Thursday, April 21, 2005

Our Un-informed Leader

And no, it's not even W this time.

A couple days ago, MSNBC posted this article describing the differences between Einstein an Darwin, and why the Theory of Relativity is generally "accepted", while Evolution is not. The article is based on an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, who has in many ways become a leading public voice of astronomy.

You see, that's a shame, because Dr. Tyson just blows it in this interview. The new public spokesperson of astronomy throws out misconceptions about biology, the history of science, and how the public percieves physics. After reading this article, I really don't have to wonder why we have such a hard time teaching science to the general public. With leaders like this, who needs creationists.

Quoting Dr. Tyson from the article:

"So there’s that factor that distinguishes Einstein from Darwin. But I think there’s a stronger factor: There is no science in this world like physics. Nothing comes close to the precision with which physics enables you to understand the world around you. It’s the laws of physics that allow us to say exactly what time the sun is going to rise. What time the eclipse is going to begin. . .it is the powers of understanding, derived from the fundamentals of physics, that give you that capacity to basically predict the future with high precision. . . Darwin’s theory of evolution is a framework by which we understand the diversity of life on Earth. But there is no equation sitting there in Darwin’s “Origin of Species” that you apply and say, “What is this species going to look like in 100 years or 1,000 years?”"


We've heard this one before. Physics/Astronomy are predictive, all the other sciences are just classification. It seems that the good director took his arrogance pills on the day of the interview. Yeah, it's nice that astronomers can predict the time of the sunrise or an eclipse, but that's because the Earth-Moon-Sun system is incredibly simple (3 bodies that don't touch). Now, when you deal with a system containing 40,000 genes, 21 amino acids, and extrodinarily large numbers of protiens, it becomes difficult to predict things. If we're really going to compare apples to apples, then I would ask Dr. Tyson if he could predict from first principles the detailed structure of the local group (Why two large spirals instead of 3?). He couldn't do it because the system is too complex. Similarly, he couldn't predict the evolution of the local group much beyond a Hubble Time (if anywhere near that) because the system again becomes too complex (e.g. the local group would interact with other galactic groups/clusters).

Even at that, Evolution is predictive, however. If we take a small number of individuals from one species and separate them from the rest of the species and then place them in a slightly different environment, we know that decent through modification will occur. Come back to that separate group in 1,000 years maybe, and either the decendants will have died off, or they will likely be something close to a new species. We can also predict that if we introduce foreign speicies into an environment those new species will compete with the native species for similar niches, and only the most well adapted to the environmental conditions will survive. That's natural selection as well. Both cases are experimentable and predictive.

Furthermore, isn't one of the fundemental underpinnings of 20th century physics something called the "Uncertainty Principle" (which Einstein didn't like by the way)? And doesn't the UP say that we can't predict everything to infinite precision, because we affect systems just by watching them? How does that fit into our wonderfully future determining physics model?

Dr. Tyson's physics arrogance comes through in other ways. In his second paragraph, he talks about how Relativity overturned the paradigm of physics where Evolution merely filled in knowledge gaps. This could not be further from the truth. Darwin's theory of Decent with Modification was ground breaking. To suggest that species change was only a result of local environmental variables, and not governed by some invisible hand guiding life towards man, was something no one else at the time was saying. I don't know what else you would need to call it a huge paradigm shift. It is exactly this paradigm shift that causes so many problems for evolution. If there was an invisible force of progress, we could chalk that up to "God", ID, or something, but without that, we're left with what we have here on Earth. That a scientist of Dr. Tyson's stature would not value the importance of Darwin's Theory, is frankly frightening.

Speaking of theories, Dr. Tyson is again incorrect in his science history, when he says:
And I would add this, just to nip this argument over “theories” in the bud: Until Einstein, all tested, confirmed physical theories were labeled laws. There’s Newton’s three laws of motion … the laws of gravity … the laws of thermodynamics.

Well, that's not exactly true, because Maxwell (who was involved with everything in the 19th century) developed both the Kinematic Theory of Gasses, and the Electromagnetic Theory. These theories have held up pretty well, and were holding up as theories well before Einstein came along. Face it, for all the popularization of the old guy with the white hair, he's not that important,.

One last thing. Throughout the article, Dr. Tyson claims that Einstein's theory is more readily accepted because it is physics and thus testible/predictive, while Evolution is not accepted because it does not possess these physics properties. I'd like to offer a simpler theory. Relativity is "accepted" largely because it is poorly understood by all but a few physicists. The general population views it as something that smart people deal with, and have no idea about it's implications. Evolution on the other hand is at least seamingly comprehensible, and thus the creationists and ID'ers of the world can try to bring it down. This is why you rarely here creationists attack the age of the Earth/Universe through astronomical arguements. They simply don't understand them, where saying that Man is related to Monkey is something they can go after.

Physicists are limited in their teaching of physics when they do not properly appreciate other sciences. From simply a pedagogical point, being able to link the science that underlies physics to the science that underlies biology and chemistry is an extremely useful tool to draw in more students who would have been previously intimidated by physics. Understanding the similar bases for other sciences would also help physicsts to understand how remarkably misinformed people are about physics (and Relativity for this article). Dr. Tyson believes that it is only a small minority of people that stand opposed to Evolution. He should get out of New York more often. He would probably be even more shocked by the number of people who would dismiss the predictive powers of relativity if they only better understood what it was saying. There aren't prime time shows about aliens for nothing.

I fear for the future of science education if this article exemplifies the best we can do in talking about physics/astronomy's relationship to other sciences. A spokesperson for astronomy should have been a bit more prepared for this interview.

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