Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Contingency in evolution vs the journalists

Answers in Genesis BUSTED! points to New Scientist's reporting of the interesting story of contingent evolution in e. coli.

Fortunately, nowadays we have the resource of actual scientist-bloggers rather than being restricted to what passes for science reporting these days, because the New Scientist story drives me nuts. As much as I love being able to hold a magazine in my hands to read, this reminds me why I decided a few years back that New Scientist was too expensive for what I was getting. (I have boxes and boxes of the things. Is there a good charity that needs a whole lot of old science magazines that I won't go broke getting them to?)

Frankly, it's entirely typical of science reporting, and another example of why science reporting sucks, and why blogging by scientists beats it hands down.

Aside from the fact that the New Scientist report has the emphasis wrong, it's just a generally typical sucky example of science reporting, with distortions of fact and silliness. (To be fair, here and there it does an okay job of explaining some bits, but really, I'm no expert, and I could tell it sucked before I'd read about it anywhere else.)

[Actually, what used to really drive me to screaming fits of rage was whenever they let Ian Stewart start talking about statistics. The guy may be a reasonable mathematician, but his explanations of statistics sucked dogs balls.]

I highly recommend reading the Pharyngula

For goodness sake, even the abstract of the paper he quotes (jargon aside) is in many places better written than the New Scientist article.

Let me quote a paragraph from the New Scientist report:
"In the meantime, the experiment stands as proof that evolution does not always lead to the best possible outcome. Instead, a chance event can sometimes open evolutionary doors for one population that remain forever closed to other populations with different histories."


"doors ... that remain forever closed to other populations" is one of the more ridiculous statements I've seen from New Scientist, and they've had some doozys.

forever closed? forever??

Bullshit. If the "tricky part" - the enabling mutation - evolved once, in only 20000 generations (which then further evolved several times to produce the ability to metabolize citrate), it's obviously possible for it to happen again. The probability of it evolving is not zero.

The fact that Blount, Borland & Lenski couldn't get it to evolve independently a second time just means that probability is likely very low. Maybe extremely low.

But forever is actually a pretty long while. You might think it's a long time 'til lunch, but forever is such a really long time that any mathematically nonzero probability of it evolving in a finite amount of time (as was observed to occur) means that by forever, it will have evolved an infinite number of times. And, if you're not real good with the counting thing, take it from me that infinity times is just a tad bit bigger than zero.

And what's with that bit about "evolution does not always lead to the best possible outcome"? Which cryptotheist retarded version of evolution do they think they are arguing with there? All you have to do is take a look at a human eye (heck, just get a small light and grab a handy animal with a spine) to know that. The blood vessels of the eye lie on top of the rods and cones! They're in the way! Anyone can see them! And the nerves, too - that's why we have a blindspot. And, funnily enough, the light sensitive bits point backwards, away from the light. Our eyes are arranged ass-backwards!
(That it needn't have happened this way is obvious from squid and related creatures, whose eyes are not arranged "backwards" like ours. And there are hundreds of little examples of this sort of thing.)

Evolution is completely cobbled-together (i.e. contingent), and it's already completely obvious that it's so - to anyone with eyes. Well, and maybe a brain.

[based on a comment I made at AIGBusted.]


Vasha said...

Old magazines? give 'em to your local public schools -- they can always find a use for them.

Efrique said...

My first hope is to donate them somewhere that will be able to read them, rather than use them for collages or something.

But, yes, better to give them to the school rather than throw them out.

Efrique said...

Specifically, if there's a reasonable way I could ship them to, oh say East Timor or Afghanistan or Africa or something, assuming a couple of decades worth of old New Scientists (but with gaps and along with a few other science magazines) are useful enough as a resource for me to send them.

There's boxes and boxes of them, so they'd weigh an absolute ton. If it's going to cost me hundreds of dollars to send them, I'm probably better off just donating money somewhere. But if I can do it for, say under a hundred, it's probably worthwhile.

I'm not sure where to even start with that.

Nix said...

Er, do you really want people reading and learning from articles badly-enough phrased that you threw them out?

Efrique said...

nix: But I didn't throw them out. I kept them. I just have stopped buying more.

When I knew a lot less science than I do now, the inaccurate translation and gee whiz phrasing didn't worry me, especially when (to begin with) they were inexpensive.

(i) I know enough for that annoying stuff to annoy me.
(ii) I have better sources for my news; physorg and bbc give me the raw news faster and scientist-bloggers translate and critique the latest papers better.
(iii) the costs have risen even faster than my income (!), so the marginal cost of a new magazine is too high for me, given that it's not doing as much for me as it once did.

But for someone in a poor country who has no internet access,
(i) they may be in a position of only knowing as much science as I did a couple of decades ago
(ii) science information in the books they are likely to have could be years, even decades out of date.
(iii) the price is right! (free, if I can manage to cover postage).

So for someone else, none of the reasons that made me decide to stop buying them may apply, in which case, a dozen boxes of science magazines may be very valuable.