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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Just up at Colliding Universes

All things are possible through the scientist who postulates very large numbers? Especially unimaginable things, I am sure.

Settled science chronicles: Reader disses "best science" boilerplate

Life could be just plain rare but not unique in the universe

Catholic Cardinal: Multiverse theory an "abdication of human intelligence"?

More textbook chronicles: To Goodwill, to Goodwill, to buy us a text

A friend tells me that Goodwill is a great place to buy used textbooks. Recently he discovered William A. Haviland’s textbook, Anthropology*, which - he advises me - promotes materialism.

I should have brought the feather duster to knock myself over with, right?

Anyway, Haviland apparently states that our origin “was made possible only as a consequence of historical accidents” and was an “essentially random event.”

This type of observation is quite common among textbook authors, and notice what it depends on: The materialist knows by faith alone that our origin was an "essentially random event." If he didn't know that by faith, he could not know it at all, since he would have to analyze the evidence in some detail, and much of the evidence is lost and much of what isn't lost points in another direction.

From the text, we learn,
The history of any species is an outcome of many such contingencies. At any point in the chain of events, had any one element been different, the final result would be markedly different. As Stephen Jay Gould puts it, “All evolutionary sequences include … a fortuitous series of accidents with respect to future evolutionary success. Human brains did not evolve along a direct and inevitable ladder, but by a circuitous and tortuous route carved by adaptations for different reasons, and fortunately suited to later needs."

(William A. Haviland, Anthropology, pg. 123-124 (10th ed., Thomson-Wadsworth, 2003).)
Again, how does Haviland know that the history of any species is an outcome of many such contingencies? Or that "had any one element been different, the final result would be markedly different"?

Even if one were a pure naturalist, there are a number of reasons for supposing otherwise. For one thing, form is limited by function. As Michael Denton pointed out in Nature's Destiny, the marsupial mammals of Australia organized themselves in pretty much the same way as the placental mammals did. The marsupial wolf skull was quite similar to that of the placental wolf. But that similarity makes sense if we keep in mind that a wolf of any kind must do certain things, one of which is to fell large prey animals. That rules out a variety of types of skull immediately.

But function is also limited by form. Could insects be as intelligent as people? Well, it would help if they were much bigger, were warmblooded and had actual brains, wouldn't it? Absent those qualities insects are not likely headed to Harvard any time soon, except as subjects of study.

Anyway, you will hardly be surprised to learn that my friend thought that this was "one of the worst texts" he had ever seen. I'll take his word for that, though I am sure I've seen worse.

*The linked text is actually the 2007 edition. I can't find 2003 at the 'Zon just now.


Yet another journalist skeptical of Darwin lobby

I am rapidly developing a guest list for a Hacks' Pub Nite!

Here's a recent piece (May 5, 2008) from Lew by veteran journalist Charley Reese who is agnostic about evolution, creation, or intelligent design:
True science means simply the search for truth, but a search conducted with an open mind and tolerance for dissent. There is nothing wrong with a person believing that a dinosaur evolved into a canary, but there is also nothing wrong with someone believing that God created the first man and woman. I've never seen any physical evidence to support either belief, and one is no more improbable than the other. The only fact is that some beliefs have to be accepted on the basis of faith, and that goes for evolution as well as creationism.

He adds, and I almost agree,
The trouble is that both science and religion provide a person with a worldview, and unconsciously the person begins to evaluate everything he or she sees or hears or thinks up in accordance with the worldview. I see no reason to include any discussion of evolution or creationism in secondary schools. There is a large volume of facts biology students need to learn without wasting their time on theories that have no practical value. It's like teaching molecular physics to students studying auto mechanics.

Almost agree? Well, like Reese, I have been struck by the way in which textbooks suddenly diverge into ideology when discussing evolution. No one gets ideological when discussing the fact that legless lizards have ears or that the sex of baby alligators hinges on the ambient temperature.

But - for example - in a discussion of the difficulty of providing a useful account of the origin of life or the Cambrian explosion, many textbook authors resort to blatant propaganda like "science has solved other difficult problems."

Yes, indeed - when information is available. But so many pieces are missing from the origin of life puzzle or the Cambrian explosion puzzle that we actually have no idea what the picture would even look like, just a variety of interesting speculations.

Personally, I enjoy OoL and Cambrian speculations and have read a number of books on the topics with interest. But I don't confuse them with books on facts, like "Do legless lizards have ears?" or "How do alligators reproduce?"

If only honest admission that we don't know some of these things would replace ideological blowharding in science texts, maybe these interesting topics could be kept. On the other hand, maybe Reese is right: The ideologists will never leave them alone so just dump them.


Textbooks: Unfortunately, Richard Feynman was NOT joking!

Recently, I was blogging on lousy textbooks and why they stay lousy.

An editor friend in Toronto offers me the salutary reminder that problems with science textbooks go back a long way, and were highlighted in 1964 by eminent physicist Richard "Surely You're Joking, Mr. - " Feynman. Alas, he wasn't, as this excerpt illustrates:
I'll give you an example: They would talk about different bases of numbers -- five, six, and so on -- to show the possibilities. That would be interesting for a kid who could understand base ten -- something to entertain his mind. But what they turned it into, in these books, was that every child had to learn another base! And then the usual horror would come: "Translate these numbers, which are written in base seven, to base five." Translating from one base to another is an utterly useless thing. If you can do it, maybe it's entertaining; if you can't do it, forget it. There's no point to it.

[ ... ]

But it's worse.

[ ... ]

Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a
temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars.

John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.

The Textbook League offers a much longer excerpt from which this is taken.

Having helped put together a number of textbooks, including a few science jobbies, all I can say in response to "Believe the textbook" is, "No, because we can't afford to."

Look, a lot of textbooks are like sausages - if you knew what goes into them, you would ask for the salad menu.

Note from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1999: "Judging Books by Their Covers" appeared as a chapter in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" -- Feynman's autobiographical book that was published in 1985 by W.W. Norton & Company. These excerpts are from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1999.

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