Jerry Coyne asks some good questions

On Edge, Jerry Coyne has a response to Sam Brownback's dissent from evolution. These are excellent questions, and I'd like to see them answered!

Senator Brownback, along with his two dissenting colleagues, really should be forced to answer a rather more embarrassing question: who is responsible for their being so misinformed? Where did they learn the so-called "problems" with evolution: at their mothers' knees, or in Sunday school? Or perhaps from reading books; and, if so, what books, and who recommended them? Doesn't a public servant have a responsibility to stay informed across a wide spectrum of topics and issues?

That's number one in my collection of good science teaching aphorisms: "How do you know that?" is always a smart question. Brownback is a conservative Republican politician with a poor reputation for intelligence—I don't quite see him reading Valentine's Origin of Phyla in his spare time. Where did he get these peculiar and erroneous ideas about evolution? It can probably be traced back to his ministers or parents…were they evolutionary biologists? As I mentioned yesterday, Kent Hovind's background reveals no familiarity with even elementary science, yet he brags about being a science teacher, and many people cite him as the source of their "facts" about evolution.

Given how Brownback plays fast and loose with the facts, or ignores them altogether, it's fair to ask why the New York Times went along with publishing misleading statements about evolution. Doesn't somebody at the Times keep an eye out for gross errors of fact on the editorial pages? Brownback is surely entitled to say that science can't tell us we should behave, but is he also entitled to misrepresent the central principle of biology? An opinion is an opinion, but it's not a very good one when based on "facts" that just aren't so.

The media is another problem—they've become increasingly unquestioning and uncritical. I know there's an ethical problem with just shutting out weird, opposing views, but it doesn't matter whether it's an op-ed from a senator or from a random crazy old coot complaining about fluoridation — if the piece has substantial and obvious errors of fact the paper should make a note of it. A piece from Brownback is going to get published, worthy or not, but they could at least fly an op-ed that makes assertions about biology by a biologist (like Jerry Coyne!) and either include a prominent disclaimer or get a complementary op-ed that rebuts the gross errors.

Science simply doesn't deal with hypotheses about a guiding intelligence, or supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena. We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world. Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism--none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota. So Brownback's proposal to bring faith to the table of science is misguided: "As science continues to explore the details of man's origin, faith can do its part as well." What part? Where are faith's testable predictions or falsifiable hypotheses about human origins?

Ah, we've got some examples of predictions, such as that humans were created from dust or a rib 6000 or 5 million years ago, or that we kinda sorta evolved with a little manual assistance of an unspecified nature from a being who is invisible and all-powerful but doesn't do anything, or that we did evolve, yeah, but said invisible man gave us an invisible impalpable magic soul-essence that makes us special at some point. The vapidity of the claims are notable, and are definitely untestable—they are intentionally formulated to avoid scrutiny. And if someone does cast a critical eye on them, well, they have an escape clause all ready for you.

No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.

Let's just give it up. Faith teaches us nothing, helps no one, and leads nowhere but to ignorance.

More like this

You may recall that Senator Sam Brownback, erstwhile Presidential candidate, recently wrote a NYTimes op-ed expounding on his raising of the arm during a presidential debate in response to the now-infamous "who doesn't believe in evolution" question. I'm grateful to Page 3.14 for alerting me to…
This deserves a read: University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne has published an essay at Edge taking on Republican presidential hopeful Senator Sam Brownback's (R-KS) views on faith and evolution, as expressed in Brownback's May 31 New York Times op-ed. The Senator, who raised his hand at a…
And in other news, dog bites man. Would the NY Times have printed an op-ed allowing a flat-earther to explain why he believes the earth is flat? Because that's what they did when they ran Brownback's defense of intelligent design creationism. And there's nothing original in Brownback's op-ed…
Via Jerry Coyne I have just come across this op-ed, from the USA Today, by Chris Mooney. The title: “Spirituality Can Bridge Science-Religion Divide” My initial reaction: No it can't! Mooney's argument is a standard one: Across the Western world -- including the United States -- traditional…

It's disappointing that the wing-nuts can't see Genesis for what it is: a nice poetic alegory about human nature. Animals don't sin. They just follow their nature. There was a time in our animal past where that was all we did. Then, as social animals, it became necessary to evolve social norms and cooperative behaviors (we ate of the tree of the knowledge between good and evil) and folowing our impulses was not acceptable for group survival. Sin is what you do anyway even though you know it's wrong. I can imagine some wise, middle Eastern sheep herder coming up with this story to make some sense out of human behavior without having to accept it as history.

I don't think the Times was wrong to publish the piece. It was more an information piece about Brownback than tacit silence in the face of loony ideas.

I doubt that putting up a biologist to refute the claims would do much good - Brownback's intended audience doesn't trust scientists...

On the other hand, getting some comments from moderate church leaders, refuting Brownback's claims - now that would have an impact.

By demallien (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

This is why we Militant Atheists need to remain militant. One must never lose sight of the simple observation that in a healthy culture, anyone saying the things Brownback said would be regarded as a lunatic rather than being listened to with unearned respect. The ongoing breakdown (which so greatly distresses the Rosenaus of the world)of the old taboo against publicly calling such lunacy by its true name is a Very Good Thing.

By Steve LaBonne (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

Doesn't somebody at the Times keep an eye out for gross errors of fact on the editorial pages?

Hahahahahahahaha...

Seriously, the NYT hardly seem to fact check their news pages.

I have had communication about Brownback's Op/Ed from a creationist-leaning colleague. I've been looking for something more conciliatory than the usual Pharyngula treatment to send him. I haven't been able to find anything. Even the "Chamberlain" contingent is up in arms and very clear that Brownback's position is not acceptable.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

Another reason that I would not be surprised if there would be a real coup d'etat by those who "believe" that we can't let country fall to the Godless
there by better able to fight those who wish to destroy OUR GOD And OUR WAY OF LIFE, i,e, the Terrorists, the atheists, the drug dealers, the pedophiles and sexual predators and the Illegal aliens, the abortionists, the homosexuals.

By w. ginder (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

I think it's a bit unfair to put alchemy in the same boat as all the rest. Sure, medieval alchemy wasn't exactly science, but it was proto-science, and many alchemists discovered fundamental relations of nature that provided the foundations for later hard sciences like chemistry.

The NYT barely checks the sources of their own writers, why would they bother to stir up trouble by commenting or even checking to see if Brownback is an uninformed/misinformed idiot.

How many mutations end up being beneficial, as to harmful or neutral, in our experience?

Can anyone answer that?

Reginald, we don't need more conciliatory meekness. This is unacceptable stupidity from someone who wants to be the President.

Personally, it's not worth my time to drag theocrats, kicking and screaming, slightly towards 'not so fucking credulous'. But more power to you, if you feel the need to go insane.

How many mutations end up being beneficial, as to harmful or neutral, in our experience?

Can anyone answer that?
Not really, as the question is not well-formed.

But the vast majority of mutations are neutral. "Beneficial" and "harmful" are rarely clear-cut. Is sickle-cell anemia "harmful" or "beneficial"? The answer depends a great deal on whether the malaria parasite is present in the environment.

Gene duplication, for instance, is neutral. But, the extraneous copy, because its sequence is not as strictly conserved as the "active" copy, can further mutate, sometimes being altered enough to code for a novel protein which in the right circumstances becomes "beneficial".
If you're really interested and not just sniping, read up on the blood-clotting cascade for a good example.

@Steve LaBonne (#4)

I fully concur. I couldn't have stated it more concisely. You have this Militant Atheist's vote.

A little wisdom from an unexpected source--the British thriller, Red Mercury, in which three Muslim terrorists take hostages in a cafe. One terrorist says they don't need democracy (for which one might also read "science") because they have "the book." "The book!" says the fiery cafe owner. "One book? Read two books and then you have democracy." Exactly--ideas must compete and be accepted on the basis of merit, not preference. That's what makes the statement about those apparent scriptural contradictions so disturbing. One cannot claim to promote democracy, which is all about competing ideas, when one has become a theocracy unto oneself.

By Greg Peterson (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

"Exactly--ideas must compete and be accepted on the basis of merit, not preference." precisely! that of course is what brings us to the most disturbing characterists of society, that people in general gravitate to what is familiar to them, one viewpoint that suggests they are "special" and all the abuses inherant in that view. we live in a society that prefers magic over knowledge, laziness over freedom and tries to weed out those who do not go along with it.

The NYT barely checks the sources of their own writers, why would they bother to stir up trouble by commenting or even checking to see if Brownback is an uninformed/misinformed idiot.

The uninformed/misinformed idiots include you, along with a couple of others here.

How many mutations end up being beneficial, as to harmful or neutral, in our experience?

Can anyone answer that?

What CJO said above is true but I would like to add that everyone is a mutant. I would have to dig through a search, PZ does love to use the word mutations, but there was a post a few months ago discussing this. If I remember correctly the average person has sixteen mutations, these mostly end up in the "junk DNA".

By commisarjs (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

CJO: Gene duplication, for instance, is neutral. But, the extraneous copy, because its sequence is not as strictly conserved as the "active" copy, can further mutate, sometimes being altered enough to code for a novel protein which in the right circumstances becomes "beneficial".

Not to be pedantic, but a single gene duplication is actually very slightly beneficial upon its first appearance, because the duplicates buffer against loss-of-function mutations in each other, assuming there's not dosage effects etc. Once there is any sort of divergence between the copies, this becomes quite complicated, and as you say gene duplication is a fundamental template for the production of novelty. But it's worth keeping in mind that the simple act of duplication is an easy example of a beneficial mutation that occurs demonstrably frequently.

good point.

This standoff is why I like the "militant atheists"; they won't let Brownback get away with this BS. Brownback is either sold out to the voting bloc that he is courting OR he is an opportunistic liar. My "hardened skeptic" position is for local consumption. Dawkins and the "outspoken" (etc) have gone international with more ammunition than I can muster.
Carry On Brave Lads and don't let the miscreants steal your Liberties as inscribed in the Constitution. They are the fruits of the Enlightenment that must be shared for the nourishment for the whole body.

and Ladesses, of course.

Ladettes?

Coyne says: "Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism--none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota."

That is false. Over-generalization and the attempt to make a rhetorical point blinds one from the empirical reality. Chemistry and physics were grounded in alchemy. Newton was the greatest alchemist of his generation, and more committed to alchemy than to physics. Of course, alchemy is wrong. But being wrong does not imply that it wasn't productive as an early theory.

The same is true of astrology. Astronomy was born out of primitive astrology. The Sumerians may have been wrong, but they did accumulate a great deal of data that, over the eons, became the basis of astronomy.

It's not that "spiritual" approaches have been completely useless. It's that they happen to be incorrect. Demonology also was a precursor to psychiatry, but once psychiatry was born, demonology should have been cast out like an outworn jacket, just like we did with aristotelian astronomy and phlogiston-based chemistry.

Every theory is eventually shown to be wrong (Newton, anyone?). Until we get a TOE (Hah!), every theory will be eventually shown wrong. What science does that faith does not, is accept that as the best we can do and build it into our mechanisms of knowledge. We shouldn't cheat faith of it's proper place in the pantheon of knowledge: a primitive precursor that we've outgrown, like legs on a whale.

Skeptic8: "Carry On Brave Lads and don't let the miscreants steal your Liberties as inscribed in the Constitution."

Screw the constitution. Our liberties are being stolen exactly because people act as if they are sacred gifts from the brow of The Gods ("Founding Fathers"). Any liberties you have are torn from the jaws of tyrants in every generation. The constitution was intended to take our freedoms from us, as much as to give us freedoms. Read the Federalist papers! They were focused on tying democracy up in legal jargon, so that the freedom won in the revolution would be kept by themselves and their buddies, and denied to the rest of us.

Don't look to slave-holders for your liberty. That kind of idol worship is just a sophisticated, nuanced version of religious nonsense.

kmarissa: Lasses.

Rey Fox,

But that's so old fashioned. We need a modern equivalent, like Dudette is to Dude.

Frog said: Every theory is eventually shown to be wrong (Newton, anyone?). Until we get a TOE (Hah!), every theory will be eventually shown wrong. What science does that faith does not, is accept that as the best we can do and build it into our mechanisms of knowledge.

But every theory won't be proved wrong, and those that were, were wrong to differing degrees, tending to get vanishingly small over time. I understand you are overstating the matter to make a valid point: science gets much of its power from its presumption of error and bias in its practitioners, they being human and all. But it is important to remember that right and wrong are relative. Sure, Einsteinian physics displaced Newton's, just like Newton's displaced the medieval concept of impetus, and Einsteinian physics might be displaced one day by something else. But to say "all were wrong" mischaracterizes what has happened.

They have gotten more explanatory power over time. We went from only being able to explain nonrelativistic motion in a frictional environment, to all nonrelativistic motion, to all motion (AFAIK). We see a steady improvement in performance, not the random assemblage of equally mistaken guesses of fashion that a phrase like "Every theory is eventually shown to be wrong" conveys. Science hasn't been wrong in the past, but scientific theories have been replaced with better scientific theories, and they will continue to do so, as we continue to expand our limitations. Other epistemologies tend to etch their limitations into stone.

I agree with Coyne's point of view, with a small caveat: alchemy, beside a lot of occultist mumbo-jumbo, comprised a strong experimental approach, and sometimes led the way for procedures (extraction, etc)later used by materialistic chemistry.

@Science Avenger: Newtonian physics is wrong. It is applicable as an approximation within a certain regime. But it's assumptions about space and time were wrong - not as wrong as the assumption that the heavenly bodies were gods, but still quite off the mark.

As you so ably state, they aren't randomly wrong. There is progress in science, building upon the errors of the past. Each future error will be a closer approximation of global, external reality. As you say, past theories aren't a random assemblage - there is such a thing as being more wrong. Newton was less wrong than the astrologers, and his physics was less wrong than his alchemy. "Wrongness" is relative in this usage. He was actually wrong in the normal regime, but his approximation is so good that for all practical purposes, the error is irrelevant. His premises were still incorrect, but his systems is still an incredibly useful approximation.

The scientific method hasn't been wrong in the past, but science itself has been, as a body of knowledge as opposed to a method for deriving that knowledge. It's good to be wrong! Information adheres to surprise, and surprise comes from being incorrect about predictions. Any system that doesn't assume wrongness has closed itself out to any new information - it's dead.

Alchemy did produce some useful techniques, because the alchemists observed what worked and what didn't and discarded or retained techniques as appropriate.

Their concepts, produced and maintained without such hard-nosed skepticism? Not a one has endured.

The only parts of alchemy that survived were those that were approaching the scientific method. Aside from practical techniques, they did absolutely nothing, because science wasn't the method they used for most of the stuff they did.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

Senator Brownback has inspired me to coin a new term for when politicans pander to religious voters by dismissing or casting doubts on evolution and science.

Are you ready?

I call it "brownbacking"!

The comments from frog and Abie not agreeing with Coyne's remark about precursors to modern science completely misses the point. When Coyne says, "Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism--none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota", he is absolutely correct. He is talking about where science gets its information from NOW (from nature) and where these other pursuits have in the past and continue to fail. Where do or did those other pursuits claim to get their information from? From supernatural presuppositions.

The origin of science isn't the issue here. The issue is where real empirical facts actually come from. Alchemy, faith-healing, astrology, creationism, and countless other supernatural-based obsessions that have occupied human beings in the past were as impotent in generating an understanding about the actual world as they are when people practice them today. It matters not a whit that any of these may have evolved into the scientific method we know today: some aspects of alchemy may be "proto-chemistry", but that historical connection within this context is irrelevant. It wasn't chemistry.

As Caledonian says, not one of the concepts of ancient alchemy has endured. Alchemy cannot help but have inaugurated some "useful techniques" in the trial-and-error manipulation of compounds in a rich chemical world, and even guided alchemists toward a systematic method that might be characterized as "proto-chemistry", but that's a far cry from saying that modern chemistry owes its conceptual foundation to it, or claiming that alchemy can receive credit for what chemical science later achieved in advancing our knowledge, just because it was a progenitor to the real science. Chemistry accomplished those advances, not alchemy or "proto-chemistry". The only remaining similarity between them is the curiosity exhibited by their respective practitioners.

By Arnosium Upinarum (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

And Caledonian + Arnosium miss the point. In your desire to dismiss everything even vaguely "faith-based", you miss the essential point about the history of science. Nothing of phlogiston is left either, but the phlogiston phase of chemistry was absolutely essential to the development of modern chemistry. Nothing is left of the geocentric theory of astronomy; yet that too was an essential stage.

The only thing that survives the major shifts are techniques, insofar as they are independent of theory. How much is left of the ether? Yet the experiments that the "ether" theory stimulated were essential to grounding relativity. The minor shifts leave behind approximations, like Newton's theory. But Newton's theory itself has been abandoned, except as an approximation of a special case. The assumptions were wrong, but the derived equations have the same form as a special case of relativity.

The mistakes of the past deserve their due respect. It was "reasonable" for our ancestors 5000 years ago to develop an astronomy on the premise that the lights in the skies were gods. Their techniques survive to this day, even if the theory has been shown wrong. It is unreasonable to believe those theories today, like Brownback does.

But to not give history it's due, to imagine that somehow we are completely different from our ancestors, that we are not deluded in our assumptions, is sheer foolishness. Every generation says the same thing. It's not that the earlier theories were stupid, or produced by morons. It's that only morons would believe them today. Hopefully our descendants in a thousand years will give us the same benefit of the doubt, as our theories will surely look as foolish in the far future.

I understand Coyne's attempt at a rhetorical flourish. But to dismiss history so cavalierly is a similar mistake to those of our opponents - a lack of historical perspective which tells us why and how are ancestors were mistaken, why and how we have improved on their methods and knowledge. We compare our science to the past to see how and why it is superior, and to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Epicycles anyone? How often do we see modern science making that same mistake, sticking to a theoretical construct long past the point of it's usefulness by giving it more and more baroque flourishes, fitting curves instead of producing predictions?

Nothing of phlogiston is left either, but the phlogiston phase of chemistry was absolutely essential to the development of modern chemistry.

But you've missed the point. Phlogiston was hypothesized, examined, and discarded through rational, scientific processes. It's the method that distinguishes science, not what the method finds.

In the case of alchemy, only the things produced through empirical testing contributed later on. All of the theoretical work and assumptions of alchemy were abandoned, because they were of no value, because they weren't produced through the correct method and it's virtually impossible to learn anything of vasting value without it.

Hypotheses and assumptions come and go, but the scientific method remains. Alchemy didn't use it, and everything about its method was abandoned.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

Caledonian: "All of the theoretical work and assumptions of alchemy were abandoned"

The same can be said about phlogiston, even though it used the scientific method fully, and alchemy only used it partially. Much of science itself, particularly before the 19th century, has been completely abandoned, except for techniques.

The point is that even science does not guarantee anything permanent over the centuries. It's the best method developed, but even the scientific method was developed by trial and error over the millenia.

Caledonian, you want a sharp line between the alchemical fools, and the scientific masters. Well, historically there hasn't been any. The line isn't sharp but a gradual development of objective methods to look at the world. Alchemy was better than the Aristotelian methods of the medieval philosophers. Without it, the scientific method wouldn't have been born - in practice, it was alchemists who helped develop the scientific method.

The major gift of alchemy was an abandonment of authority as a valid argument for knowledge. The alchemists were outside the church, so they proposed that practice (experiment) was the basis for true knowledge. Of course, they didn't abandon revelation - science was born by abandoning that too.

Science didn't come from a virgin birth. In practice, we often make the same mistakes as earlier generations - argument from authority, or from "common sense", or tradition. Or baroque explanations for phenomena when we are unwilling to abandon our preconceptions. Only by paying proper respect to earlier systems can we recognize those failings in ourselves. We never reach the promised land of objectivity - we only get closer if we honestly look at our past.

You have continued to ignore the distinction between a hypothesis and a system of thought. Phlogiston was the former, alchemy the latter.

As a system, alchemy died. It did not pass on ideas to chemistry, only some pragmatic techniques developed through empirical testing. Its most basic concepts were not developed through empirical testing and were found grossly wanting.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

And you continue to ignore the fact that phlogiston died. It did not pass on ideas to chemistry, only some pragmatic techniques developed through empirical testing. Its most basic concepts were developed through empirical testing (insofar as basic concepts are developed in any field through empirical testing) and were still found grossly wanting.

If you want to argue that phlogiston passed on the bare "scientific method", well then you have to give to alchemy its due - that it too passed on elements of the scientific method, even if it wasn't yet in its full flower. Specifically, it passed on a preference for empirical measurement over scholastic analysis. That is part of the core of science, and that came from alchemy.

Re: "You have continued to ignore the distinction between a hypothesis and a system of thought".

I ignore that distinction because, to put it mildly, it is a simple-minded distinction. Everything has a wider or narrower context. Alchemy existed as a theory of a wider context. But its generic structure was very similar to a scientific theoretical structures. It's life-cycle was similar. It was found wanting for similar reasons - vital essence was as empty a concept as elemental fire.

Additionally, phlogiston was emphatically not a "hypothesis". It was a whole theoretical system, with many embedded hypotheses. Do not do as the creationists do by discarding theories as hypothesis. They are distinct structures, with theories being much closer to "systems of thought" than bare hypothesis, which do not reach the level of specific aims in a grant.

I've gotta support frog here that over generalising things such as alchemy (particularly alchemy), astrology, demonology and even *shudder* creationism as having zero contribution to natural understanding is a false and fallacious argument.

These mysticisms were based on observation and correlation, albeit a primitive form compared to todays. The problem was not that they became supernatural - the problem was they became dogmatic. When observation began to start to suggest they might be wrong, certain elements struggled against progress, favouring tradition and conservatism over advancement.

With astrology - nobody would have been watching the stars closely enough to mark out constellations, draw star maps, notice movement patterns, build telescopes to actually look at them closely to check if they were big tiny shiny angels etc. --- without alchemy nobody would have been carefully experimenting with metals to characterise their various properties and usefulness as reagents --- without biblical literalism, nobody would have been looking for dead fish bones on top of mountains and trying to date them...

But what happens when you use your telescope and find stars are just big giant balls of gas (and some aren't stars at all, but planets, planetoids, comets etc.); when you realise that maybe everything can't be reduced to air, fire and water, and maybe mercury isn't quite that important after all; what happens when you date the dead fish and they seem a bit older then you think, and don't seem to have died all at once...

This is what seperates science from dogma. Not supernatural beliefs, but an ability to say "hey, I was wrong, I can live with that" and move on.

zayzayem: I'll have to disagree that the supernatural separates science from non-science. If by the supernatural, you mean something which can not be physically described, that is unconstrained by law, I don't see how such an explanation could be scientific - science is about what we can predict, and about the lawful limits of prediction.

Some old-school supernaturalism goes that way - the gods and spirits follow certain laws, and if those laws are found empirically wanting, then the gods and spirits are discarded (as has historically occurred). On the other hand, the ME Monotheistic God isn't like that - he is outside any laws (as Job is shown), which means he is useless to science. There is no experiment that can test for "God/Allah/YHWH" - he's not a scientific hypothesis. Therefore, he is simply a useless exuberance that can be discarded as meaningless, since he has no operational effect on reality. A Christian can't give you a testable difference to differentiate a world with "God" and one without.

But even inside such systems, there were preliminaries to science. Even the most dogmatic nutcase must come to terms with objective reality to some degree (such as geocentric astronomy). So even in the worst case scenario, they have historically advanced the predecessors to science, looking at empirical knowledge through a distorted lens. We should discard it now, or at least limit it to simply a poetic reality. But that process has been a gradual one, as "God" slowly retreated from his creation into his own navel.

Additionally, the kind of thinking that allowed spirits and fairies continues today, even among scientists. As I said before, we have plenty of dogmatism in science that slows its development. But the advantage that science has is that discarding dogma has an honored, if painful place, in the functioning of science. They don't burn you at the stake, just deny you grant money for years - and if you're successful, they don't declare a crusade against you, but instead give you a Nobel!

"But that's so old fashioned. We need a modern equivalent, like Dudette is to Dude."

Why should we want the feminine term to be a diminutive of the masculine term, thereby implying that women are merely second-rate, substitute, men?

The feminine of 'Lad' is 'Lass'. 'Ladette' is a derogatory term invented to cover young women who display negative behaviour which, while only mildly condemned in young men, is regarded as far worse in yound women becuase it is not only negative but, horror of horrors, 'unfeminine' to boot.

Alchemy was like chemistry: a whole field of investigation. Phlogiston was just a hypothesis within the field of chemistry.

No part of the ancient fields of investigation survived and were taken up by science except their observations and some of the physical manipulation techniques.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 08 Jun 2007 #permalink

Nice riposte, Caledonian. Almost as sophisticated as "Nya-Nya-Nyah I can't hear you!" by a five year old. As I said, phlogiston was not a hypothesis, any more than quantum physics or evolutionary biology is a "hypothesis". It was an entire field of science, with it's own (failed) theoretical system. By calling it a "hypothesis", you show the same depth of understanding of science of a crude creationist.

Additionally, "no parts of the ancient fields survived"? Neither did phlogiston! What survived of either was very similar - a mind-set. Phlogiston's was more sophisticated than alchemy's, but that's because phlogiston inherited alchemy's mind-set, and expanded it towards greater rationality. And that's what chemistry inherited from both, in addition to technique.

Lord, it's almost like arguing with a religious zealot with you. The same kind of authoritarian statements and magical thinking that defies actual analysis of the situation. Come back when you learn what hypothesis means!

re. Coyne's article & the comment " Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism--none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota."

Most of the issues regarding the errors in this statement have been already noted by readers above. But let me add:

Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Bobert Boyle was an alchemist. Tycho Brahe was an alchemist & astrologer. Roger Bacon was an alchemist. Paracelsus was an alchemist & astrologer. Jabir ibn Hayyan was an alchemist & astrologer. Kepler was an astrologer. Galileo was an astrologer.

To claim that astrology & alchemy were not major components in the path towards modern scientific method is ludicrous. Even if the underlying ideas are completely untrue, we would not have chemistry, astronomy or physics without their contributions.

Even wrong ideas have greatly "advanced our understanding of nature".

Boyle was not an alchemist. In fact, his genius can be seen as attempting to synthesize natural philosophy (including the new stuff) with the somewhat incompatible practices of the alchemists. His other genius (opposite in character to Newton, for example) was humility. Read "On the origins of forms and qualities" where a lot of it is basically "I don't know, and you don't either."

As I said, phlogiston was not a hypothesis, any more than quantum physics or evolutionary biology is a "hypothesis". It was an entire field of science, with it's own (failed) theoretical system.

No, it was a hypothesis that was the base for an attempt at understanding. It didn't have its own theoretical system - it was made within the system that we would now call scientific inquiry.

Next you'll be saying that the atomic hypothesis constituted an entire field of science.

To claim that astrology & alchemy were not major components in the path towards modern scientific method is ludicrous.

Lying about others arguments in order to knock them down easily is a generally-recognized fallacy. You might want to rethink that statement.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 09 Jun 2007 #permalink

"Boyle was not an alchemist"
Posted by: Keith Douglas

From Wikipedia entry on Boyle.
"He himself was an alchemist; and believing the transmutation of metals to be a possibility, he carried out experiments in the hope of effecting it; and he was instrumental in obtaining the repeal, in 1689, of the statute of Henry IV against multiplying gold and silver."

.

No argument from me re. his genius.

" Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism--none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota."
Jerry Coyne from quote in body of article.

"To claim that astrology & alchemy were not major components in the path towards modern scientific method is ludicrous."
Posted by: Jaycubed

"Lying about others arguments in order to knock them down easily is a generally-recognized fallacy. You might want to rethink that statement."
Posted by: Caledonian
.

And I am "Lying about others(sic) arguments" in what way?
You might want to rethink your statement.

Jaycubed : Read his own writings, particularly on the nature of forms (in "On the Origin of Forms and Qualities", The Skeptical Chymist etc.). The wikipedia article is, not surprisingly, wrong. That he thought metal transmutation was possible (by what we would call chemical means) doesn't make him an alchemist; the Aristotlians would have though tthe same thing (see Meteorologica IV for Aristotle's "chemistry").

From OED:

Alchemy - Art of transmuting metals.

Alchemist - One who studies or practices alchemy.

By definition, Boyle was an alchemist because he studied & attempted the transmutation of metals.

Or perhaps you think the OED is wrong too?

Fascinating - on these forums, we've had creationism woo, altmed woo, religious woo, and political woo.

But this is the first time ever, to my knowledge, that Pharyngula has ever had alchemy woo. Congratulations, sir! You've given us the complete set!

I give your comments .19 Timecubes.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 12 Jun 2007 #permalink