Sunday, December 27, 2009

With Regards to Bill Nye

This post started off as a reply to Steve's post, "A Different Perspective" which I suggest you read first.

You would put this in webdings just to be a dick, wouldn't you?

Anyway, the answer to these problems that Koontz talks about are actually pretty easy to explain.

To take the first part, well, first, he's absolutely right about how in 100 years, people will think we were really, really stupid. I have no doubt about that. However, they will think that we were still smarter than people who lived 200, 300, 400 years ago. (This is a trick that I hear religious people use a lot to discredit all of science.)

In other words, there used to be people who thought the Earth was flat, and they were wrong. There used to be people who thought the Earth was a sphere, and they were wrong. But the sphere people were much, much closer to the truth than the flat people. (It's an oblate spheroid, in case you were wondering.)

The thing about the horses is just silly. I can't even understand why he would say that it's impossible to put these horses in the correct order. I'll grant that it's much more difficult to pinpoint the precise date of something, but the correct order is a piece of cake. There are typically hundreds of thousands of years between two species of animal, (More on the word species later.) so all it takes a precursory glance at which group of skeletons shows more decay than another. Besides that, if something is buried deeper than something else, it usually means it was there longer.

He also, for some reason I also can't explain, seems to be confused on what a "specie" is. He says that the different fossils of "horses" are "different species". Well, yeah, duh. I don't think anyone has ever said differently.

There is in fact a SERIES of different species that resulted in (among other things) the modern-day horse. The modern-day horse and its ancestor are most definitely not the same species; they cannot mate. There was, however, a horse (many horses!) that could mate with its parents' generation, but not its grandparents'. This is kind of the point of evolution.

This is a small point to make, but it needs to be made: the smallest measure of time is not the length of time it takes for one "ray" (What the fuck is a ray, Koontz?) to pass by the "smallest distance on the molecular level of the universe." First of all, this sounds like a very arbitrary source of measuring time. And secondly, it's too big. Molecules are made of atoms, which are made of protons, neutrons, electrons, which are made of quarks. You probably can't go any further than that when speaking in relation to photons (or, as Koontz says, a "ray".)

However, even after establishing this arbitrary and too-large minimum for the unit of time, he lengthens it even more! He says "for argument's sake" a millionth of a second, and then proceeds to do the calculations for it. If it's "for argument's sake" well then, the calculations really don't mean anything do they?

But back to the point I was making about him lengthening it even more, a millionth of a second is a RIDICULOUSLY long amount of time for a photon to cross a molecule. It's disgustingly long. To give you an idea about how wrong that number is, even as a shot-in-the-dark guess: A millionth of a second is 0.000001. That's how long it takes a photon of light to cross ONE-FIFTH OF A MILE. Yes, that math is correct, and it took me five minutes to do.

He then talks about the "little worm" (like he is superior to it!) and gives a gross misunderstand of how mutation and evolution work. But just to drive the point home about Koontz' poor math skills, he says that all the millionths of all the seconds added up makes for a staggeringly large number. He's correct, as this number is 6.307200e+23 (as a weird quirk of math, very close to avagadro's constant). The one for just four billion years is 1.261440e+23. In case you're unfamiliar with exponential notation, that's kinda like the number 63 with 22 zeros behind it, and the number 13 with 22 zeros behind it. They look like this:

The human genome (that is, every bit of human genetic information) has about 3 billion pieces of information (base pairs or "features" as they're known in Koontz land). (Also, Koontz says that each gene has "thousands of bits of data" but it's more like millions.) And, to compare the numbers of millionths of second in four billion years to the number of base pairs in the human genome, it would look like this:

Now, base pairs are made up of two nucleotides, so there's about 6 billion nucleotides, and nucleotides are made up of 3 amino acids, so there's about 18 billion nucleotides. And this is assuming that Koontz' wacky idea about each individual piece of data mutated one by one, which is wrong. The nucleotides that I just spoke of only occur in certain combinations, 64 of them, to be exact. So, it would be completely unnecessary for each piece of data to mutate, because before one second was even finished, they would just be mutating into things they already made.

But again, this is assuming that each amino acid mutated by its lonesome, and there's no reason to think that. In fact, in terms of evolution and natural selection, it's much more likely that groups of base pairs or entire genes mutated. There's about 24,000 genes in the human body, (NOT 150,000) and since evolution happens over long periods of time (although, very suddenly within those long periods) there is more than enough time to do it in 4 billion years.

To make one final critique of his argument and to illustrate the weirdness of his thinking, he talks about the Cambrian explosion. In his exact words, “In the Cambrian period, at some point during a five-million-year window, which is as close as we can calculate it, a hundred new phyla appeared, thousands of species.” Now, compare it to what he said not two pages prior: “ And the assumption that those fossils are arranged in the correct order, showing progression in certain features, can't be supported with evidence. Neither carbon dating nor any method of fixing the period of a fossil is precise enough to support that arranged order. Again, they've been assumed to belong in that order, but mere assumptions do not qualify as science.“

Hopefully, you understand my confusion on how he can hold both these thoughts in his brain at once, but, in case you do not, I'll explain. Not only does his argument open with this idea that it's impossible that we can ever really know the date of when fossils were created, he closes by saying that it's so weird that all these fossils were created at the same time, which he knows. Either the fossil record is reliable, or it isn't. You can't have it both ways.

He also makes, in one of the grandest moments of enlightenment, the statement that assumptions are not science. So true. But then, why assume that thousands of species were created in such a short period of time? Would it not be more accurate to say that there are only a few fossils before 530 million years ago, making no assumptions whatsoever, stating just the facts. When I say it like this, the solution becomes clear: before 530 million years ago, stuff just didn't fossilize that often. In fact, the vast majority of stuff doesn't fossilize, both in number of organisms and the amount that they leave behind (namely, just their bones.) It is completely reasonable to say that a lot of stuff didn't have bones before the Cambrian explosion (and, this is supported by evidence, since a lot of stuff still didn't have bones afterwards either.)

In closing, I understand very well that Koontz is not a scientist; He's a writer. However, it didn't take me all that long to look up some of the numbers I didn't know, or do some of the math, which I am notoriously bad at (being a writer myself). I don't want to say that Koontz is an idiot or that anyone who believes it is an idiot. (Really.) It pisses me off that he wrote about all this stuff without really understanding it. I mean, the thing about the molecule and the photon of light crossing it in a millionth of a second was wrong in so many ways, it was almost incomprehensible. And, again, I'm not even a scientist, so some of the more complicated points that I maybe-kinda-understand-but-not-really got left out of this post. Science is a tough bitch, she can take a punch better than all of us put together, but please folks, treat her with respect.