody’s criterion for being “less evolved”. Of course, this would tend (if anything) to put humans in a less evolved category.

    @ Wayne Radinsky | August 19, 2009 7:35 PM

    Evolution IS goal directed in the sense that on a planetary scale it tends to produce higher and higher levels of peak complexity. “Peak” is a key word because higher peak complexity does not mean less complex forms disappear (bacteria still exist etc).

    Evolution is still not goal directed. If you consider the forces that change the frequency of alleles to be sampling processes, mutation, and differential survival of bearers of some genomes compared to others due to the state of those genomes, then it is really hard to insert a goal directed process in there.

    As for “progressive”, what does that even mean? That seems to imply some sort of goal. If not, what is being progressed towards? Then the question arises, which goal? In any event, even if you artificially specify the “goal” as “complexity” (and assume for the moment that you can sufficiently specify what complexity is), when the range of possible “complexity” is something like (0, Infinity) and your initial state is just a tad above 0, then you need not invoke any systematic advantage for more “complex” traits in order for more “complex” organism to exist at time t >> 0 than at time t = 0. Of course, I don’t know of any real test of this, but there are many examples of derived “simplicity” as well as derived “complexity” in nature.

    Of course, I’m not sure why anyone would specify higher “complexity” as a goal to define the arrow of progress. The term progress is so normative for me that I have trouble even conceiving of how evolution could be progressive. That is unless someone can convince me that evolution is normative.

  138. #138 daedalus2u
    August 20, 2009

    The term “complexity” needs to be defined. As Mark CC has pointed out, the mathematical notion of complexity (paraphrased) depends on how many bits it takes to reproduce it. The greatest complexity occurs in completely random sequences where there can be no data compression because there is no simplifying order.

    Does the largest genome mean the most complex?

  139. #139 oldcola
    August 20, 2009

    That’s a nice thread you started here Greg, thank you. I translated (the best I could) in french and posted the list.
    One of my readers (Fab) suggested an additional item :
    The theory of evolution is a theory of (deal with) the origin of life.

  140. #140 Peter B.
    August 20, 2009

    @#121

    But as we know from Science Fiction, it would backfire and we would just need to add a new falsehood: “The mad scientist can achieve greatness”

    Two falsehoods in here:

    “Fiction = historical evidence.”
    “Mother Nature knows best.”

  141. #141 Jared
    August 20, 2009

    Toto, actually, I wrote a rather decent essay on Lactase Persistence involving (among other things) the origins of these genes and some rather interesting findings; namely that the Maasai are actually more than 60% lactose intolerant. There were some other interesting findings in my sources, but that one stands out the most.

    I have a blog post with references and everything:
    http://morsdei.wordpress.com/2009/02/15/lactase/

  142. #142 Greg Laden
    August 20, 2009

    Daedalus2u [138] It is true that “complexity” must be defined, I totally agree. But it is also true that when dealing with these falsehoods it is the belief that the holder of the falsehood has that trumps all other aspects. This is why some people have failed to understand the genetic/bio mother falsehood. I now know that when I re-write that one I’ll do it differently.

    What matters here is what do people think when they think “civilization, western society, my world, etc. is complex and the primitive lifeway is the simple lifeway”

  143. #143 Burt
    August 21, 2009

    @Nathan Myers [134]:

    Obviously if wholesale murder is employed, those on the receiving end are in no position to disturb anyone’s peace but as long as 1 person takes exception to the means to that end there will be no peace. Even if there were total consensus on the means, any putative peace would be ephemeral as those who believe violence is acceptable to achieve an end would employ those means to ensure their own “peace” whenever a perceived threat looms. “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” – Isaac Asimov (my subjective appeal to authority.)

    @Jared [133]:

    Objective reality exists: All personal reality (and that is the only reality each of us can apprehend) is an idea construct (product of each individual’s mind) so the most objective statement one can make is: Everything is subjective including this statement.

    Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolution are NOT “Just So Stories”: These (and ALL) creation myths are mankind’s best attempts to date, to explain how we and everything else got here (typified by Kipling’s “Just So Stories”, O best beloved.) They are each products derived from inductive conclusions based on subjective reasoning (filtered thru one’s belief system i.e., that which comports with preconceptions is admitted and that which doesn’t is ignored or rejected) to support any creation myth including the three aforementioned beliefs currently in vogue.

    Consciousness is an emergent epiphenomenon: If it is, then some “special arrangement” of fundamental particles (i.e., wetware) presumably in the form of more “evolved” or complex organisms is necessary to generate the emergence. So what is special about these networked arrangements of amino acids, enzymes, neurons and such that produce the collection of ganglia we term “brain” from which the phenomenon we call consciousness is purported to arise? What constitutes the self referent idea field that emerges from this network? Virtual photons? Is it an unrecognized 5th force? Does qualia have electromagnetic properties?

    What about the subdivisions into which we consciously categorize the phenomenon: Sub, super, waking, sleeping, dreaming, autonomous, proprioceptive, body consciousnesses etc. Are these merely manifestations of the same phenomenon?

    Benjamin Libet was a great proponent of the emergent view of consciousness and did experiments in an attempt to probe the mind/brain gestalt. IMO his analysis was 180 degrees out of phase with what was actually occurring. The brain is NOT driving consciousness, consciousness is driving the brain.

    Free will does not exist: It either does or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t no one can be responsible, take credit, or blame for anything as they had no choice in their deterministic existence. Also if it doesn’t exist, what puppet master is pulling the strings, via what mechanism? I choose to believe it does exist and that I am responsible for ALL the choices I make and deserve both credit and blame for ALL my actions.

    The end justifies the means: Simply a meta-level falsehood which subsumes many falsehoods including the peace via violence conceit. Ideal ends are never justified by less than ideal means.

  144. #144 Jared
    August 22, 2009

    Burt, I’m going to let you just sit there and reflect on what you said without going too in-depth.

    “It either does or it doesn’t”
    When dealing with something that means so many things like “free will” or “DNA is code”–you run the gambit of how many meanings these words have. In other words, “free will” in the sense that we are uncaused causal agents is false. We are fully physical beings which are caused. In the sense that we are influenced by society and should be held accountable for our actions, we do have “free will.” One of the causes, and in fact, the major causal agent to your actions is society. You are proposing, by stating “free will exists” that we are capable of going against all causal influences, but by what mechanism would we do this, and what evidence is there that this is done?

    “and if it doesn’t no one can be responsible,”
    Not really, since consequences and punishment are a major causal agent by deterrence of actions society considers unacceptable, we must hold people responsible for their actions including reward those behaviors and actions which we support.

    “take credit, or blame for anything as they had no choice in their deterministic existence. Also if it doesn’t exist, what puppet master is pulling the strings,”
    Wait, reread this statement; if we HAVE contra-causal free will, which goes against the causes, the homunculus is necessary. Without contra-causal free will, the myriad of causes are the puppet master, obviously.

    “via what mechanism?”
    Are you seriously asking this question?

    “I choose to believe”
    More along the lines of “you cannot believe otherwise at the present time”

    “it does exist and that I am responsible for ALL the choices I make and deserve both credit and blame for ALL my actions.”
    It doesn’t exist, but you are still responsible for all your actions because the risk/reward of consequences assist your decisions.

  145. #145 Greg Laden
    August 22, 2009

    Burt: This might be a falsehood: It either does or it doesn’t

  146. #146 delzoup
    August 23, 2009

    … refine my comment from
    DNA = ethnicity
    to “Genotype = Phenotype = Ethnicity”

  147. #147 Burt
    August 24, 2009

    @Jared[144]:

    While “Free Will” is a lexical gambit, I think you mean gamut – however I mean free will in that I choose my actions via self generated causation (and that I am responsible for my choices. Where society and I agree there is no conflict – where we disagree I flout their rules. No agency other than my consciousness or my sub consciousness is involved. Society only is causal to my behavior when I am in self protection mode i.e., I transgress no societal proscriptions while being monitored – I still have free will to self destruct but I choose (hopefully) not to. The reward is being unmolested and the punishment is whatever I reap by my lack of allowing society’s causal stimuli to dictate my actions and being caught up in its retribution. The puppet master is I – we are the only cause and are therefore free to choose until that choice is fixed – there is no other puppet master, causal or contra-causal free will beside our own in that respect.

    The mechanism question was what is it providing one subscribes to other than autocausality I can believe otherwise if I choose and would if I were convinced that it would be beneficial but I choose to believe in the concept which provides me the most perceived freedom.

    Free will (the freedom to choose my actions) exists in my subjective reality (whether or not you believe it – if you don’t that’s your lookout) and I am responsible irrespective of risk/reward consequentialism.

  148. #148 Burt
    August 24, 2009

    @Greg[145]:

    It either is or isn’t a falsehood – I intended an exclusive or (XOR) in that statement and the “Free Will” reply – I notice that many of the above falsehoods are either complex questions (1 part true the other false) or the true xor false devolves to semantic interpretations, one in which a value can depend upon the literal interpretation and others that rely on ambiguity or common usage.

    1.Evolution is goal directed and progressive. False: Goal directed = 0 progressive = 1 (0 and 1) =False

    2.Species can be organized on a scale of primitive or simple to advanced and complex: True One thing this means is… False

    3.Natural selection is all about “survival of the fittest”: False due to Tautology & Fallacy: Survivors survive, the fittest part is begging the question.

    4.Things that are natural are generally good, while things that are unnatural are generally bad. False – ALL things are natural and neutrally valued with the exception of less than ideal human actions.

    5.Evolution is “only a theory” and can therefore be proven wrong at any moment. False: Evolution is a theory but cannot be proven wrong any more than ID or creationism the (1 and 0) = False

    1.Nature maintains a balance. If nature is perturbed, it will come back into balance eventually. The 1st sentence is true in the physics sense but what is meant by balance or nature? Nature is never out of balance even when perturbed and therefore cannot return to that which was never left, therefore false.

    2.Individual animals typically act for the survival of their species. A trait that enhances the ability to act for the survival of the species will be selected for. Darwin said that. False – Animals typically act instinctually for self preservation – the implied altruism is an anthropomorphism. Genetic traits may or may not enhance an individual’s survivability even if one appears to favor its chances. if the organism happens to survive the trait may be passed on or may not. Darwin barely had a clue.

    1.Humans evolved form apes. False – I actually like the typo version better than the intended, but there should be a comma between evolved and form. This a great trope for creationists to misconstrue how evolution is purported to occur obviously false. (see Inherit the Wind)

    2.Evolution has stopped for humans. False – Horizontal evolution occurs as long as a species is extant.

    3.Serious scientists often entertain the question: “Has evolution stopped for humans?” Ambivalent – Seriousness is a matter of opinion. What constitutes “often” – if a scientist entertains this sort of conjecture does that invalidate one’s seriousness or their scientific credentials? Too often the answer is yes. If a serious scientist only rarely ponders the question does that constitute heresy or just a lapse?

    1.Genes code for behaviors. False – however many serious scientists believe that they can and are searching for proof.

    2.The earlier in the life cycle, the more genetically controlled the individual is. False – Genes may be turned off or on depending on the environment and the individuals needs. Nature vs. Nurture – both affect individuals however nurture appears to affect as much or more than nature.

    3.Culture overrides or compensates for biology. What constitutes “culture” and what is meant by overriding or compensation for biology? As noted above nurture can augment or mitigate an individual’s biological circumstances therefore it’s too ambivalent to determine truth or falsity.

    4.Culture is quick and adaptive, but biology is ponderous False – Both are adaptive and both may be quick (relatively) or not so rapid (relatively.)

    5.An adopted baby is not the biological offspring of her mother. False – The mother is not qualified as the adoptive mother so the scion will always be the biological offspring of the birth mother even if the mother was only a surrogate and did not produce the egg which resulted in the embryo. The environment (womb) and genetics of the birth mother may affect the child’s development which makes this case biological as well. If nurture affects the expression of traits in individuals even an adoptive mother may contribute biologically to the progeny who was not of her womb.

    1.Primitive cultures are in balance with nature, while complex civilizations are usually not False – Again nature is always in balance – local perturbations and opinions of complexity, primitiveness or balance notwithstanding.

    2.Primitive cultures are primitive, while complex civilizations are complex False – Appears to be tautological but relies on adjectival and objective definition differences. Primitive cultures may have incredibly complex rituals and behaviors and complex civilizations may be quite simple when analyzed.

    3.You have to be smarter to live in an industrialized (western, complex) society. False – Living in an industrialized (western, complex) society is well suited to less mentally endowed individuals – try living as an aboriginal or agrarian.

    Civilization will not collapse. False – What constitutes civilization? The common idea of civilization seems to be on the verge of collapsing momentarily if one buys into the rampant FEAR which holds most of the masses in thrall.

    1.You can get a free lunch False – nothing is free – even thinking expends energy; how about of the price of mastication?

    2.Rich people have fewer babies than poor people. Ambivalent – In general? Per capita? As a function of #of rich babies/rich people vs. # of poor babies/poor people? The fraction of a percent of population which is rich causes the rich babies/rich to be a whopping number compared to the # of poor babies/poor. If a random sample of poor people who have babies is compared to same size random sample of rich people who have babies, the numbers may not be as lopsided and may cause the statement to be true in that case but we are left to our interpretations which could go either way and be just as valid.

  149. #149 hibob
    August 24, 2009

    @wayne #131:
    While peak complexity may increase over time, that is true as well for a random walk where there is a boundary of minimum complexity below which an organism couldn’t reproduce: over time you would expect evolution to occasionally drunkenly/randomly stagger to a design more complex than any seen before. Actually, in a random walk would only even need the minimum bound to see an increase in average complexity, peak complexity would go up without it.

  150. #150 Greg Laden
    August 24, 2009

    I notice that many of the above falsehoods are either complex questions (1 part true the other false) or the true xor false devolves to semantic interpretations, one in which a value can depend upon the literal interpretation and others that rely on ambiguity or common usage.

    That is not what we are doing here. You have to understand that falsehoods can not be parsed as logical statements. They are statements that when uttered in certain company people simply understand them to be true, but that understanding and any development or expansion of that understanding is incorrect, misleading, obnoxious, wrong, or something. Thus, there is a very complex relationship between the falsehoods and a rational view. The understanding of that relationship is not easy and itself leads to enlightenment.

    So, for example, while your analysis of number 3 is not in itself incorrect, it misses the point. The point is complex, but one aspect is that the relationship between culture and biology is complex, WTF is culture, and WTF is biology exclusive of culture. In other words, the statement contains a (more or less) false dichotomy, and that is part of the falsehood.

    But that falsehood also allows a discussion of things that are clear example of culture being conservative and not ‘keeping up’ with or ‘compensating’ for biological phenomena that are changing quickly.

    (A simple but powerful example might be resistant bacteria.)

  151. #151 Burt
    August 25, 2009

    @Greg[150]:

    I agree that people believe certain (many) falsehoods to be true – especially when the statements appear to reinforce prior beliefs, but I fail to see how most of the statements cannot be parsed into logical true and false as well. After all that is what you are doing in a round about way when you demonstrate why those statements are falsehoods.

    If it is your intent to show that people entertain false beliefs then that presupposes that there is objective truth. Logical (Boolean) comparisons are probably as close to objectivity as we can come but they are tautological by definition and there exist untold systems of logic which don’t comport with what we (Greek/Westerners) consider logical.

    I maintain truth is subjective and if people believe a statement is true, it is (for them) and who are we to impose our notions of truth (also subjective) on them. If they subscribe to a similar logical system to another’s then a discussion comparing subjective truths and agreement to each other’s version of truth is possible.

    As to your culture/biology point – I believe you are correct (it is a false dichotomy) but for a different reason, biology is inextricable from culture – ever the twain shall meet – culture is biological and can run the gamut from anarchy to totalitarian but each individual chooses where they align. Biology and culture conform to each person’s and the mass beliefs. I would emend your “resistant bacteria” example to “resistant ideas” which is both cultural and biological.

  152. #152 suncrush
    August 28, 2009

    It really burns my shorts when biologists say that the statement “humans evolved from apes” is false. We did evolve from apes. We are Hominoids. Hominoids are apes. The first Hominoid was an ape. We are descended from the first Hominoid, and many other Hominoids, and are in fact evolved from several apes. We are also currently apes.

    Biologists really can’t complain that the person in the street misunderstands evolution when they play stupid semantic tricks like this to obfuscate the issue.

  153. #153 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2009

    That’s actually my next falsehood, to be posted a bit later today.

    To me, it is an open question that we are apes. Well, to a cladist we are apes, but to a cladist we are also fungi.

  154. #154 Jared
    August 28, 2009

    suncrush, the implications in that statement are:
    1) that we are no longer apes
    2) our common ancestor looked exactly like modern apes
    3) we are “more evolved” than modern apes because they look like our ancestors
    4) if you read the comments, you would realize this

  155. #155 Jared
    August 28, 2009

    How are humans NOT apes? We fit so nicely into that monophyletic group…

  156. #156 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2009

    Jared: Apes fit into the monophyletic group “primates” but we call them “apes.” Why do we call them apes instead of just primates?

    Anyway, my post on this is almost done, just putting the finishing touches on it.

  157. #157 Jared
    August 31, 2009

    To answer your question, Greg:
    When we wish to be more specific than just “primates,” usually to refer to humans, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas collectively, but also (occasionally) to include gibbons and ancestral hominoids; even though hominidae would suffice for the former exclusively. It is a simple word which does not require delving into the taxonomic hierarchy of our relationship with these organisms.
    Why don’t we use panoids, panines, and panids instead of the “homi” root word?

  158. #158 Kapitano
    December 27, 2010

    A few idiocies I often come across:

    Intelligence is inborn.

    Inborn traits can’t be changed.

    Humans are naturally selfish.

    Alternative medicines do no harm.

    People are either good or bad.

    Doing something for a long time makes you good at it.

    The truth is always between two extremes.

    Extremes are bad.

    Birth parents are better parents than adoptive parents.

    Some people are born geniuses.

    Social Science is a science.

    Computer hackers are 14 year old boys.

  159. #159 Collin
    October 13, 2011

    Two falsehoods relating to these comments:

    * Scientific discourse must be constrained to prevent the ignorant from behaving badly over it. (re 58)

    * Quantum mechanics disproves reality. (re 103-104)

  160. #160 Collin
    October 13, 2011

    Another falsehood I just thought of:

    * Free will is part of the human condition — or more broadly, the condition of being alive. (re 143)

    To clarify, free will is — for physical purposes — simply the tendency that if two states linked by a causal junction have timelike separation, the later state is more mixed than the earlier state.

  161. #161 All
    February 3, 2012

    Hello. All dots in the screen are molecules, but yet they represent something more than themselves – information. If you ‘see’ what I mean, then you really see beyond matter. Yes, information is immaterial. Matter is the medium.

    So youre not ‘blind’ matter inside a totally blind biochemical world. A ‘blind’ matter can not understand, can not plan, can not design. And it doesnt mean that when you cant understand or dont know a code that this code does not exist. It doesnt need an observer to EXIST, it just need a decoder in order to be understood, but NOT to exist.

    Yes, I know all this sounds disguisting. But what is more disguisting is war and hatred. Im really far from debates and hatred talks.

    K N O W L E D G E