07 December, 2006

Truth In Science on Newsnight

Via Richard Dawkin's website, I've been made aware that Truth in Science recently featured on Newsnight. The clip posted there rather annoyingly cuts off before the end of the segment, but I've found another, full version on YouTube:

The report states that 59 secondary schools (out of 4,230) have accepted the Truth in Science packs, although again there is no indication of how this number was arrived at, or what "accepted" means: wrote effusive thank you note? didn't return it or say they'd binned it? The interview at the end involves Paxman, head of Truth in Science Andy Macintosh, and Lewis Wolpert. I'd love to say otherwise, but Wolpert didn't do very well really. There was lots of huffing and puffing about how "it's not science, it's religion"; this is true, of course, but makes him easy to charicature as a "flustered defender of the crumbling Darwinian Orthodoxy". To be effective in such situations, pro-science people need to stay calm, and focus on getting some important points out to the average viewer:

  • Scientists have no trouble with criticism of evolution, or any theory - that's how science works, and how it progresses. But we'd prefer those criticisms not be ones that have been shown, time and again, to be flawed. For example, any criticism which rails against "random chance" is not a criticism of evolution, because it's ignoring the 'selection' part of natural selection.
  • Furthermore, to properly interpret criticism you need a firm theoretical understanding of the theory you're criticising. The level of instruction provided by the National Curriculum is scant enough, without muddying the waters further with pseudoscience that the students are ill-equipped to evaluate rigorously.
  • And let's be clear - "evolution can't explain x, therefore ID" is not an example of the scientific method in action, and "an unspecified intelligence at some point did something to DNA by some unspecified mechanism" is not a scientific hypothesis. When you make some positive hypotheses about the nature of God- sorry, The Designer- and when and how he has done his designing, and show (by experiment, not assertion) that your hypotheses explain the facts better than evolution does, then biologists might start taking ID seriously.
  • Please, please stop waffling on about information being separate from energy and matter. Information is a property of energy and matter. It's like saying that you can have "chocolate flavour" without the ice cream.

Sadly, in this case I think the only hit was scored by Paxman when he pressed Macintosh on who he thought the Designer was - and got nothing but weasel in reply.


Anonymous said...

Natural selection is not in itself a source of information because it requires information before it can operate. You need predation, reproduction, birth/death for it to begin to operate. There is no smooth flow of information from some primeaval disordered system. natural selection if evaluated critically completely fails to address information increase. Ask yourself where the selection processes come from at each point in an imagined evolutionary scenario.
Information is not a property of matter. Ultimately it is an analysis of consciousness. I would also say it is a product of consciousness. As an ex telecoms design engineer I am aware that there are more than one working definitions of information.
The case for evolution is weak otherwise there would be no room for debate and no need for Dawkin's rigorous defence. Andy Macintosh does not need to defend thje laws of thermodynamics because they can be verified any time you like.

CJR said...

"Information is not a property of matter"

Really? Hopefully even Andy Macintosh would disavow you of that one. The "information" of any system, be it a DNA molecule or your cup of tea, is a description of its constituent particles and their positions and momenta. The fact that we assign particular meaning to specific arrangements does not magically increase their information content.

Iknownotwhattodo said...

wtf. So anonymous you think DNA and RNA, hell even proteins, don't have intrinsic information? Hello! Welcome to the wonderful world of molecular biology. Sure evolution is still to be understood in more details, the complexities teased out. Doesn't mean it's wrong does it?

Anonymous said...

There are working definitions of information in many disciplines. All are ultimately analysees of consciousness.
In the field of telecoms Shannon years ago came up with a good working definition.
What you are describing is an attempt to define the state of a system of particles, and this could indeed be termed 'information'. Presumeably you are making an attempt to get to basics here. Ultimately as you may know you can't do this because, among other things, of Hiesenburg's Uncertainty Principle.
In newtonian physics you can do this, but that only applies to large scale chunks of matter. To those who have an exaggerated view of what physics can predict and model, I recommend 'A Different UIniverse' by Robert B Laughlin, himself a recent Nobel Prize winner in Physics.
I think you'll find when you get down to it that in every case you are dealing with a working definition within certain boundaries, and as I said, a product of conscious analysis and not a thorough exhaustive definition of physical reality.
I think Andy Macintosh would agree. I will ask him if you like, I met him once and he gave me an e-mail address.