Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 20, 2013

Academic Freedom versus Stupidity

Short post … This post is my musing on an article I read today about Harvard students seeking a probe into how a Ph.D. was awarded to a stupid thesis. My words, but allow me to explain.

Some may remember the new a few weeks ago that the Heritage Foundation, a “think tank” that is very very right of the political spectrum (recently hired Jim DeMint, a leading member of the Tea Party movement), released a report saying that an immigration policy being debated in the United States Congress would cost the country $5.3 trillion. (It won’t.)

The report was primarily authored by Jason Richwine, a man who was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy in 2009 from Harvard. The report based most of its findings on Richwine’s Ph.D. thesis that stated hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than the “native white population” of the US, and that the lower IQ would persist for many generations. I recommend going to the Washington Post article I linked to above for direct quotes from the thesis. Oh, and after the outcry over the report, Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation.

The purpose of this post is about the article, which states 1200 students petitioned the President of Harvard to probe how Richwine could have been awarded a Ph.D. on a topic such as that with a conclusion such as that. The question raises an interesting conundrum on the interplay of politics, factual veracity, and academic freedom.

Let’s start with the most direct thing: I don’t think his degree should be rescinded unless, upon examination, there is evidence of fraud. All because someone is wrong doesn’t mean that their thesis must be withdrawn after the fact.

With that said, it would be interesting to know who was on the thesis committee, who signed off on the thesis, and possibly what their views are. Which gets into the much murkier area of academic freedom (real academic freedom, not the faux stuff pushed by the “Intelligent” Design movement). The concept of academic freedom is that one should be able to pursue research regardless of how politically incorrect or unpopular it may be.

Clearly, the conclusions in his thesis are unpopular and politically incorrect (unless you’re a Tea Party member). Objectively, I can’t state that he’s wrong because I don’t have the data and haven’t seen studies that speak to the contrary. My gut, and what I’ve seen of other studies throughout the years, would indicate that he IS wrong. In that case, we exit from the area of academic freedom and journey to the area of tainted or incomplete results to bolster a politically motivated conclusion. Journeying to the murky area of where fraud might come in.

To cut this rambling short, I’ve laid out my musings on this subject above. Why am I writing it on the “Exposing PseudoAstronomy” blog? Because I often deal with cases of outright fraud and deceit that are much more obvious (think Hoagland blowing up an image, increasing the brightness, and claiming JPEG compression artifacts are actually cities).

This, however, is a different case: An actual Ph.D., awarded by one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, for a thesis that by all indications was done through all the proper hoops and channels, and yet seems to be completely wrong. To the point that over 1000 members of the student body have taken the almost unprecedented step of petitioning both the university President and the dean of the college (School of Government), requesting a probe of how it was awarded.

What are your thoughts on this situation?


June 23, 2011

Creationists Complain on Censorship Because Math Apparently Shows GodDidIt


“It’s said that, according to the law of aeronautics and the wingspan and circumference of the bumblebee, it is aeronautically impossible for the bumblebee to fly. However, the bumblebee, being unaware of these scientific facts, goes ahead and flies anyway.” — Mike Huckabee, 2008

That quote is a fitting opening to this blog post, where after my hiatus I return to my bread-and-butter, batting at the low-hanging fruit offered up by young-Earth creationists (YEC). This post in particular response to the latest Institute for Creation Research (ICR) article by Brian Thomas, “Journal Censors ‘Second Law’ Paper Refuting Evolution”.

In reading up for writing this blog post, the Discovery Institute (the Intelligent Design think-tank) has also posted an article about it.

Crux of the ICR Article

The bulk and point of the article is, as usual from the ICR, to complain that evilutionists are so insecure that they can’t stand dissent and that the Truth is in the Bible. That said, let’s look at what’s different in this one.

The crux of this particular article is that a “math professor Granville Sewell of the University of Texas, El Paso showed that notions of nature alone building the complex structures of DNA are as unlikely as nature building a computer [and] either event would violate the second law [of thermodynamics].”

In other words, he’s claiming that, just as Huckabee claimed that Science says bumblebees can’t fly therefore GodDidIt, that Science says DNA can’t arise naturally therefore GodDidIt.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics is “the entropy one.” It can be interpreted to verbally state, “The entropy of an isolated thermodynamic system cannot decrease.” In thermodynamics, entropy is the inability of energy to do work. Unscientifically, “entropy” can be thought of as the chaos in a system.

For example, an unlit match has a fair amount of stored chemical energy. Light the match, and it will produce heat that can do work, but smoke will rise – parts of the match that have burned – and that material will no longer be able to perform any useful work. Thus, entropy has increased.

Entropy should NOT be confused with the opposite of “order.” In fact, the order in a system can increase while entropy also increases. An example I like to use is to say you have a bunch of different sized marbles or rocks that are all mixed together. As they settle, they will sort by size. As they settle and sort by size, potential energy in the material is lost, the overall entropy has increased, but the overall order has also increased (because they are now sorted by size).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Evolution

This has been addressed SO MANY TIMES that I’m not going to do it here. People much smarter than I have shown the absolute rubbish of this claim before, so I will simply refer you to TalkOrigins.org (link 1, link 2).

If you really want a short version of the several ways this is a non sequitur, one is simply that Earth is not a closed thermodynamic system — we are open to space, receive energy from the sun, and radiate energy to space.

A quick-and-dirty second reason is that pockets within a thermodynamic system CAN DECREASE in entropy so long as the system as a whole increases or stays the same.

Going a Bit Deeper Into This Case

The story the articles I linked to in the Introduction tell about are of the math professor in question submitting a paper to a math journal, having it accepted, but then at the last minute having it withdrawn. Hence the “silencing,” “censoring,” and other various claims.

I obviously cannot speak for the journal editor. I don’t know what backdoor dastardly deeds may have gone on. Or may not have gone on. I can, however, look at some of the facts about this professor and what the Intelligent Design people state. Two in particular came up.

First, Prof. Sewell has written intelligent design literature before where “he concludes that there is nothing in the history of life to support Charles Darwin’s idea that natural selection of random variations can explain major evolutionary advances.” An earlier work can be found here. Obviously then, this is a person who has a particular framework in mind from which he operates. That is not a crime, nor is it a bad thing. But it does provide some context.

Second, Prof. Sewell hired a laywer. That in itself says something. An academic hiring a lawyer because his paper was rejected from a journal? I may be new to this whole being a Ph.D. thing, but I’ve been around academia my entire life. I have never heard of someone hiring a lawyer and paying them $10,000 to fight because their paper was rejected from a journal (Andrew Wakefield may be an exception but that’s a different issue – the lawyer came when the paper was retracted over a decade later).

To me, this screams Discovery Institute test case all over it. The DI seems to have more lawyers on staff than “scientists,” and they very frequently try to use the legal system (judicial and legislative branches) to get what they want because they can’t through normal academic channels. Now, this is supposition on my part – I admit that. And then I looked into the law firm, which is decidedly conservative (based on the people and cases) and religious (considering they have references to Genesis 12:3 and Psalm 122 very visibly on their website).

Now, again, being a conservative Christian law firm isn’t bad for purposes here. But what it does is add to this story, strongly indicating there is more to it than just a poor math professor who is upset that his innocent paper was rejected.

Final Thoughts

I have actually skimmed Prof. Sewell’s paper. You can, too. It’s actually an easy read. A lot of it is quotes. It’s four pages long. And it reads a lot like ID and YEC articles I’ve read over the years and it repeats many of the tired, debunked ID/YEC claims.

But, there is a bigger picture here beyond the simple case in point, publishing, and alleged “viewpoint discrimination” (an ID buzzword). That’s why I opened with the Huckabee quote (which also, by the way, is wrong). If we observe something repeatedly, objectively, and clearly (such as a bumblebee flying), but our current scientific understanding of the process cannot account for it, then our science is incomplete. It does not mean GodDidIt. That’s the whole point of science: To figure out how the world works.

We don’t know how the DNA molecule arose. And that’s why scientists are trying to figure it out. Scientists don’t use the God of the Gaps argument, as Brian Thomas, the ICR article author does, and look to the Bible to find out that GodDidit.

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