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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 6, 2005


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Posted by Derek

Nicholas Kristof had a column today (available on one of those private, subscription-only web sites here) with the title "The Hubris of the Humanities". It's a C.P. Snow-style "Two Cultures" lament, but at least it's one from the non-science side of the gap:

"In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people."

As someone who couldn't decide for a while between a humanities major and a science one as an undergraduate, I have to agree. I finally decided that it was going to be a lot easier to have a library in my basement than a lab. It also dawned on me, slowly, that many English majors had an entirely different approach to literature than I did, and that I wouldn't be very happy over there at all. And while graduate school in chemistry was often unpleasant, graduate school in English would have finished me off for sure.

I recall one day in my junior-year biochemistry class, with the professor telling us that we would be expected to have the whole citric acid pathway memorized for the test on Monday (great lamentation). Then I went straight to my Southern Literature class, where the professor came down hard on us by reminding us that we had to have finished the required William Faulkner reading by Monday, too. Groans from the English majors ensued, but I felt like yelling at them. "Look, you dolts", I wanted to say, "people read Faulkner for fun. No one memorizes the citric acid cycle because they enjoy it!" Of course, that's a major reason why many more people are familiar with Faulkner, isn't it? But not everyone likes "As I Lay Dying" (I do!), and not all parts of a science education have to be tedious.

This is a fundamental problem that my industry has. We're capable of making our own bad PR, of course, but even under blameless conditions we're doing something that most people don't understand very well and didn't enjoy having to try. So when we tell them it's hard, they think "Well, sure, of course it's hard. Tell me something I didn't know." And when we try to explain why there isn't a cure yet for (your least favorite disease here), it's hard to do so in terms that someone without a science background can really appreciate.

And that's one reason why the more irritating conspiracy theories still circulate. You know, the ones about how we pharma types really do have cures but we just aren't selling them (yet). Or how we caused those diseases in the first place, just so we could sell more drugs - I always take that one really well. Or how there are simple, cheap, safe herbal remedies for just about everything, only we Evil Pharma Overlords won't let them on the market. And so on, and so on. I've been arguing recently by e-mail with one of the "drug companies do nothing but rip off NIH" crowd, and it isn't easy. The guy has no idea of what he's talking about, or what I'm talking about, and it would take a fair amount of (unwanted) education to convince him.

But that's one of the things I try to do here - no, not convince idiots, I mean provide some education for those who might be interested. I think that the broad concepts of drug discovery (or pretty much any scientific field) can be understood by any reasonably intelligent person. They have to be explained the right way, of course, because the sad corollary to that statement is that there is no field of knowledge that can't be rendered incomprhensible. And still, even if it's done well, there are gaps. If someone lacks experience in research, there are things that have to be taken on trust.

For example: no, we don't have a machine that'll immediately print out the structure of any unknown compound you stick into it, no matter that such a device makes occasional appearances in movies and on TV. There are a lot of good reasons why that gizmo isn't available yet, and I could probably explain most of them to an interested lay party, given enough time. (For that, you could also read "given enough blog posts".) But in explaining drug discovery as a whole, it's easier to stipulate (in this case) that some time and effort has to go into make sure that the compounds you're looking at are really the ones you think you're looking at. Keep in mind that we scientists have to do the same thing if we're talking with someone in a scientific field that we don't know much about.

So, what to do? Science isn't getting any less important. I really don't think anyone can be considered well-educated without a grasp of the basic concepts of physics, chemistry, and biology. It's not as painful as it might sound. I appreciate the way that Arts and Letters Daily works in some links to science-overview articles - that kind of thing is bound to help. I wish that attitude were more widely shared, and I'm glad that Kristof made his point where he did.

Postscript: I should mention that Kristof goes on to talk about the consequences of scientific ignorance, but he makes the kind of mistake one makes after being marinated in the New York Timesfor years:

"It's true that antagonism to science seems peculiarly American. The European right, for example, frets about taxes and immigration, but not about evolution."

Which is a bizarre thing to say, on several levels. For one thing, hostility to science doesn't come merely from "the right". I'd say that science is equally admired (or used as a whipping boy) by both sides of the political spectrum. And if Kristof thinks that the Europeans can't be scared of scientific innovations, he must have somehow missed the long, loud upheavals about genetically engineered organisms and food over there. The European public cedes second place to no one in their fear of engineered food, and they don't mind going completely past any rational arguments to maintain their lead.

Comments (27) + TrackBacks (2) | Category: Press Coverage


1. Cryptic Ned on December 7, 2005 12:19 AM writes...

Kristof is a world traveller, but he seems to be looking at the idea of "antagonism to science" only in terms of the aspects of science to which antagonism exists in America.

In America, hostility to science is generally from the right (including the President, and everyone with any power in the ruling party), on the topics of evolution and environmentalism.

In Western Europe, there are zero people of any power who think that any alternative to the evolution theory should be taught, and there is virtually nobody who ignores the importance of non-fossil fuels or thinks that humans are not causing global warming.

Whereas the left-wing opposition to science in Europe (GM food) does not exist in the US, even among the left-wingers who would be ignored by people like Kristof anyway. It's hard for Americans to imagine any situation in which public outcry could actually disrupt Archer Daniels Midland's activities, so the anti-GM movement isn't taken seriously.

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2. SP on December 7, 2005 1:04 AM writes...

"I'd say that science is equally admired (or used as a whipping boy) by both sides of the political spectrum"
You really need to read Chris Mooney's blog and book if you believe that. There are people on the left who are anti-science, but a) they're a minority of the left, b) they have no political power, and c) they're not against science as a world view, just certain technologies. The opposites are true of the luddites on the right.
(I suspect you're overdosing on Instapundit again, where you hear about every two-bit ecoterrorist who spraypaints an SUV but don't get anything about anti-science measures that become the law of the land.)

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3. Jeff Bonwick on December 7, 2005 8:06 AM writes...

"There are people on the left who are anti-science, but a) they're a minority of the left, b) they have no political power, and c) they're not against science as a world view, just certain technologies."

Oh, please! The anti-vaccination, anti-fluoridation, and anti-pesticide movements are just three examples of leftist anti-science. And unlike the Kansas case, which only makes government-run Kansas schools maginally worse, the examples I cited are ones where people have exercised real political power to make life worse for future generations -- not out of malice, but because they've allowed a religious mistrust of anything made by a corporation to overrule the objective evidence.

Luddites are alive and well across the entire political spectrum.

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4. SP on December 7, 2005 8:30 AM writes...

"The anti-vaccination, anti-fluoridation, and anti-pesticide movements are just three examples of leftist anti-science"

Right, and I'm sure we'll be hearing the Democratic party platform positions that ban fluoridation and vaccines any day now. I agree these people are out there, but what I said was they don't represent most liberals, and (consequently) they have no power to enact their misguided beliefs, even within one political party. Can you give me any examples of legislation implementing anti-fluoridation, anti-vaccination, or anti-pesticide laws in the US? Are liberals calling for universal healthcare so that everyone can then see a doctor and refuse to be vaccinated?
Conservatives, on the other hand, run the government in this country and actually implement their anti-science positions, and the luddites are a significant voting bloc in the Republican party.

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5. Derek Lowe on December 7, 2005 9:01 AM writes...

SP, I know Mooney's "Republican War on Science", but I'm sticking with my plague-on-both-your-houses position. I think that people of almost all political persuasions line up with the parts of science and technology that that they like, and oppose the ones that threaten their worldview.

Much of the right-wing stuff we're talking about is from social conservatives, who are indeed a vocal and powerful branch in the Republican party. But they're not reflexively hostile to science - consider military technology, or the medical technology that was the only thing keeping Terri Schiavo alive. You could even find a bozo like Pat Robertson and ask him if there was anything in the Bible against satellite television hardware. People support what they feel they benefit from and oppose what they fear.

If we want to talk vaccines, take a look at the MMR/autism controversy in England, which wasn't what I'd call a right-wing plot. Neither is the raging hostility to genetically engineered food.

Trying to fit this into a "stupid Republicans" (or "idiot Democrats") template doesn't work for me.

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6. tom bartlett on December 7, 2005 9:20 AM writes...

Well, I don't understand Quarks myself....

Having said that, I think no one should be able to get a high school diploma without qualitative knowledge of the following:

Newton's laws
the conservation laws
the concept of molar realtionships
the periodic table
a general concept of relativity
a general concept of uncertainty
the history of vaccines and antibiotics
the history of contraception (and methods of use)
Natural Selection
the basics of cell biology, including what is an enzyme; what is DNA; what is RNA; what is a virus
enough earth science to know a bit about tectonics and climate change

Every one of these has major impact on current public policy debates.

BTW: I do not think fears about GM foods are off base. I think they should each be individually scrutinized like a drug for potential unexpected tox, rather than ASSUMING they must be OK-- like we assumed Xrays, Radium watch bands and DDT "must be OK".

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7. The Novice Chemist on December 7, 2005 9:25 AM writes...

I don't want to pile on, but Instapundit has seven ID posts since August 6. Needless to say, he's 'deeply unimpressed' with Intelligent Design.

As for anti-pesticide laws, I can't say specifically. However, I can say that the left (the activist left) can't get enough of suing pesticide makers and users and making odd laws to make life difficult for anyone who uses chemicals more interesting than ethanol. (See 'Right to Know' laws that infest Oregon.)

I'm tired and disappointed that people are throwing around words like 'anti-science' and 'Luddites.' Yes, some (many) Christians are against the forced teaching of only evolution to their children. Yes, many folks on the right are very uncomfortable with fetal stem-cell research. And yes, many on the right are unsure of global warming theory and unwilling to sacrifice economic growth because of it. But that doesn't mean they're 'anti-all-science.' I'm an organic chemist and I haven't seen any GOP pickets recently. I guess that "The Republican War against certain aspects of Biology and Climate Change" wouldn't sell as well.

Finally, I wish to congratulate whoever on the left decided to frame the debate 'anti-science' and 'pro-science.' It is a stroke of genius.

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8. SP on December 7, 2005 9:29 AM writes...

Derek, obviously no one can live in the modern world and reject all technology- there are no Amish senators. But in terms of how they view science and respond to it, the plague is mainly on the right's house. Maybe it's because they run the whole government and thus have more opportunity to use their power to act stupidly (similar to the current bribery and corruption scandals- if you don't have anything to sell, you can't be bought.) But the Republic modus operandi is to treat science and its practitioners as just another interest group- who's to say that scientists' opinions are any more valid than Joe CEO, who incidentally donated $10k to the party? There are many examples of Republicans just ignoring science when it's inconvenient- stem cells, senator James "Global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" Inhofe, the morning after pill, ID, even in the Schiavo case they ignored the consensus opinion of doctors because it conflicted with their world view. Liberals at least look at reality and respond to it, in some cases favoring a certain policy for trans-scientific reasons, but to the modern conservative, the facts are just another focus group.

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9. Derek Lowe on December 7, 2005 9:42 AM writes...

I think you've described politics more than you've described conservatism. Remember John Edwards during the last presidential campaign, telling a crowd that if he and Kerry were elected that "people like Christopher Reeve" were "going to get up out of that wheelchair and walk"? If it brings in the votes and the money, a politician will say it.

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10. Anonymous on December 7, 2005 9:45 AM writes...

"Can you give me any examples of legislation implementing anti-fluoridation, anti-vaccination, or anti-pesticide laws in the US?"

I know this one is controversal, but what about the DDT ban? I haven't done a lot of research myself, but this seems to be a pretty well-referenced resource:

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11. Timothy on December 7, 2005 10:27 AM writes...

In high school I tragically had my interest in chemistry education driven from me by a particularly bad teacher from whom I couldn't learn. She was a nice enough lady, but I ended up missing gas laws during my first chem class due to a cross-country race and then not being able to catch up when I took AP. Tragically, it took until my senior year of college and a roommate who was a biochem major to get me interested in science again. She used to read me the hilariously phrased stuff from her O-chem book (no matter what "nucleophilic backside attack" is a funny phrase) for laughs, and that really made me remember why I'd liked chemistry so much once.

But, by that point, I was actually already finished with my economics requirements and only taking upper-division classes to round out my requirements. I'd have failed any 300-level chem class, and I didn't have time to go taking intro courses and still graduate. Your point about it being easy to have a library in your basement is right on, I could've learned the concepts of econ pretty well on my own, but it's not like I can pick up an chemistry text to learn basics and then build a lab in my apartment for experiments.

It seems like the best course of action is that if you ever, even a little, had an interest in science you should take a few intro courses in college, just to see. Means that you won't be trying to figure out a way to go back eventually when you're a young professional :-).

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12. toby on December 7, 2005 11:25 AM writes...

This is a great from the NSF which shows public understanding of scientific terms and concepts

Interestingly, the United States scored higher than Europe in most categories.

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13. GATC on December 7, 2005 12:12 PM writes...

I often have wondered if changing the K-12 science curriculum in this country would have any major effect on adult literacy. Consider how silly it is to do the biology > chemistry > physics sequence in high school. Why not consider the much more logical physics > chemistry > biology sequence suggested by Lederman's ARISE project ( I am also glad to see that "anonymous" (#9) follows

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14. Jim Hu on December 7, 2005 12:41 PM writes...

Sorry, SP, but as far as I can tell, all politicians use mainstream science when it's convenient, and look for fringe science when it isn't. Substitute Joe trial lawyer for Joe CEO in your example. I think you and Mooney (as far as I can tell...I don't have time to read his whole screed) are just throwing "anti-science" around the way people throw "for the children" around as a way to demonize those you disagree with.

Moreover, the stuff people are talking about doesn't all fall into the same kind of "anti-science". 1) There is actual genuine Luddism, which is rare on both sides, but may be slightly more prevalent among the "humanity is a plaque" fringes of the Nader wing of the Left. 2) There is wishful thinking, which includes embracing fringe or junk science or calling nonscience science when the mainstream doesn't give you the answer you want. ID, Schiavo, and global warming on the right. Vaccination, GMOs, animal rights, and lots of other liability stuff on the left. Alternative medicine may be bipartisan stupidity, but it's associated mostly with Tom Harkin, I think. 3) Questions where the science is not the whole story...and I think all of us, even scientists, agree that there are places where social/political/economic/ethical considerations trump what the science says. I'd argue that most political questions that involve science fall into that category. As scientists we can tell lawmakers whether stem cells have promise to do certain things. But our opinions about whether blastulas have should have rights (fwiw, I don't think so myself) are not a matter of science.

And none of this is central to our abysmal science literacy, IMHO. They're effects, not causes. I think the causes are more about teachers and teaching conditions. However bad the Kansas stuff is, it doesn't explain why people have all the other misconceptions about science in those depressing surveys we see all the time.

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15. biohombre on December 7, 2005 1:04 PM writes...

An implication in some of these posts is that US government is conservative and anti-science. If one concedes that EU governments on the other hand are, at least, more liberal. And if liberals are "pro-science" , while conservatives are "anti-science". Then it would seem to follow that the EU would spend far more on scientific research. (Particularly now that the EU population exceeds the US population). Hmmm... Check out the numbers, don't even bother converting € to $. Do the "anti-scientists" outspend the "liberals" on scientific research? Wow! That is really rational.

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16. Sigivald on December 7, 2005 1:15 PM writes...

On the original topic (responding to Kristof, in fact), the reason so few people "know relativity" is that it's utterly unrelated to their daily lives, completely non-intuitive, and to really understand, requires years of intensive mathematical education.

Whereas literature only requires that one be able to read and think (as it requires, in the vast majority of cases, no esoteric knowledge at all, deals with problems and cases people are, if not directly familiar with, able to understand at a useful level without much work, etc.), making its audience much, much larger.

It's more or less the same reason (though moreso) why far more people can drive a car than can rebuild an engine.

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17. Derek Lowe on December 7, 2005 1:43 PM writes...

Sigivald, you're certainly right about that. The entry level for significant knowledge and appreciation is much lower for the humanities - which is the reason that we call them the humanities, I suppose.

The day-to-day relevance point is well taken with respect to relativity, although (for example) knowing who Molly Bloom (what a babe!) was doesn't help out much in daily life, either. Well-read people drop literary allusions, but an in-joke about Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction would be in the same category were it not for the math/physics entry barrier. (And really, you can grasp the basic consequences of the light-speed restriction without having the full mathematical treatment).

The thing is, there are other scientific topics that still have an entry barrier but also have a much greater relevance to everyday life. I'd suggest an understanding of probability and statistics as a good example.

But it's true, we shouldn't assume, in a discussion like this, that we're dealing with separate but equal forms of knowledge.

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18. Malxb on December 7, 2005 1:59 PM writes...

This being my first comment obligatory newbie moment: love your blog, been on my daily to-see list for bout a year now! being a fellow chemist (working on my german diplom, still have grad school ahead, sigh) i particularly love the lab stories, i'd like to see more but they propably fall more in the special interest section.
Ok, onto the topic:
maybe because i've been raised in europe, but it seems that there is a qualitative difference between science ignorance here and in the states. in europe mainly issues concerning areas that even science cant answer 100% are debated such as safety of gm products. in the states though what i've been getting the impression of is that a more or less dangerous attack on one of the basic pillars of modern science is taking place. i find it hard to believe that in any european state, even the vatican state, evolution could be attacked as it is being attacked in the u.s. now. i recall that 1 or 2 years ago in italy there was a movement to install id like comments in the bio-curriculum. that was shouted down so fast that you only heard about it in past tense and the responsible minister decided maybe it was time for retirement. ok, that was my 2 (€)cents; thank you for the excellent blog!

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19. SP on December 7, 2005 2:33 PM writes...

Jim, I'd suggest taking the time to read Mooney's book, or at least some exceprts, and the Waxman report on science from 2003. These are not baseless accusations used to score political points, there is detail upon detail upon detail demonstrating what I'm saying. Calling such point by point studies just another political attack is exactly what anti-scientists want to do- make everything, including reality, a political debate. (As Krugman said, "Views on Shape of the Earth Differ.") This is a tactic primary used by conservatives these days.
Your examples of left vs. right illustrate the point I'm making- the fringe science people on the right are running the show. ID teaching is being implemented. Global warming treaties and protocols are being dumped. The House passed a law about an individual brain-dead patient! I can't think of anything in the US that has happened legally WRT GMOs, vaccinations, or animal rights. Liability suits and awards have been dropping, not skyrocketing as some politicians would have you believe. It's all about whose crazy ideas are actually being forced upon society, not just whose ideas are crazier, because there are always going to be crackpots on both sides. It's when the inmates run the asylum that I have a problem.
Your point 3 is what I was referring to as trans-science, Alvin Weinberg coined the term.
As for literacy, when a country's leaders are telling people that global warming is the biggest hoax in history or that ID deserves equal billing, that has some effect on the public's knowledge. True, maybe a more knowledgable public would throw the idiots out of office, but I won't hold my breath.

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20. Katherine on December 7, 2005 3:22 PM writes...

in europe mainly issues concerning areas that even science cant answer 100% are debated such as safety of gm products.

Hmm... seems to me the science-related questions debated in the US fall under that category too. They mostly center on the origin of life, the nature of existence, and the definition of who is a human being. Science doesn't answer those questions 100 percent either.

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21. Malxb on December 7, 2005 3:51 PM writes...

katherine: stuff like that is discussed in europe too. i mean what better topics could one choose to discuss! but the difference i think is that in europe discussion is limited to topics that are still open, or that, by their nature, are beyond science (like the nature of human existence) and nobody is trying to debunk an established, successful theory like evolution. at least not in serious circles, we have our share of basketcases cut out 4 us too :-)

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22. Daniel Newby on December 7, 2005 5:12 PM writes...

Malxb said "in europe mainly issues concerning areas that even science cant answer 100% are debated such as safety of gm products."

True, however we don't require that science give 100% perfect answers about synthetic pesticides and herbicides. We gather a reasonable amount of data, compare it to our approval threshold, and approve or deny the product. GM products are being held to different standards, for reasons unrelated to honest science.

"in the states though what i've been getting the impression of is that a more or less dangerous attack on one of the basic pillars of modern science is taking place."

And failing, with such publicity that science comes out stronger than before.

"i find it hard to believe that in any european state, even the vatican state, evolution could be attacked as it is being attacked in the u.s. now."

But is that because they are all devoted empirical scientists, or because anyone who contradicts the canon becomes an untouchable pariah? I think anti-science is seen more in the US because here it is safer to be wrong. The cost of "running an idea up the flagpole" is cheaper. I do know that I could talk in support of evolution to a Southern Baptist without making an enemy (probably) or starting a fist fight. I suspect that honestly reviewing the evidence about GM products with European intelligensia would be met with considerably more hostility.

It is also worth pointing out that true scientists don't believe in heretics, only in people with a less-useful interpretation of the data. When somebody gets worked up about "dangers" and "enemies", you can be pretty sure you're looking at an idealogue, not a scientist.

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23. biff on December 7, 2005 5:34 PM writes...

An earlier commenter made a remark about the Amish rejecting all technology. Readers might be interested in how many Amish have decided to use cell phones.

"Does it bring us together, or draw us apart?" is the question bishops ask in considering whether to permit or put away a technology."

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24. DRogers on December 7, 2005 6:19 PM writes...

"No one memorizes the citric acid cycle because they enjoy it!", you say; and I realize I have just out-nerded you. I remember with excitement getting a citric acid cycle chart for my bedroom wall in high school, and while I perhaps didn't memorize it to the detail needed for your test, I spent many a happy hour staring at it and absorbing the amazing and beautiful reactions the living cell was capable of, with many of those reactions so delicate as to be impossible to successfully execute in the organic lab.

A choice between Faulkner and the citric acid cycle is at least a toss-up, and I'll let you guess what would be my choice if I was left on a desert island...

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25. biff on December 7, 2005 6:38 PM writes...

PS. I was just reminded of this entry from the Scott Adams Dilbert blog...seems appropriate to some of the, um, debate...Make sure we follow the rules, people! :-)

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26. RKN on December 7, 2005 9:05 PM writes...

  Science is like terrorism, a tactic, not a system of belief. There is no "war on terror;" the West is at war with radical Islamofacism. Just as there is no hostility towards science, per se, though there has been hostility toward reason and rationality waged by various post-modernists, many of whom have been supportive of if not at least sympathetic with lefty politics. Coincidence? Maybe.

  English vs science? I don't know, I think writing is one of the most difficult things humans do. Writing well that is. If you think undergrads are frightened by math, set 'em down with a pen and a blank sheet of paper sometime and tell them to write a good story. There you'll witness terror!

  It seems to me getting children to think critically, rationally, and yes even creatively, is what's most important when measuring a successful education. The medium by which they do so far less, I think.

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27. TomP on December 7, 2005 11:41 PM writes...

As far as I can tell, ID has nothing to do with science - it's a philosophical position - and everything to do with how the idea of evolution is misused by atheists as a bludgeon to beat down religious believers. One of the things that makes me happy to be a Catholic scientist is the way the Church understands this distinction.

As I see it, the idea of intelligent design should be reasonable to anyone (like me) who considers the idea of human free to be self-evident; I would say that ID is to God what free will is to humans. The picture of the universe that physics paints is strictly deterministic (Schrödinger's eqn is deterministic) - there's no room for anyone's "free will" to change the way the universe is going to evolve between this moment and tomorrow. But if you accept that human beings actually have the capability of deciding their actions for themselves, then you are implicitly accepting that there's something more than the laws of physics that govern the evolution of the universe. If that's possible at all, then the universe is much wider than physics currently allows, and the idea that God could direct the course of biological evolution is not something you can dismiss out of hand.

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