Friday, February 16, 2007


Intellectual Incuriosity

We don't know about rocket science, but being a brain surgeon, apparently, ain't all it's cracked up to be.

A few days ago, Eye On Science, the Time Online blog of senior science writer Michael D. Lemonick took a look at the Discovery Institute's 700 Club -- that's the exhaustive list of 700 "Scientists Who Doubt Darwin."

Just to put that number in perspective, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) serves some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research there were 29,951 science and engineering PhDs granted in 2000. The University of California, Berkeley, University of Illinois at Urban, University of Wisconsin at Madison, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, MIT, and Stanford each produce 400-500 science and engineering graduates a year.

The National Center for Science Education's "Project Steve," a tongue-in-cheek parody of a long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of "scientists who doubt evolution" now stands at 789.

The Steves -- and some Stephanies -- have signed a statement saying, "evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry."

"Project Steve" mocks the creationist list practice with a bit of humor. Because "Steves" constitute only about 1 percent of all scientists, it makes the point that tens of thousands of scientists support evolution.

The "Project Steve" list by the way contains the names of a number of Nobel Prize winners and members of the National Academy of Sciences.

All right, back to brain surgery.

Lemonick's Eye On Science blog took particular aim at Dr. Michael Egnor, a professor of neurosurgery and pediatrics at State University of New York at Stony Brook, and a signer of the Discovery list who was quoted as saying, "Darwinism is a trivial idea that has been elevated to the status of the scientific theory that governs modern biology."

But, it doesn't take a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist to figure out what's wrong with Dr. Egnor's statement.

"Yes, he actually is a brain surgeon, and yes, SUNY is a reputable place," writes Lemonick. "Which is very important if you need your brain operated on, but which says nothing whatever about your sophistication about biological theory or about evolution. Discovery counts on your awe of brain surgery and your awe of magazine 'best' lists to keep you from thinking about the fact that there's nothing here establishing Dr. Egnor's expertise on the topic at hand."

In response, Dr. Egnor posted a comment on Lemonick's blog, "asking a simple question: show me the evidence (journal, date, page) that new information, measured in bits or any appropriate units, can emerge from random variation and natural selection, without intelligent agency."

(Bits? Bits -- binary digits -- are the stuff of Boolean Algebra and computer science. The basic unit of heredity, and hence evolution, is the gene.)

Do we have to lead this eminent brain surgeon by the hand? Is he incapable of doing a PubMed search? Do we have to stack the evidence up before him like the evidence for evolution of the immune system was stacked up before Michael Behe at the Dover trial?

Finding the evidence for evolution is really quite simple. It isn't rocket science, it isn't even brain surgery. All it requires is simple intellectual curiosity. You will find it in your local library. Bookstores will have a section on evolution. Since you are on a SUNY campus, there will be a biology department with scientists who will be able to steer you in the right direction.

Dr. Egnor, I'm not a brain surgeon, just a poor writer, but here's a suggestion. There's a thing on the Internet called Google. It helps you search for information you want to find. Google even has a specialized search function called Google Scholar, which searches scholarly papers. My Google Scholar search of the terms "gene," "mutation," and "evolution" returned 256,000 hits in 0.14 seconds.

It's quick. It's easy. It's free.

You might start here, here, here, here, or here.

See that wasn't so hard, was it.


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