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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bees in the Bonnets

This post was a response to a Slashdot thread regarding some new discoveries about how bees fly. Ultimately, the subject of ID (Intelligent Design) came up, along with a lot of posts that indicated few were aware of the illustrious history of science and bee flight. I actually came up with the biologist/physicist story below from memory, and was corrected by someone who was a little more familiar with the actual details. In fact it was an aeronautical engineer who calculated bumble bee aerodynamics using the current (1930s) understanding of the subject, and then uncovered discrepancies with wind tunnel tests on small models. The story has been passed around apocryphally and in various forms has been utilized as an example of how science isn't perfect and "doesn't know it all either," as flimsy apologetic for some voodoo belief system.


Reportedly, years ago a biologist and a physicist met over dinner or something, and the subject came up about the physics of bee flight. Some back of the paper napkin calculations by the physicist didn't work, and they were overheard by someone who reported to the press that "science proves bees can't fly." Of course, everyone knows that bees can fly, so it was seen as a "har har, those silly scientists, they don't know anything." Science gets it wrong, so science is just a bunch of stuffed-shirt eggheads in labs that have convinced themselves they know something when they really don't know anything.

However, it neatly ignored the fact that not too long after that discovery, the question raised actually led to further investigation of the subject and much was learned about insect flight. This story shows much is still being learned from that event.

What really happened in this case, is someone detected an error. Science has a long history of individuals who found errors in our understanding of the universe. In fact, virtually all the famous names of science are famous because they uncovered an error in our understanding. It is simply by the detection of errors that science advances. Science is a philosophy that learns from its mistakes, and in fact, without the discovery of mistakes it really isn't learning much. It's in trying to determine what's going on with a discovered mistake that science moves forward. As Isaac Asimov said, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny ...'"

Consequently, every time I hear someone claim something to the effect of "oh look, here's where science got it wrong," I point to it and say, "oh look, here's where science learned something. Here's where science made progress."

To the extent that ID is looking for mistakes in science, it will actually improve our understanding of the universe, which includes evolution. Where ID differs from science, is that not only is no one in ID even looking for mistakes in ID, ID isn't even capable of making mistakes, because their explanations would explain any phenomena-- and an explanation that explains everything really doesn't explain anything. Drop an apple and it falls down? It's ID. Drop an apple and it falls up? It's ID. There's no knowledge content to such an explanation.

Any philosophy that is not capable of discovering its mistakes, must be either perfect or error-prone. And, since no human endeavor or understanding can be said to be perfect, I'd say it's pretty clear which it is. Science too, is not perfect, but it has one thing the other philosophies do not, and that is at least some ability to detect its errors. Given the choice between a philosophy that can detect at least some of its errors, and one that pretends it can't make any errors, I think the choice should be pretty easy to make.

Some suggest that scientists are in some kind of conspiracy or cover up. Such a suggestion is completely ignorant of how science and scientists operate. While an individual scientist may find it difficult to uncover errors in their own work, scientists are fully aware that careers are made by uncovering an interesting mistake in another scientists work, and would trumpet such a discovery to the high hills instantly. Conspiracy, indeed.

ID proponents only succeed because they are not the only ones ignorant of these basic realities. Unfortunately, science education and interest is so weak that a large piece of the populace is similarly ignorant.

Even those who aren't anti-evolution or particularly religious may believe in things like astrology, for example. But when was the last time anyone was recognized for finding an error in our "understanding" of astrology? Astronomy has a long list of names of those who've uncovered errors in our understanding: Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, etc.., for example, and there are many many more. Where's the list of names that have improved the quality of astrological knowledge by uncovering its errors over time? Of course, there aren't any, just a few people who've written books that made untestable claims, or claims that can explain any result-- it's complete hogwash that could only be completely error prone, even if it were a clear fact that celestial bodies can significantly affect human events. Astrology is just one more monument constructed by the gullible.

Except for science, the remaining philosophies rely on a single method of supporting their credibility, and that's apologetics. And why do you think they call it apologetics?