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The Visceral Abstract

2012 October 14

Last week, Paul Broun, a US Congressman on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, asserted that evolution, embryology and big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”  A recent Gallup survey suggests that 46% of Americans agree with him.

Many would tend to give the Congressmen some slack. After all, what we can not observe is a matter of faith. However, while we tend to consider beliefs personal and beyond reproach, denial of observable facts is not faith, but ideology run amok.

In the modern world, the visceral abstract plays a central role.  Without Darwin’s theory, there can be no modern medicine.  No big bang, no iPhone either.  Nearly every facet of our lives is governed by some strange notion that is far removed from everyday experience. Ideas matter.  Those who deny science are, in fact, denying the modern world itself.

The Soccer Ball You Can’t See

Science is a funny thing, full of chance discoveries, strange coincidences and unlikely moments of insight.  In his book, The God Particle, the Nobel prizewinning physicist Leon Lederman tells a story about an alien race at a soccer game to illustrate how it is practiced.

These aliens are very much like humans except that they can not see black and white patterns.  If they went to a soccer game, they would be utterly confused to see a bunch of guys running around a field for no apparent reason.  They could come up with theories, formulas and other conjectures, but would fail to make useful predictions.

Eventually, one might notice a slight bulge in the net of the goal just as the crowd erupted in a cheer and come up with a crazy idea about an invisible ball.  Through further observation, they could test the hypothesis and build evidence.  Although they could never actually see the ball, they could catalogue its effects and use them to understand events.

His point is that science is not common sense.  It deals with things that we do not directly experience, but nevertheless have concrete effects on the world we live in.

The Scopes Monkey Trial

In 1925, John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution, which had been outlawed in the state of Tennessee.  The public drama that ensued became known as the Monkey Trial and attracted both William Jennings Bryan, a three time Presidential candidate and Clarence Darrow, the most acclaimed litigator of the day, to argue the case.

Of course, the trial had nothing to do with monkeys, but was a conflict between religion and science.  The prosecution argued that the bible should dictate what is taught in schools while the defense held that science should be taught by scientists, not theologians. Religion won and even today nearly half of all Americans don’t believe in Darwin’s theory.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tennessee continues to be one of the poorest states in the United states.  As the chart below (from Calamities of Nature) clearly shows, there is a significant link between acceptance of evolution and GDP.

Darwin’s theories found a more receptive audience at Cambridge University, where two young scientists named Watson and Crick discovered evolution’s basic mechanism in 1953. Today, their work has blossomed into the field of genomics, which is making amazing advances in the fight against modern day plagues such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

In truth, Darwin’s theory doesn’t have anything to do with monkeys, but a process called natural selection which we can easily observe in organisms that reproduce quickly, such as bacteria which have a nasty habit of evolving resistance to medical treatment.  Fortunately, Darwin’s theory is not outlawed at hospitals or at pharmaceutical companies.

The theory of evolution is also quite popular at companies like Wal-Mart and UPS, which use genetic algorithms to make their logistics systems more efficient and save us money. The Pentagon reportedly uses similar methods to help keep us safe from terrorists.

Darwin, it seems, is accepted everywhere except in the classroom.

The View From a Bolt of Lightning

When he was a boy, Albert Einstein fantasized what it would be like to ride on a bolt of lightning.  Later, while he was working as a clerk in a Swiss patent office, he gazed at the clock that stood by a nearby train station and extended his daydream to imagine what the clock would look like to a passenger on a train traveling at the speed of light.

His thought experiments led him to conclude that time and space are not absolute, but relative and, by extension, that mass and energy are equivalent.  He, along with those who supported him, were ridiculed by the German authorities who railed against the philosophical consequences of what they termed “Jewish Physics.”

Einstein and his friends found a warmer welcome in the US, where in 1939 he sent a letter to President Roosevelt explaining the logical consequences of his theory, which in turn led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, ending World War II and, by extension, to mullahs enriching uranium in Iran.

The same equations calibrate the navigation systems in our cars, just as they direct the ordinance with which we fight the terrorists that would do us harm.  If the big bang theory is a lie, then all of these things must be so as well.

Spooky Action at A Distance

There is probably no theory more counterintuitive than quantum mechanics, which holds that our existence is not deterministic but driven by probabilities so that a particle that seems to be here has a small chance of being somewhere else instead.  Einstein himself rejected it, declaring that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Nevertheless, this strange theory led to transistors and played a central part in the creation of modern computing as well as the lasers that we see at the checkout line in the grocery store.  Many people are alive today because of MRI machines that detect ailments which would have previously been missed, another example of quantum mechanics at work.

Even Einstein did not wholly reject the theory, but merely expressed skepticism.  For him, it was “spooky action at a distance” and he proposed an experiment that would prove or disprove its veracity.  It was carried out in 1993 and will lead to the next generation of cryptography, which will protect our transactions in the decades to come.

In the end, that is the crucial differences between scientists like Einstein and people like Congressman Broun.  Scientists do not seek to determine answers, but rather to ask valuable questions.  There is a right way to be wrong and then there is willful ignorance. The former makes a contribution, the latter only degrades us.

How the Higgs Boson Got Deported to Europe

In 1993, Congress decided to defund the Superconducting Super Collider that was planned to be built in Waxahachie, Texas due to budget concerns.  The Europeans filled the gap and built their Large Hadron Collider in the Alps, where the Higgs Boson was discovered this past year.

After a half century of American dominance, the center of physics has now shifted back to Europe.  However, I don’t get the feeling that Mr. Broun and his colleagues on the Science Committee are concerned.

The Chairman, Ralph Hall isn’t sure whether the earth is warming or freezing.  Another member, Dana Rohrabacher, has suggested that we burn down rain forests in order to protect the environment, while his colleague Todd Akin believes that no pregnancy can result from a “legitimate rape.”

The results are clear.  We now rank 25th and 17th, respectively, in math and science.  We are 34th in infant mortality, 38th in life expectancy and 16th in higher education.  We’ve fallen to 4th in manufacturing competitiveness and 22,000 Americans die annually due to lack of health insurance.  These are facts, they are undeniable and they matter.

The modern world is a place where ideas are far more than mere personal beliefs, they affect our lives.  Ignorance is not a condition, but a willful choice and it has its price.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris Hillier permalink
    October 14, 2012

    Another great piece, Greg, thanks. As an aside, anyone who steps out of political discussion or activity for whatever reason e.g. “All politicians are corrupt” or “it doesn’t matter which Party is in power” is missing a very important point. Almost every aspect of our life, if not every aspect, is affected by politics. Science is important, and as Greg has also clearly stated, is at the mercy often of our politicians so please be part of the political world and vote, and please help to defend objectivity and scientific endeavor.

  2. October 14, 2012

    Couldn’t have said it better myself:-)

    – Greg

  3. Zafarrano Wolffe permalink
    January 2, 2013

    Mr. Statel,
    You make valid points but haven’t really backed them up. Instead, you’ve included what you see as proof and these incidentals may be acceptable to a casual reader, but most of your supporting points are more coincidental than substantial facts. Your foremost error is assuming what all Christians believe and, in addition, selecting that religion’s (admittingly questionable) precepts and not including the doctrines of other religions and, in turn, including them in your comparisoms. By this, you’re established yourself as an opponent of Christianity alone — your choice, indeed — but that conflict also prejudices your arguments. And, as would any provider of shallow information (but not a true essayist) you’ve not included any positive points of Christianity. That the Catholic Church, for example, is the major provider of orphanages worldwide.

  4. January 2, 2013

    Thank you for your input.

    – Greg

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