“If there are American scientists, or philosophers of foremost rank, who believe the dogma and creeds, they have been strangely silent.” – A. Powell Davies, America’s Real Religion, The Beacon Press, 1949
THERE are people who strongly disagreed with my earlier article, “Monkey Business,” and will disagree with this one. I will, naturally, read your letters, but why don’t you publish your counter claims and arguments and let the whole organization have the benefit of our divergent views? That’s what aj is all about, isn’t it? – JLW
Monkeys, Other Relatives, and the Hazards of Basic Research
IN Boxwooder No. 88, I gave voice to my surprise and dismay at the rising influence of anti-evolutionists on the content of textbooks for elementary schools. My article was prompted by “The Science-Textbook Controversy” by Dorothy Nelkin in the Scientific American for April 1976.
Letters in succeeding issues included arguments by anti-evolutionists that included such statements as: “the bases of science are non-rational,” and “the scientific community needs to come to grips with its effects on public life, morals and values.”
The first quote illustrates the difficulty of arguing with “flat-earth” people. What does it mean to say that the bases of science are non-rational? The second quote does have meaning and will be discussed further on.
Few of the people who wrote to me about my article understood what I was trying to say. For instance, I did not say, and do not believe, that there is any conflict between the theory of evolution and Christian religion. The conflict is between evolution and the “fundamentalists” who, it is devoutly to be hoped, represent only the lunatic fringe of Christianity. The conflict between science and religion of which I spoke is not between a scientific theory and a tenet of religion, it is one of attitude. The scientist is, by nature and training, a skeptic and must question every conclusion and accept only those for which there is evidence. However a scientist must have faith in the constancy, consistency, or fairness of nature. He may not understand some phenomena but he does not believe nature is arbitrarily changing the ground rules. He believes in a Grand Design, a Logical Universe, or something similar. And it may be just this that many scientists seem to perceive as God. This may have been Einstein’s thought when he said, in referring to the quantum theory, “God does not play at dice.”
In general I am opposed to the notion that all of our disagreements stem from communication failures. I understand perfectly well what the fundamentalists are saying, I just think it is nonsense. And though some of your comments showed you didn’t understand what I was trying to say in “Monkey Business,” I don’t think a fundamentalist would believe my argument simply because he understood it.
Some of the people who wrote me have a false impression of scientific research. Indeed, the word research has different meanings in different fields of study. Let me assure you that scientific research does not consist of searching the literature to find out what various authorities think about a phenomenon. In the dark ages this may have passed for research but not in the past four centuries. A scientific theory is not an unsupported supposition. A scientific theory is an explanation of observations based on hard evidence and not contradicted by a single observation. Some of you said: “It’s just a theory…” as if your suppositions and “what ifs” were somehow just as valid. Gravitation, the electro-magnetic character of light, and atomic structure are also “just theories.” Let me say it again: Theories are not someone’s guess, they are not immutable pronouncements of dogma, they are not “right,” and they are not “wrong.” They are the conclusions drawn from the evidence at hand and are subject to change and refinement as more evidence becomes available.
By the way, evolution does not merely mean that you are related to monkeys and apes, they are just your close relatives. You are also related to the horse, the fish, the cockroach, the tree, the grass, the germ, and to every living thing on earth. What could possibly be more astonishing or more wonderful?
In regard to the statement that the scientific community needs to come to grips to the effects of research, the author of the original article said in the July 1976 letter column of Scientific American: “The response to my discussion of the science-textbook debates suggests that to those critical of science the social and moral implications associated with a scientific concept may vastly override any details of scientific evidence. It is important, I feel, for the scientific community to appreciate this point, since it bears on how science can be understood and received.”
There was a time, before 1945, when scientists claimed they had no responsibility for the applications and social effects of their research. I think most scientists agree that when Oppenheimer, at the first atomic blast, said: “We have now known sin,” that he understood, and nearly all scientists have since come to understand, that there is no escaping the responsibility for research that may exterminate us.
OK, most scientists would agree that the social implications of their research should be considered by them. But that only leads to another question: Is the scientist, or anyone, capable of predicting, estimating, ok guessing at the implications and ramifications of a piece of research? Unfortunately all the evidence is that valid prediction is beyond the realm of possibility.
The Department of Defense plays the game of demanding “military relevance” for its basic research program, but every one involved in basic research knows that the claimed relevance is nonsense.
It is typical that the major applications, not to mention social effects, of any basic research are totally unexpected by the man who does the research and by the institution that sponsors the research. And that includes the famous energy-mass equivalency that now seems so obvious to us.
A modern example is the laser. In the first several years after the discovery of the laser, it was known as a “solution looking for a problem.” Now everywhere one turns an application pops up, as various as “welding back” a detached retina in a human eye to “shooting down” an airplane.
Holography was a laboratory curiosity for many years with little application foreseen. Coupled now with acoustic and laser advances it is involved in everything from computer memories to examining our internal organs.
The most straightforward presentation of the plight of scientists, and the rest of us, that I’ve seen is “Homo Scientificus According to Beckett” by Max Delbruck in Science, Scientists, and Society, edited by William Beranek, Jr., Bogden & Quigley, 1972.
Professor Delbruck answers some questions such as: Is pure science to be regarded as overall beneficial to society? His answer is: “Clearly the present state of the world – to which science has contributed so much – leaves a great deal to be desired, and much to be feared. So I write down, ‘Doubtful.’” To the question of whether pure science is to be considered as something potentially harmful, he answers: “Most certainly.” When asked if a scientist should consider possible ramifications of his research and the possible effects on society of his research, he said: “I think it is impossible for anybody, scientist or not, to foresee the ramifications. We might say that is a definition of basic science.”
The present scientific bugaboo is, of course, genetic tampering. Anyone can see it has a great potential for benefits and for serious harm. But the chance of controlling it through legislation is slim because it is extremely unlikely, due to our poor predictive capability, that we will pick the important aspects of it to control.
Our predictive capability is poor enough when applied to straightforward engineering projects. How many times has a bridge been built for the projected traffic load of ten years only to have it overcrowded in three years? Can we realistically expect of scientists a predictive capability that is not present in business, in politics, or in any other sector of our society?
We live in an uncertain world that can be destroyed by the insanity of an American president or by the insanity of a Russian premier. It may also be destroyed by the unknown ramifications of some basic research now in progress in any laboratory anywhere in the world.
One of the points of my original article, and of this rehash, is that any hope of intelligent control or valid decisions about the applications of scientific research requires people who are at least trying to understand what is going on. Appealing to ignorance or fostering dogma, superstition, and anti-intellectualism is even more likely to be disastrous.
Letter to a Publisher
I have been trying for about four months to buy a copy of Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct. I have tried several bookstores including Brentano’s and the Walden Book chain. No one has it, but each offered to order it for me, and therein lies my puzzle. Each store says it would take 8 to 12 weeks to obtain the book on special order.
Has the publishing industry gone crazy? I would think 12 weeks was about right if we were starting from a manuscript, not from an already printed book reposing in a warehouse in New York some four hours from here by slow train.
Of all the things that people buy, surely a specific book must be one of the most discretionary, and therefore one that should be quickly available while the prospective buyer is in the mood.
It has been suggested to me that it may be possible to obtain it through Publishers’ Central Bureau as a remaindered book more quickly than than I can get it on special order.
I could understand that a book could be sold out and might require months for reprinting, but I’m told at Brentano’s that this waiting time is for any book by any publisher, and that nothing can be done about it.
This last claim is obviously wrong. I can make do with the copy of Barzun’s book that I now have from my public library and not buy the book at all. When you remainder the book, I hope someone will note that at least one more copy could have been sold if it had been available.
I hope you understand your business; I have my doubts.
More Dead Than Alive
RECENTLY in a discussion of world population I was startled when someone claimed that most of the people who ever lived are now alive. In spite of the population explosion this did not sound reasonable to me, but I could not, at that moment, rebut the statement. Later (I always think of the answer later.) I found an easy way to demonstrate that the statement could not be true: Man has been around for at least a million years, the present population is about four billion; so if, on the average, 4000 people have died per year since one million years before the present, the number of dead people would equal the present population. Saber-toothed tigers probably ate that many people in the early days and Buick’s Le Sabre probably accounts for that many today – counting passengers, drivers, and pedestrians.
Using estimates of world population from “The History of the Human Population” by Ansley J. Cole, Scientific American, September 1974, I have attempted a better estimate of the number of people who have died since one million B.C.
No great accuracy is possible or claimed, but I will try to be reasonable, and you will see that little accuracy is required to make the point.
I will assume that everyone lived exactly 70 years and that the average population for a period is the arithmetic average of the population at the beginning and at the end.(This is not the correct average to use, but if you look at the curves in the cited article, you’ll see that it’s not too bad for the intervals I’ve chosen.)
Thus for the period 1 million B.C. to 8000 B.C. the average population was 4 million and in that interval there were 14171 periods of 70 years and therefore 56.6 billion deaths.
From 8 million at 8000 B.C. the population increased to300 million by 1 A.D. During this period, using an average of 154 million population, there were 17.6 billion deaths.
From 1 A.D. to 1750 the population grew to 800 million and 13.8 billion died.
From 1750 to 1850 the population grew to 1.3 billion and 1.5 billion died in the interval.
From 1850 to the present, at least the 1.3 billion alive in 1850 have died, so add 1.3 billion.
In summary the number dead is:
1 million to 8000 B.C…. 56.6 billion
8000 B.C. to 1 A.D…. 17.6
1 A.D. to 1750… 13.8
1750 to 1850… 1.5
1850 to present, at least… 1.3
Total… 90.8 billion
So approximately 4.5 percent of the people who have lived are now alive. But 20 to 30 percent of the people born since 1 A.D. are now alive. That’s startling enough.
Nothing Special About a Senator
THE D.C. government arranged for Senator Stennis to park right in front of his house by making it a no-parking zone and telling the police not to ticket the senator’s car. This was arranged at the request of city councilwoman Polly Shackleton. She said she did not request this favor for Stennis because he was a senator, but “because he is an older person with a physical problem.” She said she would do the same for any other handicapped person in the District.
“I hope this doesn’t get publicized because it will create a lot of problems,” Shackleton said later in the telephone interview with the Washington Post. “If it gets in the paper, I’ll have a hundred calls from other people who are old and sick asking if you can do this for me, and obviously we cannot.”
Horror Tale of the South Pacific
SOMETIMES I have to admit that there is something to our stereotyped characterizations of nationalities and other groups. It may be that orientals are truly inscrutable – at least the Chinese who operate the South Pacific Restaurant certainly seem to be so.
As reported in previous Boxwooders there have always been peculiarities associated with eating at the South Pacific, but the one thing that kept us all going there for lunch was the absolutely unsurpassed hamburger. Over the years the price had crept up from 95¢ to $1.50 but we never wavered; it remained a best buy because of its high quality.
One day several months ago when I ordered my usual slice of onion with my hamburger, the waiter demurred more stubbornly than ever. “Onion now comes with it,” he said. He was right. The “South Pacific Hamburger” had been replaced on the menu by “Mongolian Hamburger,” and the formerly cooked-to-order hamburger had disappeared in favor of a smaller hamburger, cooked en mass and stacked on a plate full of like hamburgers from which, when an order is received, the hamburger is placed on a small bun and delivered with a dish of fried onions to the table. It is a mean little hamburger that does not resemble the former delicacy.
The attraction for the management must be the smaller size and the advance preparation that makes serving them more profitable and much more rapid.
The manager has listened patiently over the months to our complaints and protests. “Not half as good as Gino’s,” we tell him. “Red Barn hamburgers are cheaper and better.” When one of us goes alone for lunch and the manager asks the whereabouts of our friends, we say, “They went to McDonald’s.”
After some months the lunch crowd in the South Pacific has dwindled to a trickle, and we are concerned that the restaurant could end up in bankruptcy and never understand what put them out of business. I guess one could call it a just punishment for burgercide.
The last time we talked seriously to the manager about it, he said, “I have it in my mind.”
“Does that mean that you are thinking of bringing back the good hamburger?” we asked.
“I have it in my mind,” he repeated.
Just what he has in mind is by no means clear, but months later the inferior Mongolian Hamburger is still being served and even our memory of a good hamburger is growing dim.
Our constant complaining about the quality of the new-style hamburgers had one strange side effect. One day Jack Kane was served a hamburger that he was sure, after he had eaten it, was more than slightly spoiled. He tried to tell the manager about it, but he only laughed and said, “We know. Hamburger no good. You always say hamburger no good.” No amount of effort could lift Jack’s complaint above the normal.
The South Pacific affords one of the few instances where the cliche about “not communicating” is certainly true.
With the coincidence that is a constant amazement in true-life affairs, the day after the above article was written (7 December 1976) the manager of the South Pacific stopped me as I was leaving after lunch and said, “I’m thinking of bringing back the old-fashioned hamburger. Maybe next week.” So far, ten days later, that has not, as Howard Cosell so foul-mouthedly says, eventuated.
The Romans Examined Entrails; We Take the Next Step
A NEWS STORY claims that the USSR and the USA examine the toilet wastes from each other’s visiting aircraft for whatever information may thus be gleaned. We’ve come a long way since it was claimed that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”
Optimism is Hard to Cure
“THIS is going to be my lucky year after 55 bad ones,” said Mrs. Thompson who will be 56 in July. – Washington Post
Handset in Deepdene and Franklin Gothic. Inks are Van Son Ivy Mint (with a dab of mixing white) and 40904 Black. Cover is Standard Opaque Text, 232M. Text paper is an unknown 50-lb offset. Published by Jake Warner and 475 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770
On 20 December 1976 the South Pacific Hamburger reappeared as delicious as ever. Somewhere in all this lurks a moral.