email - July 2013

Education or Gossip?

When you repeat something you heard, it’s just gossip.

Here is Peter’s reaction to last month’s newsletter.

Dear David,

The responses of Jason and Matt reflect the type of thinking I got from my Florida high school science teacher correspondent earlier this year. I.e., "You don't know anything, if you read a book or two it will all come clear to you, etc...." On the other hand, she could not explain anything either, but was anxious that I read something she had read (or not) and firmly convinced it was all correct (without actually knowing the processes herself - talk about faith!).

I've taken a hiatus from discussing such things on-line because it seems so pointless to try to persuade someone - not that what I believe is right, but that logic demands they take a closer look at the evidence. All I get in response is my correspondents putting a finger in each ear and saying "blah blah blah blah..." I really wonder if God has not hardened their hearts and stuffed their heads with such nonsense. Their intransigence makes little sense otherwise. Ah well.

Keep up the good work, let us know if you hear from these wizards again.

Best wishes,

Let’s not be too hard on teachers! I spent more than a third of a century employed as an engineer; but I am also a retired teacher. At various times in my life I was employed by the University of Nebraska and Cerro Coso Community College to teach electronic engineering, the U.S. Department of Defense and Transport Canada to each computer programming and software development, and Dietze Music House to teach guitar.

Therefore, as a former teacher, I take personal offense at the saying, “Those who can—do. Those who can’t—teach.” But, I must admit that in only one of my five teaching jobs did I ever have to demonstrate my ability to do what I was teaching my students to do. I did have to play the songs my guitar students were trying to learn. In the other four cases, the students just had to take my word for it that I knew what I was talking about.

What concerns me is the apparent willingness of students to believe whatever the teacher says without question, no matter how absurd it is.

The professor who presented the lecture on radioactive decay we wrote about last month 1 never used the equations in his slides. If he had actually used the equations, he would have realized that, according to the equations, a tiny amount of uranium will eventually decay into an unlimited supply of lead (at an ever increasing rate). He must have been mindlessly repeating what he had read or been told. It was just gossip. Apparently, no student ever dared question him about the obvious errors in the equations.

Last month, Jason scolded me by saying, “I'd read up on given aspects of the scientific methodology before discounting them,” as if I never had. Perhaps he should read up on things before accepting them. Clearly, he did not understand the equations he cited as proof. If he had understood them, he would have known they were wrong.

When you just repeat something you hear without checking its veracity (especially if you don’t check it because you want to believe it), it is just gossip. What often passes for science these days is nothing more than gossip.

For example, the following quote was written about 18 months ago regarding a New Hampshire anti-evolution bill. It is old news now, but it makes the timeless point that at least one biology professor doesn’t understand the difference between experimentally observed phenomenon and personal opinion.

In New Hampshire a bill would "require evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism." A second bill does not mention evolution specifically but would "require science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes."

The bill "turns skepticism into bewilderment," said Zen Faulkes, a biology professor at the University of Texas, Pan America. "It would ask teachers to say to students, 'Don't commit to the hypothesis that uranium has more protons than carbon,' or 'Remember, kids, tomorrow we might find out that DNA is not the main molecule that carries genetic information.' Evolution is as much a fact as either of those things, so it should be taught with the same confidence." 3

There is experimental evidence that uranium actually does have more protons than carbon. The number of protons (and neutrons, too) in uranium and carbon have been measured in the laboratory many different ways by many different people. Experiments have shown that DNA does carry genetic information. “Gene jockeys” have caused species to glow in the dark by transferring genes from other luminescent species to them. That’s real science which can be taught with confidence.

Compare that to this gossip, which passes for “science” today.

A giant, plant-eating lizard successfully competed with mammals about 40 million to 36 million years ago.

Researchers led by Jason Head at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln identified the lizard in a diverse assemblage of fossils collected in Myanmar. The teeth and jaws of the creature revealed that it was a plant-eater, and at an estimated 27 kilograms, it was one of the largest animals in the area. The researchers dubbed the species — which was almost twice the length of any living herbivorous lizard — Barbaturex morrisoni after the [Doors lead] singer Jim Morrison, who famously proclaimed himself the lizard king. 3

The prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, Nature, simply repeated this gossip (first published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B) as if it has the same credibility as experiments measuring the atomic mass of uranium, or genetic experiments that determine the effect of damaging a particular gene in a fruit fly.

Jason Head looked at “a diverse assemblage of fossils.” Actually, he studied just three teeth and three partial jaws which may or may not have belonged to the same species, and certainly not the same individual (unless it was a three-jawed lizard), and created a mythical lizard from them (and named it in honor of a rock star who probably died of a heroin overdose). He came to the conclusion that the teeth came from a lizard twice as big as any one living today. He apparently rejected the conclusion that they could not have been lizard teeth because no living lizard has teeth that large.

Some lizards eat only insects. (As a boy, I fed my pet lizard live house flies because it would not eat lettuce. Fortunately, I also had a dog that produced fly bait in the back yard.) This big lizard supposedly ate plants.

We infer a predominately herbivorous feeding ecology for the new acrodontan based on dental anatomy, phylogenetic relationships and body size. 3

Yes, they had dental anatomy, but how did they know the phylogenetic relationships and the body size? The term “phylogenetic relationships” simply means, “biologically related species.” They didn’t do a paternity test on the teeth. They had no way of knowing what species the teeth came from, let alone what other species were biologically related to the unknown species. They didn’t find any skeletal bones (other than the three partial jaws) so they had no way to tell body size and shape independent of the teeth.

The article is filled with fanciful conclusions like this one.

Paleotemperature estimates of Pondaung Formation environments based on the body size of the new lizard are approximately 2–5°C higher than modern. These results indicate that competitive exclusion and predation by mammals did not restrict body size evolution in these herbivorous squamates, and elevated temperatures relative to modern climates during the Paleogene greenhouse may have resulted in the evolution of gigantism through elevated poikilothermic metabolic rates and in response to increases in floral productivity. 3

If unsubstantiated wild speculations like these really were scientific, then it would be an undeniable scientific fact that Jim Morrison and Jason Head must have enjoyed the same drugs. (I won’t say that because I am a real scientist.)

Reality is the judge of truth for real scientists. The rocket reaches orbit or not based on the laws of physics, not the oratory skills of the scientist. It may be a great story, but without observation or experimental verification, it’s just gossip.

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1 Disclosure, June 2013, “Isotope Issues”,
2 Lorenzo Albacete, January 04, 2012, “EVOLUTION/ When the law decides whether a theory is scientific”,
3 Nature, 13 June 2013, “Big lizard among mammals”, page 141,
4 Proceedings of the Royal Society B , 5 June 2013, “Giant lizards occupied herbivorous mammalian ecospace during the Paleogene greenhouse in Southeast Asia”,
5 ibid.