On idiocy

The Discovery Institute, largely a spent force both intellectually and politically since Dover, has chosen to take issue with my comments at the State Board of Education. This is especially amusing as the original disputation of their idiocy came many years ago, and has been published via a NSCE publication for quite some time. Indeed, I refer to this publication in my previous testimony, which was and is available to the Discovery Institute. From this, we can conclude that the Discovery Institute is woefully behind the times not only in terms of science, but even in terms of their own shallow attempts to provide a revisionary context to science. Guys, this just can’t be good for your funding posture. Try to keep up.

But let’s get down to the science, eh? Here’s what’s going on (see previous Blog entry for at least some details):

(1) The Miller-Urey experiment brilliantly showed that it was possible to make organic matter (amino acids) from inorganic matter under relatively simple conditions. That was the point of the Miller-Urey experiment. That is still the point of the Miller-Urey experiment, including in textbooks.

(2) The DI, in attempting to revise all of science to fit its faith-based models, calls the Miller-Urey experiment an “Icon of Evolution” that is somehow false, because the early atmosphere was likely less reducing than Stanley Miller knew at the time he carried out the experiment. Forget for the moment that the experiment was not meant to be a time machine, but rather just a demonstration of mechanism. That evil ol’ Stanley, since he didn’t have a time machine, has somehow foisted off lies on subsequent generations.

(3) The fact is that no one, not even the DI, can say with any assurance just how much amino acid was necessary to kick start life. It is an unknown, because the mechanisms for life’s origins are still being investigated. This is why science is an inquiry-based endeavor, rather than the hot air-based endeavor that the DI has been attempting to sell, with increasingly smaller returns (you lost again yesterday, guys, in case you didn’t notice). It is also why we in the scientific community approach such open questions with the attitude “We don’t know” rather than with the DI attitude of “How can we twist this to a preconceived point of view?”

(4) Since no one knows whether one milligram or one kiloton of amino acids were necessary, nor whether they were necessary for minutes, months, or millenia, really the only point of the Miller-Urey experiment is point the first, above: you can make amino acids from simple conditions, whether reducing or neutral.

(5) The previous piece that I referred to (“Gas, Discharge, and the Discovery Institute”) again points this out. It also points out that the DI’s “Icons of Evolution” piece that said this was impossible, is wrong. Factually wrong. You guys at the DI may recall this, because several years ago it was one of the many things that kept Texas from adopting “Icons” on its approved textbook list. The fact that it was factually wrong. Did I say that enough yet? You were factually wrong.

(6) That said, it sure would be nice if the simple conditions corresponded to the early Earth, as best we can figure those out. So, yes, it would be nice if the production of amino acids was robust (whatever that may mean relative to milligrams or kilotons) in a neutral atmosphere.

(7) Oh, wait, it is possible to get more robust production in an overall neutral atmosphere! You just have to have pockets that are more reducing. This has been pointed out many times, although again when you’re a faith-based, hot air outfit, facts are an inconvenient thing. For the DI to object to the notion that there were reducing pockets on the early Earth is akin to the DI saying “We don’t think there were ever volcanoes, deep sea hydrothermal vents, or really any other anomaly on the smooth, smooth, unbroken surface of our planet.” I leave the refutation to anyone with eyes.

(8) So, when the DI has a vague, anonymous scientist (apparently the only kind that the DI employs) point out, as they do in their current idiot posting (please note the use of the word ‘idiot,’ as it absolutely applies to the DI for their complete lack of understanding of the extant scientific literature) that “This experiment did not ‘revisit’ the Miller-Urey experiments but rather was carefully intelligently designed to convert a neutral environment into a reducing one that is favorable to producing amino acids” (http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/07/andy_ellingtons_citation_bluff048651.html), the only comment that can be made is: well freaking duh. Yes, whether volcano or hydrothermal vent or “Organic synthesis from neutral atmospheres [that] depended on the oceanic availability of oxidation inhibitors [such as ferrous iron] ….” the scientific community has been saying the same thing all along. Point (1), above, is still valid, and has never been invalidated. It’s just now even more validated by expanding the range of possible reducing pockets on the Earth’s surface to potentially include the whole ocean.

The DI claims this all as a teachable moment, saying that “What we see evidence of here is a scientific debate over the origin of life ….” No, actually, the problem with that claim is that science for the most part requires experimentation. You guys don’t do experiments. We do. You guys just carp about our experiments, and you don’t even do that very well.

Nonetheless, I agree that this is a teachable moment. So, students and educators around the nation, you have here a supposed scientific debate, although really since this is the blogosphere this is more of the typical sort of vain shouting match that characterizes much of what you’ll see on the Internet (again, there’s a pretty good reason why you don’t see the DI in actual scientific publications, but only on the Internet, ranting). With that in mind, let’s have some discussion questions for our classes:

(A) Which would you rather see helping to set policies relating to teaching biology, literally millions of scientists who spend their entire careers doing experiments, or a handful of folks at a faith-based think tank whose jobs largely depend on trying to make inconvenient facts go away?

(B) Discussion and debate are valuable things in science. How long should we debate notions such as “Do things fall down because of gravity?” or “Does the Earth go around the sun?” or “Is the fact and theory of evolution proved to the same degree as the first two questons?” Do such debates enhance our understanding of science? Or do they make it ever more likely that you are going to have a future biotechnology or health care industry job outsourced because you can’t do it as well as your counterparts in other countries?

(C) When the Discovery Institute talks about science, what do they really mean? Observation, experimentation, and hypothesis testing? Weak and isolated misinterpretations of a huge body of knowledge? Or just whining for the sake of whining?

Well, Casey, I hope this gets your page hit count up somehow. God knows you need it. But really I don’t think that picking a fight about the facts is going to help you guys much in your further, currently grossly unsuccessful attempts to show your relevance. You didn’t even have boots on the ground at the Texas SBOE hearings this time, you just sent a 80 page screed that in the end didn’t change one word in one textbook up for consideration. Sad, really. But, there ya go. Happy trails.


- originally posted on Friday, July 22nd, 2011