APS News

Letters

Imposing ideology is an offense

I'd like to comment on the recent article by Lawrence Krauss in the August/September 2002 issue of APS NEWS. I agree with Krauss that science imposes constraints on what is possible. I agree that greater emphasis should be placed on mechanisms and plausibility than on stories woven from circumstantial evidence. However, that is precisely the point of the intelligent design advocates whom he is disparaging: that intelligent design is a logical inference based on current knowledge of the limitations of known mechanisms.

I also agree that science is not "fair" in the sense that only those theories that have satisfied the test of experiment can stand. But this principle also readily leads to design inference. It is the lack of experimental evidence that naturalistic mechanisms can generate specified complexity or construct irreducibly complex systems that supports this inference.

Intelligent design and naturalism are both possible inferences that one might make from the data and knowledge of science. To simply eliminate one a priori is to impose an ideology. This is the offense that must be avoided. The solution I propose is to teach the methods and data of science without imposing a prior commitment to any ideology, including naturalism. Encourage the relentless pursuit of natural causes, but frankly evaluate and discuss current knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of known mechanisms. Allow for the possibility that naturalism is not a complete description, and this will lead to a more honest evaluation of the evidence and protect the integrity of science.
Mike Kent
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Do Your Homework Before Entering UFO Fray

The August/September 2002 issue of APS NEWS contains an interesting article by Lawrence Krauss that deals, in part, with his experience in participating in a debate on the problem posed by so-called UFO sightings. Since I have studied this problem for 30 years, I can perhaps offer supplementary advice coming from a different perspective.

Here are my recommendations to physicists invited to take part in such a discussion:

1. Either stay away completely or do your homework first. This is a very complex subject, and "doing your homework" will not be quick, easy or painless.

2. Do not imagine that training in physics provides you with any relevant credentials that enable you to pontificate on the problem. Expertise in forensic science would be another matter.]

3. Read the Condon report from cover to cover preferably from back to front so that you can better judge the extent to which Condon's conclusions and recommendations follow from the work of his staff. (E.U. Condon, D.S. Gillmor, Scientific Study of UFOs, Bantam Books, 1969)

4. Learn something about the history of the subject. An excellent summary of the early days of the controversy can be found in The UFO Controversy in America by D.M. Jacobs (Indiana University Press, 1975).

5. You might also wish to learn what a nongovernmental scientific review panel had to say about the subject by perusing my own book, The UFO Enigma: A New Review of the Physical Evidence (Warner Books, 1999).

6. Finally, bear in mind that although most scientists treat this subject as a joke, the public does not, and we would do well to treat their concerns with respect.
Peter A. Sturrock
Stanford, California

Don't Abandon Industry

Finding interesting jobs is always hard, and finding any job in a recession is hard, so Michael Lubell's latest "Inside the Beltway" comments on the post-high-tech bubble [APS NEWS, August/September 2002] are valid. True, for the next few years most growth will be financed by government deficits.

But before physicists all abandon industry and turn to the government for jobs, they might want to ask themselves some simple questions. If all manufacturing moves offshore, where will the government find the money over the long term to create all those jobs for physicists? And where will universities obtain their funding?
James C. Phillips
Summit, New Jersey

Origin of Life a Complex Question

A very common debating tactic is guilt by association, or "the grab bag of enemies.'' By implication, one cannot be a proper intellectual without adopting the entire list of enemies. Lawrence Krauss does this very well in his "grab bag of nuts'' essay, in which he includes believers in UFO's and magnetic healing along with those who believe in intelligent design. What better way to discredit the legitimate questions that many people have about the origin of life?

Most of us have sat through biophysics seminars in which the speaker talks in awe-inspiring tones of the "wonderful design,'' and "fine tuning'' of the "molecular machines.'' But apart from a perfunctory reference to natural selection, we rarely discuss how this all came to be. We all know why we haven't a clue. There is no quantitative theory, nor even a widely accepted qualitative model, for how life began from nonliving material. Experiments on these mechanisms have shown us barriers to their spontaneous appearance, not pathways. The more we learn about the mechanisms of life, the greater is the problem of understanding the origin of life. Is it heresy to admit that in public?

Modern science makes the assumption that life began only by simple, natural processes. This is a reasonable assumption, given the success of the assumption of simplicity in other areas. We cannot go beyond the facts, however in the case of the origin of life, it is just an assumption. Despite decades of well funded effort, this assumption has not found direct experimental support We have no physical understanding, nor even a good physical model, for how all the molecular machines came about. There has been no successful production of life from non-life even with significant intervention of intelligent experimentalists. If some people make the assumption of purposive design, whether through predestined evolution or direct intervention, are they being wildly irrational?

Krauss says he would ask a creationist whether he believes in UFO's. Those who believe in intelligent design would say, "I don't believe in a physical mechanism for origin of life for the same reason I don't believe in UFO's__ I haven't ever seen one.'' When a quantitative naturalistic mechanism for the origin of life comes along, it will, like a picture of a UFO, be compelling. Until then, it is simply a working hypothesis.

Physicists stand to lose face if they continue to say that our understanding of the biophysics of the origin of life is just as well established as other physical theories such as gravity and relativity. In view of the lack of progress of biophysics on the origin of life, we may just end up casting doubt on our credibility when we talk about electric power lines or nuclear energy.

Physics has historically always made the assumption of simplicity in tackling new problems. Life is manifestly complex, however. We all know the joke about "Consider a spherical cow.'' If we charge into the realm of biology saying, "Of course, we physicists know it is all very simple,'' are we clearing things up, or are we just forcing an old paradigm onto a new field? Could it be that some complex things have complex causes, causes as complicated as persons themselves?

The issue is not the age of the earth. The issue is that people well know that many things in biology are mystifying, and scientists who talk as though they know there is nothing deep about it just sound pompous and brash.
Richard Jones
University of Connecticut
David Keller
University of New Mexico
Phil Skell
Pennsylvania State University
Fred Skiff
University of Iowa
David Snoke
University of Pittsburgh


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Editor: Alan Chodos
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