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'scientists anonymous (nz)' write again...

 I've written about the group who call themselves 'Scientists Anonymous (NZ)' before, in the context of determining the reliability of sources. At the time, I commented that I would have a little more confidence about the information this group was putting out there if the people involved were actually identified - as it is, they are simply asking us to accept an argument from (anonymous) authoriry. (I was rather surprised to actually receive a response to that post, albeit its authors remained anonymous.) Anyway, this popped up in my inbox the other day, and was subsequently sent to me by several colleagues in secondary schools: 

TO: Faculty Head of Science / Head of Biology Department 

Please find a link to the critically acclaimed resource (http://programmingoflife.com/watch-the-video) dealing with the nature of science across disciplines/strands.

Interesting to see an attempt to link it into the current NZ Science curriculum with its focus on teaching the nature of science.

 PROGRAMMING OF LIFE

  • The reality of computer hardware and software in life
  • The probabilities of a self-replicating cell and a properly folded protein
  • Low probability and operational impossibility
  • The need for choice contingency of functional information

Freely share this resource with the teaching staff in your faculty/department.

Yours sincerely

Scientists Anonymous (NZ) 

So, I have been to the website. I intend to watch the video tonight (from a comfy chair), but the website itself raises enough concerns, so I'll look at some of them briefly here. And I'll also comment - if they really are 'doing science', then it's not going to be enough to simply produce a list of 'examples' of the supposed work of a design entity (because that's what all the computing imagery is intended to convey) & say, see, evolution's wrong. That would be an example of a false dichotomy, & not scientific at all. They also need to provide an explanation of how their version of reality might come to be. 

Its blurb describes the video as follows:

Programming of Life is a 45-minute documentary created to engage our scientific community in order to encourage forward thinking. It looks into scientific theories "scientifically". It examines the heavy weight [sic] theory of origins, the chemical and biological theory of evolution, and asks the extremely difficult questions in order to reveal undirected natural process for what it is - a hindrance to true science.

The words 'undirected natural process' immediately suggest that this is a resource intended to promote a creationist world-view. I would also ask: if the documentary is created to 'engage our scientific community', then why did Scientists Anonymous send it to secondary school teachers in biology and not to universities & CRIs across the country? The blurb goes on:

This video and the book it was inspired by (Programming of Life) is about science and it is our hope that it will be evaluated based on scientific principals [sic] and not philosophical beliefs.

Unfortunate, then, that they wear their own philosophical beliefs so clearly: 'undirected natural process' as a 'hindrance to true science'.

As well as linking to the trailer for the video, & the full video itself, the Programming for Life website also presents a bunch of 'tasters'. One of these is the now rather hoary example of the bacterial flagellum (irreducible complextiy, anyone?) The website describes 'the'** flagellum thusly:

The bacterial flagellum is a motor-propeller organelle, "a microscopic rotary engine that contains parts known from human technology such as a rotor, a stator, a propellor, a u-joint and an engine yet it functions at a level of complexity that dwarfs any motor that we could produce today. Some scientists view the bacterial flagellum as one of the best known examples of an irreducibly complex system. This is a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts manufactured from over 40 proteins that contribute to basic function, where the removal of any one of those parts causes the entire system to fail.

** As noted on my link for this example, there is no such thing as "the" bacterial flagellum as the sole means of bacterial locomotion: different prokaryotes get around in different ways. Nor is the flagellum a case of design; its evolutionary history has been quite well explained. The lack of quote closure (& of citation) is in the original.

 Mitochondria have their own executable DNA programs built in to accomplish their tasks.

Well, yes, & no. Several key mitochondrial genes are actually found in the cell's nucleus - something that allows the cell to control some aspects of mitochondrial functioning (& incidentally prevents the mitochondria from leaving!). There's a good review article here. That the number of nuclear-based mitochondrial genes differs between taxa is a good argument for evolution; for design - not so much.

Much like the firewall software on your computer the membrane contains protein gate keepers allowing only those components into the cell that belong and rejects all other components. The membrane is thinner than a spider's web and must function precisely or the cell will die.

Well, d'oh - except when it doesn't. Viruses, and poisons that interrupt cellular metabolism, get in just fine. They really are pushing the boundary with this computer metaphor.

The human eye is presented as an amazingly complex 'machine' - yet we have a good explanation for how that complexity evolved. And more telling (but omitted from this presentation): the eye's structure isn't perfect - it's a good demonstration of how evolution works with what's available,but hardly an argument for the wonders of directed design. The same can be said for the human skeleton, which is also in the taster selection, along with the nucleus, DNA, & ribosomes (which come with more, lots more, of the computer software imagery).

As I said earlier, if this video is not simply another example of the use of false dichotomy to 'disprove' a point of view with which its authors disagree, it had better provide more than metaphor. That is, I'll be looking for a strong, evidence-based, cohesive, mechanism by which these various complex features sprang into being. Otherwise, we're not really talking 'nature of science' at all.

_______________________________________________________________________________

I was going to stop there (for now) but then I noticed the 'Investigate the facts' heading. It links to a list of various papers & articles that supposedly support the 'design' hypothesis. Richard Dawkins' name caught my eye - he's there for writing that 

Human DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created. 

I had a couple of thoughts; a) metaphor is a wonderful thing, & b) Dawkins is a biologist & science communicator, but not necessarily big on programming. (If I am inadvertently doing him a disservice, I apologise!). Someone else had the same thoughts.

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9 Comments

"Scientists Anonymous (NZ)"

-- Do they have a 12-step program? Do they follow a buddy system to help them give up science?

You do have to wonder, don't you? Last time they wrote to me, they claimed that the anonymity was necessary cos otherwise they could lose their jobs. Last time I looked (admittedly in the US), it was *lack* of religious faith that was a killer on the job market (the fibs in "Expelled" notwithstanding).

I've just watched the video, and have a couple of thoughts.

1) Stripping out the 'which protein came first', the cell mechanics animations seem reasonably okay? I don't have the knowledge to judge how well those descriptions actually stand up.

2) I loved the way they posed a question, and went to an image of a large question mark. The context of "? == No" became quickly apparent.

Michael Birks,

Can you indicate what part of the video you’re referring to (you probably know the usual way is to give the time of the portion you’re interested in). It’s such a long video & while I’d like to help, I don’t want to watch it all!

Just started watching it - the first thing to come up on the screen is advice that if you're interested in the references, go to the 'facts' page on the website. The trouble is, at least some of those references (Dawkins, for example) appear to be either quote-mined or mis-use/misunderstanding of metaphor. At least a couple are by Douglas Axe, who AFAIK is closely linked to the Discovery Institute.
Ah well, onwards & upwards; I should not judge a book by its cover...

My apologies for the delay, Grant.

here's the link to the start of the sequence, from about 11:23

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=00vBqYDBW5s#t=683s

Speaking of delays… :-) Seriously, no need to apologise.

They’re very stylised. I’m tempted to write a blog post on how to represent molecules and their activity well in graphics! :-) There are some excellent attempts that use molecular modelling tools using the actual atomic structures. Although this conveys some of the principles well, this isn’t faithful to the full story.

For one thing the DNA bases are replaced with rods or a fixed side-one view for all bases. (In practice DNA bases are slightly tilted with respect to the helical axis so you can see them and slight variations as you go along the chain. Furthermore, molecules move constantly.)

Just eyeballing it, the scale of that ribosome compared to the DNA looks wrong to me too. (Too small.)

Similarly, replication forks (where the DNA is being replicated into two) are actually in the middle of a huge collection of molecules machinery.

A problem with animations is that they have to “clear out” all the molecules that would sit between the eye point and the subject, and around the subject or the viewer couldn’t see anything. In real life the interior of the cell is absolutely crowded with molecules - not the vast empty spaces around them like in these videos.

But they’re trying to convey concepts, I guess, so you have to forgive it.

If you like molecular animations, there’s another on my blog:

http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2012/01/20/animating-our-dna/

(I’ve another showing the density of molecular crowding; I’d link to it but I suspect two links will make this long comment get tossed into spam!)

I think it was Harvard Uni did some most excellent animations on the cellular machinery (infamously 'borrrowed' for use in the 'Expelled' movie, as I recall)?

Really must finish my review of the 'programming' vid! I am finding it frustratingly difficult to find 45 minutes to actually sit & watch it; interrruptions every few minutes is par for the course these days :-(

Excuse my numerous typos. Ergh.

I remember the fuss over Expelled copying the animations. This time they’ve at least given credits, although I’d be interested to know if the sought permission first. (You’d hope the company would refuse!)

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  • Grant: Excuse my numerous typos. Ergh. I remember the fuss over read more
  • Alison Campbell: I think it was Harvard Uni did some most excellent read more
  • Grant: Speaking of delays… :-) Seriously, no need to apologise. They’re read more
  • Michael Birks: My apologies for the delay, Grant. here's the link to read more
  • Alison Campbell: Just started watching it - the first thing to come read more
  • Grant: Michael Birks, Can you indicate what part of the video read more
  • Michael Birks: I've just watched the video, and have a couple of read more
  • Alison Campbell: You do have to wonder, don't you? Last time they read more
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