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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Top Ten mysteries in science 2007 (Golden oldie!)

In this golden oldie from 2007, here are four of the ten chosen at LiveScience. They are not really mysteries as much as stuff that materialist science can't resolve because it is committed to a program that doesn't work:

10. What Drives Evolution? (Jeanna Bryner)
"While scientists are shedding light on natural mechanisms that work to shape species, many questions in the field are brewing on the lab-bench. And the original question examined by Charles Darwin—what is the mechanism that causes new species to evolve—has yet to be fully explained. And another related question looms: How important are chance events, as opposed to natural selection, to shaping organisms?"
So why is it still controversial to mention this fact in schools?

8. Who Are You? (Melinda Wenner)
The nature of consciousness has long baffled psychologists and cognitive scientists, but recent research is bolstering a consensus, said Ezequiel Morsella, a psychologist at Yale University.

If you think of the brain as a set of different computers, each of which performs different complicated tasks and procedures, consciousness is like the Wi-Fi network that integrates the computers’ activities so that they can work together, Morsella explained.

For example, if you are carrying a hot plate of food to the table, one of your brain’s “computers” will tell you to drop the plate because it’s burning your skin, whereas another will tell you to hold on so the food doesn’t end up on the floor.

The brain requires the “Wi-Fi network” of consciousness so that the different computers can interact, hash things out and determine what you do.

It’s “a physical state that integrates systems in the brain that would otherwise not be integrated,” Morsella said in a telephone interview.
The idea of the brain as a set of networked computers is so 2007. Actually, it's so 1987, but ...

7. How Did Life Arise on Earth (Ker Than):
"astronomical" is a relative term. In his book, The God Delusion, biologist Richard Dawkins entertains another possibility, inspired by work in astronomy and physics.

Suppose, Dawkins says, the universe contains a billion billion planets (a conservative estimate, he says), then the chances that life will arise on one of them is not really so remarkable.

Furthermore, if, as some physicists say, our universe is just one of many, and each universe contained a billion billion planets, then it's nearly a certainty that life will arise on at least one of them.

As Dawkins writes, "There may be universes whose skies have no stars: but they also have no inhabitants to notice the lack."

Shapiro doesn't think it's necessary to invoke multiple universes or life-laden comets crashing into ancient Earth. Instead, he thinks life started with molecules that were smaller and less complex than RNA, which performed simple chemical reactions that eventually led to a self-sustaining system involving the formation of more complex molecules.

"If you fall back to a simpler theory, the odds aren't astronomical anymore," Shapiro told LiveScience.
And the bleat goes on.

6. How Does the Brain Work? (Jeanna Bryner)
According to Scott Huettel of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, the standard answer to this question goes something like: “The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe ... complexity makes simple models impractical and accurate models impossible to comprehend.”

While that stock answer is correct, Huettel said, it’s incomplete. The real snag in brain science is one of navel gazing. Huettel and other neuroscientists can’t step outside of their own brains (and experiences) when studying the brain itself.

“A more pernicious factor is that we all think we understand the brain—at least our own—through our experiences. But our own subjective experience is a very poor guide to how the brain works,” Huettel told LiveScience.

“Whether the human brain can understand itself is one of the oldest philosophical questions,” said Anders Garm of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, a biologist who studies jellyfish as models for human neural processing of visual information.
Must be lots of symmetry there.

The first five are physics questions, which are more fun to try to answer, and may offer less scope for dogmatism.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:


Human evolution: We know little, and with good reason

A friend writes,

This weekend I watched Alien From Earth- a documentary that outlines the consternation that the 'Man of Flores' has caused amongst evolutionary anthropologists. Here is what Nature science editor Henry Gee had to say on the matter ('Evolution of the Gaps' is once again all too evident):
Despite decades of patient work we still know rather little about the evolution of humanity…the remains we have are very scarce and very meager and that means that there are probably lots of different species that existed, lived for hundreds of thousands of years and then became extinct and we know nothing about them…All you need is just one to completely blow apart your well entrenched comfortable idea of the linear progress of evolution.
Basically, it's not clear that the one-metre tall humans who occupied Indonesian island Flores for millennia lived any differently from other ancient humans, so the obsession with classifying them as a different species sounds like just that - an obsession.

See also:

Flores find a clear misfit for human evolution sequence?

The little lady of Flores files

First "hobbits" [an early name for Flores humans], now Pygmies?

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Academics as conformists?: No, they just want to be non-conformists, like everybody else

Or so Nicholas Wade tells us is the view of Thomas Bouchard, the Minnesota psychologist who studied twins raised apart ("Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers," New York Times, July 25, 2009). Now retiring, in an interview with Constance Holden, Bouchard assails his colleagues (paywall). Wade writes,
Journalists, of course, are conformists too. So are most other professions. There’s a powerful human urge to belong inside the group, to think like the majority, to lick the boss’s shoes, and to win the group’s approval by trashing dissenters.

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah.”
Whether you are right or wrong on the facts makes no difference because facts are what the academic monoculture chooses to recognize as such.

David Tyler notes here:
A bit of history of science will help here. Why is it that science did not flower after the young plant started so well among the ancient Greeks? Why did Islamic science falter in the Middle Ages? Why did Chinese science not get beyond some promising technological innovations? The answer is that in each case, the thinking of the scholars was dominated by a consensus ideology. Instead of testing ideas by reference to the natural world, they showed their allegiance was to Aristotelian philosophy (or to the equivalent in the cases of the Arab and Chinese cultures). Why did science develop in 17th Century Europe? It is because the scientists were consciously throwing off Aristotelianism and resolving to test their theories of the natural world by reference to observations of nature. The experimental method was the hallmark of their enquiries.
Wouldn't it be cheaper just to develop avatars of academics that would lecture students on TV screens? They'd all pretty much say the same thing, just like before, right. We could change the graphics now and then.


David Tyler: Used to be horse feathers, but now it's dinosaur feathers?

In "Feathered dinosaurs - speculation and controversy", British physicist David Tyler tells you what the pop science tabs don't, about feathered dinosaurs.
Popular science magazines, television programmes and many educational resources convey the message that birds are descendants of the dinosaurs. Every year brings new evidence from the Jehol Biota of northeastern China that is claimed to strengthen the scientific case. Feathered dinosaurs have started to adorn the pages of National Geographic and elsewhere. A lavishly illustrated book with the title Feathered Dinosaurs has been published recently by Oxford University Press. For many the issue is settled: any dissent is regarded as inexcusable. So it is noteworthy that a leading dissenter, Alan Feduccia (from the Department of Biology, University of North Carolina), has reviewed the book in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
It's always what they don't tell you that you need to watch out for. And Feduccia promptly points out,
... that the selective reading of evidence, together with ignoring of counter evidence, has led to an imaginary world masquerading as science. "Although Long and Schouten promote the orthodoxy of 'feathered dinosaurs', compelling evidence for any proto-feathers in these fossils has always been lacking, and new evidence shows that the filamentous fibers on the small 'feathered dinosaur' Sinosauropteryx represented a complex mesh work of supportive skin collagen fibers; and the body outline on the specimens encloses the fibers. Furthermore, new evidence suggests that feathered microraptors and other groups of plumed maniraptorans are derivatives of the early avian radiation that produced an aviary at all stages of flight and flightlessness." "The small theropod Compsognathus, 'compys' of Jurassic Park, is depicted with a covering of down-like proto-feathers, and modeled after the roadrunner; it is given an expanded throat sac 'critical for temperature regulation' and a pattern of small spots and bars for camouflage. Yet, there is no evidence for any type of feathers in the 'compys' (and, in fact, evidence to the contrary) or for endothermy; unfortunately, no references are provided in the text to papers marshalling evidence contrary to the dogma of feathered dinosaurs, part of an alarming trend in paleontology towards censorship by lack of citation."

Go here for more.

See also: Tyler, D.J. Dino skin shows no trace of protofeathers, ARN literature Blog (11 January 2008)


David Tyler: Tetrapod family tree looks like a bush

The transition from fish to land animal is regarded by many as well documented: it is number two in Nature's presentation of "15 evolutionary gems". Some of the names given to members of the tetrapod lineage are quite well known: Panderichthys and Tiktaalik, Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, for example.
Open any paleontology text or children's book on prehistoric animals, and you will find something between fish and tetrapod, forelimbs or fins planted on the land, tail receding into the water, eyes cast hopefully forward. These images encapsulate an episode of vertebrate history spanning the latter half (390 to 360 million years ago) of the Devonian, the waning days of the "Age of Fishes."
Heartwarming. I loved those stories. However,
Earlier in the fossil record, there are fish and no tetrapods; later in the fossil record, there are clear signs of terrestrial tetrapods - so, it is inferred, there has to be a transition between them. The more we now of the fossil record, however, the more difficult it is to identify an evolutionary branch. Instead of a tree, we see a bush. But this means that the quest for missing links will be elusive. We cannot identify ancestors and descendants in the data accessible to us. This changes the nature of the debate.
It sure does. The tree of life of Darwinian evolution is probably a legend, one that may not even compare favourably with the Tree of Life in the Bible, if you go by its significance in understanding human life and behaviour.

One big problem is, no one sees the transitions in progress, so we do not really know for sure whether they go fast or slow or what drives them. Maybe the story is slightly different in each case.

The journal article discussed is: Contrasting Developmental Trajectories in the Earliest Known Tetrapod Forelimbs, Viviane Callier, Jennifer A. Clack, and Per E. Ahlberg, Science, 324 17 April 2009: 364-367 DOI: 10.1126/science.1167542

For more on the tree of life, go here

For more "tree/bush.groundcover of life" stories from the Post-Darwinist, go here. Especially,

- Darwin's Tree of Life splinters (podcast)

Will gene-swapping fell the prokaryote tree of life?

- Tree of life for plants now a ground cover

Tree of life (Tyler) Bush or forest of life better explanation? Alternatives to common ancestry

Tree of life (Tyler) - force fitting explanations to defend an orthodoxy

Tree of life (Tyler) as unnecessary concept that cannot be justified by empirical data

(Note: The image is of the tree of life is from Wikimedia Commons.)


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