Professors Weigh in on Evolution

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From an AAUP press release sent today, June 17:

Faculty Association Speaks Out on Three Top Issues Washington, D.C.? In Washington, D.C. last Saturday, the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) adopted resolutions on three issues of concern to faculty and others in the academic community. The resolutions address the right of graduate student employees to choose representation by a collective bargaining agent, concern over increased attacks on the academic freedom of teachers and scholars across the nation, and the teaching of evolution.

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Teaching Evolution: The theory of evolution is all but universally accepted in the community of scholars and has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the natural world. The Ninety-first Annual Meeting of the American Association of University Professors deplores efforts in local communities and by some state legislators to require teachers in public schools to treat evolution as merely a hypothesis or speculation, untested and unsubstantiated by the methods of science, and to require them to make students aware of an ?intelligent-design hypothesis? to account for the origins of life. These initiatives not only violate the academic freedom of public school teachers, but can deny students an understanding of the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding evolution.

The implications of these efforts for higher education are particularly troubling to this Meeting. To the degree that college and university faculty in the field of biology would be required to offer instruction about evolution and the origins of life that complied with these restrictions and was at variance with their own understanding of scientific evidence, their freedom to determine what may be taught and how would be seriously abridged.

This Meeting calls on local communities and state officials to reject proposals that seek to suppress discussion of evolution in our public schools as inimical to principles of academic freedom.

For more information about this resolution, please contact Jonathan Knight at 202-737-5900, ext. 3023 or [Enable javascript to see this email address.].

In addition, the AAUP journal, Academe, recently published an article, “Wedging Creationism into the Academy,” by Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch. The article may be found at http://www.aaup.org/publications/Ac[…]05jfforr.htm.

36 Comments

Two word comments are almost always spam, as that one is – the username is link to “Internet News Daily”.

RBH

“This Meeting calls on local communities and state officials to reject proposals that seek to suppress discussion of evolution in our public schools as inimical to principles of academic freedom”

Unfortunately this will go right in one ear and out the other because the local school board creationists do not see forcing ID as synonymous with suppressing discussion of evolution even though it clearly is.

If people demanded that history classes tell children that many experts believe there was no American civil war (if you can deny the Holocaust why not everything else?) and so they should keep an open mind about it, this would certainly be considered a suppression of civil war history.

Most of these people believe that truth can be decided by prayer and politics (relativists) and must be fair to them. Though as the story of the Turkish creationists’ (exemplified by Mustafa Akyol) “success” and the North American creationist’s (William Harris) response to it demonstrates, ID/creationism - like all religions - asks for fairness until it has power and obedience thereafter.

I have been following this issue of ID for better part of a year now. It brings me great concern as a science teacher here in California. Before I delve into that concern, let me give my brief background. You all are a lot more “Smarterer” then I am. I graduated from a small state college in Northern Cal. I have never really been a scientist, but have a degree in biology and teach high school science. Whilst in college, evolution was apart of the basics of biology, nothing more than that. We never learned a secret hand shake or swore allegance on Origins of species that we would love honor and obey the omnipotent Darwinian way. Much of what is written by you all and the ID folks (e.g. Behe) is a challenge for me to follow, such as biochemical complexities of a specific path way. So I rely on others to handle those details and move it to where science directs it. There is an specific process scientific research and advancment must follow. Which is my rub point about ID.

As a science teacher I count on the principles of science and scientific method to be the ultimate filter of valuable scientific advancement or rubbish. This long standing methodical system of peer review, checks and balances as it were, to eliminate junk science, say healing power of crystals. Yet the folks at DI and the ID crowed in general seem to want a mulligan on following key steps of this process. Kind of a “ Give us credit we are trying really hard.” They toss out this Berkeley-esq “consperacy” of scientist to protect Darwin as if scientist thrive on sequestering information. If they have a valid “theory” then it will find its way. They only need to look at Alfred Wegner for insperation of how a theory finds its light of day. If they have something of value, then present it. Publish it. Have it peer reviewed. Stop trying to jump to the front of the line by using back channels and political manuveres. Follow the process the rest of the scientific community does.

Sorry if I ramble, but it is nuts what is coming down.

Yet the folks at DI and the ID crowed in general seem to want a mulligan on following key steps of this process.

The ID “theory” is a MacGuffin.

from Wikipedia:

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters and advance the story, particularly one whose importance is accepted completely by the story’s characters, yet from the audience’s perspective it might be minimally explained or may test their suspension of disbelief if it is scrutinized.

Sure its not a McMuffin? Never heard that term before. I meant a mulligan in golf. a free extra ball placement or stroke.

by the way, Brian, good to have you here. It is important that teachers, biology teachers in particular, understand that ID is a fake theory, creationism in disguise, with no scientific evidence, and advocated by cranks.

I think what makes it really important is that, unlike the efforts of the Kent Hovinds and Charlie Wagners of the world, ID sophisticates such as those at the Discovery Institute do a very good job of formulating ID sophistry in such complex jargon, that the layman can’t tell it from real science. If you read the Wedge Document, you’ll see that such confusion is part of the real goal of the ne’er-do-wells at the DI.

At the same time, since I’ve had too much Little Water (winks at anyone who knows the relevant Russian) and feel like rambling, part of me thinks opposition to ID is unimportant in the long term. There’s no scientific substance at all, to ID, so there’s no worry that scientists will substantially curtail research into real biology. Some would disagree, and say that ID will pollute the pool of youth who otherwise would feed our bioscience departments and companies. To them I would say two things. For one, yes, America is important, but remember the de Gaulle quote: The graveyards are full of indispensable men. Even if American science is impacted, the concentration of religious nuts here won’t slow down Europe and Asia. And second, don’t make the mistake of nostalgia for a golden age–America has always been full of creationists, and it hasn’t stopped us yet.

Ooo, and let me give you an unofficial welcome basket of information regarding Panda’s Thumb, since you’re new here:

1 Charlie Wagner is a repetitive ID crank. Save time by ignoring him. Just read him for laughs, if it all.

2 The contributors’ articles are very good, probably the best thing about PT. You’ll notice, though, that the most science-heavy posts (usually contributed by PZ Myers) are, sadly, the subject of few comments.

3 If you have questions about sophisticated biology topics, I don’t know a better group to ask than these guys. Many of them are Ph.D.’s in biology, and are eager to help others.

4 Don’t get too depressed by the ceaseless effort of the IDers. The cranks, like they say about the poor, will always be with us.

5 If you eventually get so enraged that you can’t type a sentence without rudely insulting people, you will be banned like a guy named GWW was, but other than that, let er rip.

Steve wrote: The graveyards are full of indispensable men. Even if American science is impacted, the concentration of religious nuts here won’t slow down Europe and Asia. And second, don’t make the mistake of nostalgia for a golden age—America has always been full of creationists, and it hasn’t stopped us yet.

Yes, and the graveyards are also full of dispensable men. When I die and my body recycled, if I’m lucky some constituent atoms may end up as CO2 and add to global warming and become part of a changing selection regime. Some constituent atoms may end up incorporated into DNA and subject to mutation. I don’t want to look at the next nucleotide and see a piece of Dembski staring back at me.

The statement didn’t seem strongly worded enough. The condmenation wasn’t exactly clear cut, it almost sounded like a invitation to “teach the controversy.” There were a lot of power quotes i.e “These initiatives not only violate the academic freedom of public school teachers, but can deny students an understanding of the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding evolution.” But words like overwhelming cannot compete with the fact that as Apesnake pointed out the resolution contains no clear cut direction “don’t teach ID in schools.”

Plus, statements by professinal organizations seem to do little but give Dembski a chance to whine about how unfair it is.

steve Wrote:

…part of me thinks opposition to ID is unimportant in the long term. There’s no scientific substance at all, to ID, so there’s no worry that scientists will substantially curtail research into real biology. Some would disagree, and say that ID will pollute the pool of youth who otherwise would feed our bioscience departments and companies.

I also think the threat to the scientific community is minimal; however, the goal of ID is not scientific but political. ID/creationism is part of a broader sinister effort to undermine the “secular establishment” and pave the way for a “christian” domination of politics and public life. The more doubt they can create about the legitimacy of rational, scientific thought, the more power they have to recruit. If you want to understand what ID is about, just look where the money is coming from…

Here is an interview with Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, University of California, Berkeley. (Physics 1964)

Should intelligent design be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in schools as religious legislators have decided in Pennsylvania and Kansas?

I think it’s very unfortunate that this kind of discussion has come up. People are misusing the term intelligent design to think that everything is frozen by that one act of creation and that there’s no evolution, no changes. It’s totally illogical in my view. Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it’s remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren’t just the way they are, we couldn’t be here at all. The sun couldn’t be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here. Some scientists argue that “well, there’s an enormous number of universes and each one is a little different. This one just happened to turn out right.” Well, that’s a postulate, and it’s a pretty fantastic postulate — it assumes there really are an enormous number of universes and that the laws could be different for each of them. The other possibility is that ours was planned, and that’s why it has come out so specially. Now, that design could include evolution perfectly well. It’s very clear that there is evolution, and it’s important. Evolution is here, and intelligent design is here, and they’re both consistent.

Charles Townes University of California, Berkeley Nobel Laureate (Physics, 1964)

Read the whole interview HERE: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/[…]townes.shtml

Timothy Scriven Wrote:

The statement didn’t seem strongly worded enough.

Yeah, I wonder, as a matter of strategy, how strongly ID should be condemned. One concern is that harsh criticism arms the IDers to claim persecution – and man, do right-wing christians like to play the persecution card. But, anything less than declaring ID to be scientifically vacuous is shortchanging the public, who depend on scientists to be honest. I guess a middle course is best – official bodies like AAUP should probably be firm but decorous, whereas individual scientists and journalists should really try to say it like it is.

Journalists are particularly vulnerable to the “teach the controversy” strategy of ID since they are trained to be objective at all costs. I’ve written a few letters to journalists who say things like “ID is not widely accepted by the scientific community…” to encourage them to be more accurate and honest on this point : “ID plays no role whatsoever in the scientific community.”

In the interview with Charles Townes that Charlie Wagner referenced,

Charles Townes Wrote:

People who are anti-evolution are working very hard for some excuse to be against it. I think that whole argument is a stupid one.

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Re: Comment 35591 by Charlie Wagner. He quotes Townes, stressing that the latter is a Nobel laureate. There is an enormous weight of alleged authority attached to the “Nobel laureate” title. Science, however, is not like military where a general is automatically deemed right in a dispute with a mere colonel. By and large the Nobel laureates are indeed brilliant people who made very significant contribution to science (I mean mainly physics, chemistry, and biology). There are though many notable exeptions.

Nobel laureate of 1925 was Lenard, a physicist who fought tooth and nail against theory of relativity which he, as a Nazi, rejected as ‘Jewish pseudo-science.’

Cerenkov was awarded the Nobel prize for the discovery of “Cerenkov effect” which is the basis of Cerenkov counters widely used in physics of elementary particles. In fact, being a student of Vavilov (Cerenkov was assigned to that position by the Party committee as a representative of “proletariat”) he stumbled upon an unknown phenomenon which he would have completely missed were it not for his supervisor Vavilov who understood what was observed, wrote a paper, put Cerenkov’s name in the byline while avoiding doing so with his own name, and so Cerenkov effect became known which Cerenkov himself did not understand. Cerenkov got the Nobel but Vavilov did not.

Three guys in Zurich happened to observe the “high temperature superconductiviy” in certain oxides by a sheer serendipity and got the Nobel prize.

Gamov did not receive the Nobel while some people who later used his ideas, did. There are many such examples.

If a Nobel laureate pronounces a verdict on some problem which is beyond his narrow field of expertise, more often than not his opinion carries no more real weight that that of the bartender in the neighboring watering hole.

Quote-mining gleefully some Nobel laureate as Wagner did only points to the lack of real arguments.

At the same time, since I’ve had too much Little Water (winks at anyone who knows the relevant Russian) and feel like rambling, part of me thinks opposition to ID is unimportant in the long term. There’s no scientific substance at all, to ID, so there’s no worry that scientists will substantially curtail research into real biology. Some would disagree, and say that ID will pollute the pool of youth who otherwise would feed our bioscience departments and companies. To them I would say two things. For one, yes, America is important, but remember the de Gaulle quote: The graveyards are full of indispensable men. Even if American science is impacted, the concentration of religious nuts here won’t slow down Europe and Asia. And second, don’t make the mistake of nostalgia for a golden age—America has always been full of creationists, and it hasn’t stopped us yet.

Alas, the problem is that ID isn’t about science, they don’t care about science, and science is not thier target.

They are ayatollah-wanna-be’s. Literally.

And if you think THAT is not a serious threat, then you’d better get out of your ivory tower more often.

As a physicist, I certainly have been aware of Charles Townes as one of those big names you always hear about (invented the maser, then the laser – no small feats !), but this was the first I had ever heard about his religious views.

Upon reading the article, it seems that he is trying to be quite balanced. Even though he has no background or training in biology/biochemistry/paleontology, as a demonstrably smart and curious person he seems to have arrived at the conclusion that evolution is a fact. This despite his predilection to find “creation” lurking in science. His support of ID is purely for cosmological ID. I’m not aware how thoroughly he has worked in the field of cosmology, but note that it is an extreme jump from atomic/molecular physics. And logically, from what he presents in the interview, his support is entirely a “god of the gaps” argument.

Even though I’m a physicist and an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”, I don’t feel especially troubled having this position tossed around. Whenever it comes to cosmology, you’ve got to admit that the “gaps” are pretty huge, and the various fine-tuning coincidences right now don’t have any solid explanations, unless you go the “many worlds” route. My feeling is that although resorting to a “god of the gaps” creation story is of no use to science and is a pretty desperate way to bolster a spiritual outlook, in this context at least it isn’t based on an intentionally stupid denial of science. If this gives christians a way to feel good about their life and not be a pain in the ass about it, then maybe its not a bad compromise. But then again, them gaps have a pesky way of disappearin’.….

When Charles Townes spoke at my institution on the topic of religion, one of the things he spoke about was the healing power of prayer, in which he believes. I haven’t seen anything about that in his recent (post-Templeton) press releases, ever since the Columbia prayer study blew up.

These initiatives not only violate the academic freedom of public school teachers

Do K-12 teachers have academic freedom? Should they? I know it is important for tenure track post-secondary faculty, but I don’t hear it discussed much at the K-12 level, and if they did have it wouldn’t that leave the door open to individual teacher decisions to teach ID or other carp?

I’m no lawyer, but as I understand it, as agents of the state, public school teachers are Constitutionally prohibited from teaching sectarian crap. However, there’s no prohibition against teaching non-sectarian crap: nothing in the Constitution prohibits a public school science teacher from teaching phlogiston theory as an explanation of combustion, for example.

RBH

I became alarmed by the slide backwards into the dark ages- in the USA, and in a different way in the UK. So I took my shirt off and formed a website,have a look and see what you think- Evolution versus Creationism- no contest! Our psychological development has not kept pace with technology www.hairyhuman.co.uk

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD wrote

“Do K-12 teachers have academic freedom? Should they? I know it is important for tenure track post-secondary faculty, but I don’t hear it discussed much at the K-12 level, and if they did have it wouldn’t that leave the door open to individual teacher decisions to teach ID or other carp?”

As one(high scholl teacher) we don’t as much with the enphasis on standards. Also most of us teach within several disciplines of science. I teach Chem and Physical science and I am a Biology major. So if to much freedom is given, crap will flow. I think too much activism from some of us lefties on such matters as nuclear power has left teachers open to the kind of attack that IDist pressent. How do I make the cool box to surround quotes like you all. Not familar with mark up language.

Charlie Wagner -

It’s somewhat dishonest of you to insinuate that the views of Charles Townes are similar to the many varied and incorrect arguments that you weave at this site.

The quote by Townes is merely an endorsement of the anthropic principle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle

Although I am not an atheist, I vehemently disagree with the “anthropic prinicple”, since it is illogical. However, unlike ID, it is not anti-scientific, dangerous, nor obviously un-Christian.

We do not know what the “odds” were that the various constants of physics and so on would be such that they would allow the emergence of humans.

All we know is that we are here now, and that the probability that they are such is “1”. We do not know, strictly speaking, if there were “other possibilities at the time of the Big Bang” or whatever (I realize that this is an invitation, to some, to a detailed discussion of Big Bang cosmology, but I feel safe in asserting that in the end, we can’t be said to know this). Furthermore, if there “were”, it would not be evidence that any “intelligence” made a “choice”, let alone that such an intelligence were the Christian God rather than Vishnu or some god we haven’t conceived of yet.

I don’t really understand why Townes or anyone else has to use this type of subtly flawed logic to “prove to themselves that God must exist”. If they are having a crisis of faith, spiritual meditation and advice is a better prescription than illogical distortions of science.

However, as I said above, the anthropic principle is not anti-scientific, dangerous, nor obviously un-Christian.

1. Unlike ID, it is a conclusion drawn from valid scientific work (albeit an illogical one), rather than an effort to corrupt or misrepresent science. Being an ‘AP’ proponent is perfectly compatible with an honest career teaching or doing science, ID is not.

2. There is no corrupt, authoritarian-tinged political movement attempting to force the teaching of the anthropic principle into public schools, nor would a movement to do so be likely to attempt, in parallel, to remove or distort the teaching of valid science, if such a movement did exist.

3. The anthropic principle does not claim to be a “Christian” idea per se, and I believe has advocates who are not Christians. It is mildly dishonest, in that any intelligent person can see that it is subtly but clearly logically flawed. However, I think it is overall compatible with Christian morality. ID proponents, while almost all claiming to be Christian, have frequently engaged in levels of dishonesty and arrogance that cannot possibly be squared with Christian morality.

Your own position appears to be that, due to your own brilliant genius, you can “correct” the understanding of thousands of trained scientists. Your tactic is to raise innumerable and unrelated false arguments, never admitting openly that you have been shown wrong, but tacitly revealing that you know you have, by constantly switching arguments. This is a far more extreme, anti-scientific, and ethically questionable position than that expressed by Townes in your quote, to put it mildly.

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Both Harold’s statements are correct.

And the first one’s very important. David Heddle, for instance, has spent at least the last year making an ass of himself by refusing to admit it to himself.

steve Wrote:

Both Harold’s statements are correct.

How so ? How can the after-the-fact observation (the parameters have values of such-and-such, which are consistent w/ the existence of life) be used to estimate the a priori probability of those constants taking on such values ?

No scientific theory (Standard Model or current status of String Theory) gives convincing constraints on what the parameters have to be. If we were to “run the experiment again”, there is no scientific reason to expect we would get the same outcome. There may be such a reason in the future, if a convincing scientific theory provides some constraints, but at present I don’t see any valid reason for an a priori probability of 1.

As for Mr. Heddle’s making an ass of himself, and in the short time of 1.5 years, that sounds like an extraordinarily unlikely case of convergence : could this be used to refute evolution ?

I think you’re the only person who said the probability was a priori.

steve Wrote:

I think you’re the only person who said the probability was a priori.

I’m still not sure what you and harold are claiming. Is it

a) The probability that things (now) are the way they are (now) is “1”. b) The probability (at he start of this universe) of this universe ending up the way it is (now) is “1”, or c) Something else.

Statement (a) seems nothing more than perhaps a definition of what P=1 means.

Statement (b) is what I meant by a priori probability. There is no scientific theory I know of that claims that P is “1”. Except maybe some combination of the anthropic principle and the many worlds theory; if there are an infinite # of universes, then there’s gotta be one like this one…

Hope I’m not sounding too antagonistic, but the original statement just doesn’t seem to make any sense; I’d like to know if I’m missing something…

Jeff S -

Well, Steve has pretty much made my point for me. I’ll still elaborate, though.

I sympathize with your position, as it is tricky to talk about probability in “words”. But if you read my statement in its entirety, it’s clear that I am saying that we do not know what the a priori probability “would have been”, should we have been “outside” the Big Bang, about to watch it unfold, and somehow able to know what range of possible outcomes it could have, in terms of constants and whatnot, nor do we know that it was the only Big Bang.

With your example of the golfer, your vast empirical experience of observing golf allows you to “fill in” the history and guess what the a priori probability either “was” or “seemed” at some point in the past. What you really KNOW is that the probability that the man made two holes-in-one in the same day is now “1”. But you have an excellent idea of how many humans play golf, how much golf a human can physically play in a single 24 hour day, how often a human gets a hole-in-one, and so on. Equally importantly in this context, you know what the result of his NOT making two holes-in-one would have been (basically, nothing, putting aside “butterfly flaps its wings…” type speculations). You are thus able to understand that at some time in the past, that particular man started to play golf. And at that now forever-gone moment, the probability that he would have two holes-in-one by the end of the day either “was”, or “seemed”, depending on your philosophical stance, very remote. Indeed, you are able to understand that at that particular time, the probability that any human would have made two holes-in-one by the end of a 24 hour period either “was” or “seemed” rather low.

But we do not know the equivalent things with regard to the beginning of the universe. Again, I realize that to some this is an invitation to a detailed discussion of Big Bang cosmology, but I feel safe in saying that we don’t know this. In fact, there are those among mainstream scientists who conjecture that every possible universe exists, and that our existence is thus not improbable but inevitable. Whether they are right or wrong, their existence proves my point. Note that this opposite position to the one argued above could equally be used as a fallacious proof of God’s existence (God made our universe inevitable so He must have willed our existence…) Note also that I am NOT arguing in favor of atheism but against illogical proofs of God.

If I told you that a man playing slaoguaslg on the planet gaislgat made two ‘agasfas-in-one on the same day, you wouldn’t know whether that had “seemed” “improbable” or “inevitable” at the moment he commenced playing slaoguaslg. All you would know is that the probability that he did do it is “1”.

What we can be sure of is that, since we exist, if we investigate the physical properties of the universe we live in, they must either be compatible with our existence, or our investigation must be inaccurate. To claim wonder or surprise that they are so is, thus, illogical.

Jeff S -

I tried to post something a little more detailed, and it seems to have been lost in cyberspace, but briefly…

a) Correct, that’s what I said. (I should have amplified - since we exist in the universe, if we study the universe, we should expect to find it consistent with out existence, and expressing “wonder” or “surprise” at this seems illogical.) b) I certainly did not make this silly statement; I did opine that we don’t know what the probability of the universe ending up this way either “was” or “seemed” (depending on your point of view), at the beginning of the universe. And I’m fairly sure I mentioned that we don’t know what “would have happened” had it turned out otherwise (Note that some pure determinists might argue that the probability must have been “1” that it would turn out this way, since things eventually turned out this way.) c) I should add that we don’t know how many Big Bangs or beginnings of universes there may have been or may be ongoing. Some respectable physicists would argue that every possible universe exists, and our existence is inevitable (and ironically, this opinion can be spun into a fallacious “proof of God” as well, perhaps a less flawed one than the Anthropic Prinicple). d) And I certainly pointed out that, even if we knew that this particular eventual universe either “was” or “seemed” improbable at the moment of its beginning, or creation, if you like, this would prove no theological stance whatsoever. Improbable things can happend randomly, and it still could have been Quetzlcoatl.

In your golf example, you do not know the prior probability, you merely estimate what it must have “been” or “seemed”, in the past, based on your empirical knowledge of golf. I agree that in this case we can make a reasonable estimate of what it must have “been” or “seemed” at the moment he commenced playing. If I told you a man playing asgja’kg on the planet gsgskjg made two a’aga’lkga-in-one on the same day, you would only know that the probability that it happened was one, and that subsequent studies should be consistent with the fact that it happened. You would not know whether it “was/seemed” improbable, inevitable, or something in between, before he started.

Now it seems as if both my statements are up.

I apologize for looking like one of those creationists who use volume as a weapon. I think my two posts are pretty much interchangeable.

I do disagree with this - “the original statement just doesn’t seem to make any sense;”. The original statement makes perfect sense.

To reiterate one point - when we seem something happen that SEEMS improbable here on earth, we instinctively draw on our empirical knowledge to estimate what the probability “must have been” before it happened. Putting aside pure determinism, this produces reasonable estimates. If I draw the three of diamonds from a deck of cards, yes, before I drew, it seemed that the odds were an astounding 51:1 against drawing the three of diamonds, yet now here it is. If we don’t know how many cards were in the deck, or what fraction of them were the three of diamonds, however, it doesn’t work.

If I might be so bold as to put Harold’s wonderful explanation more succinctly: In order to know whether any feature of our Universe is common or uncommon (such as the presence of intelligent life) we would need to observe many Universes and compare them to ours. Since this is something we cannot do, all statistics are necessarily based on a single Universe–ours. Thus, with intelligent life, we know that it occured, making the probability of intelligent life in known Universes 1 out of 1, or 100%

Jeff S., that doesn’t mean if the Big Bang were to occur again life intelligent life would necessarily exist. It may not. But statistics are based on observation, not speculation. In order to determine whether the 100% would change with additional trials, you would need to stage hundreds of Big Bangs and observe the results. Without such an experiment, the “a priori” probabilty you seek is unknowable to anyone. And anyone who claims to have worked out an answer by observing our Universe only can be safely considered full of hot air.

Harold,

I think I’m in agreement with you on most of what matters. In particular, if it were possible to “start a big bang” and watch the outcome, we would have no way ahead of time to claim that the outcome must be the same as this universe; i.e., the parameters are not predetermined by any present scientific theory.

Some of the ways that you talk about probability seem strange and unfamiliar to me, but maybe a lot of that is just terminology. My original reason for posting was that your statement – that “we are here now, and the probability that (the parameters) are such is 1” – sounds to me like a statement of the Weak Anthropic Principle : that if the parameters did not allow life to exist, we wouldn’t be here to observe them. So, I think it’s a semantical shell game of where the neccesary consistency of those two facts (our existence, and the suitability of the parameters) gets invoked. I agree that this or any other form of the anthropic principle is pretty worthless at proving anything, theological or otherwise; I think it is useful merely as a reminder when doing probability calculations not to make the error of ignoring the requirement of consistency.

One thing I think I do disagree with is the mundane useage of probability calculations.

you Wrote:

If I told you that a man playing slaoguaslg on the planet gaislgat made two ‘agasfas-in-one on the same day, you wouldn’t know whether that had “seemed” “improbable” or “inevitable” at the moment he commenced playing slaoguaslg. All you would know is that the probability that he did do it is “1”.

If I were allowed to watch our friend play a lot of slaoguaslg, and I kept careful records of how many times he made a agasfas-in-one, I could calculate the ratio P=(# of successes)/(# of tries). If I assume the underlying conditions are simple and constant (one success is not correlated with another success, his ability doesn’t change, the rules aren’t revised, etc.) then this ratio is an estimate of the underlying a priori probability that any given try will be a success. For the same player, and the same conditions, I assert that I can calculate the probability that on a certain try he will succeed, and then on the very next try he will succeed again. This probability is the value P*P=P^2. This is the probability before he makes the first attempt. It is the best information we have available, and it is meaningful and testable. Using it we are fully able to claim precisely how likely or unlikely a two-in-a row is. Armed with this information, we can perform a test : we can ask our friend to make two attempts in a row. (For any particular instance of this test, of course, he will either suceed of fail. I suppose you can call that some kind of “retroactive” P=1 or 0, but I don’t see the use of doing that.) My claim is that if we perform this test over and over, the ratio of (# of two-in-a-row)/(# of tries) will converge to the numerical value of P^2.

For events that truly are simple and uncorrelated (golf isn’t such a great example), this kind of calculation works – it’s bread and butter for particle physics, where things like background radioactivie decays are being counted. Armed with the measured probability of observing a single decay, its trivial to calculate the probability of a double, triple, etc. as outlied above.

Where this notion of probability breaks down is where we don’t have the advantage of sampling the underlying probability distribution adequately. And the poster child for this is the Big Bang. I honestly have no idea how (competent) people who talk about probabilities of such and such an outcome for the universe define probability.

Anyway, that’s a ton of verbiage. I don’t think when it comes down to it there’s anything really significant that we disagree on. This would be a lot easier if we were in the same room, preferably with a blackboard.…

H. Humbert,

Your post came in while I was composing my tome. I pretty much concur with what you say. I guess I’m just biased to think that probability means a priori probability, so it sounds odd to me to look back after the fact and declare the probability. But the gist is the same – in this one particular universe, the only one we are able to make an observation of, we do in fact exist. You and Harold choose to describe this situation by saying that the probability is 1; I choose to describe it by saying that there are insufficient statistics to infer any probability.

There are respectable scientists out there (Steven Hawking, Murray Gell-Mann, Jim Hartle, …) who who work with theories that involve the “wave function of the universe”, which of course implies probabilities. I have no idea what in the Hell they mean, though.

Jeff S and H. Humbert -

I agree with everything in your most recent posts above. I would like to add one final point.

“But statistics are based on observation, not speculation. In order to determine whether the 100% would change with additional trials, you would need to stage hundreds of Big Bangs and observe the results. Without such an experiment, the “a priori” probabilty you seek is unknowable to anyone”. Indeed.

But there is actually one other way to know the probability of an outcome - at least in a trivial sense. If you have near perfect knowledge of the starting conditions and the nature of the trial, you can state a probability of a certain outcome in advance. My trivial example was drawing a certain card from a deck. Please assume an ideally fair draw from a perfectly standard deck under. If we feel certain that the deck is a standard deck, that each card has an equal chance to be randomly drawn, and so on, we can state, before the draw, that the odds of getting the six of clubs (or any other card) are 51:1. We don’t have to do any trials in this extremely oversimplified “ideal” example (although if we do, we can expect the results to approach this number, as we do more and more trials). After a card has been drawn, philosophical considerations complicate the question of whether it was “inevitable” or not that that card be chosen. But we can state in a meaningful if not strictly accurate way that the odds of getting that particular card “were” 51:1. In real life, of course, even new decks of cards or random draws are not perfect, and this might be a mild oversimplification.

Why do I even mention something so obvious? Because this seems to be the crux of the (strong) anthropic principle, which Charlie Wagner ascribes, apparently accurately, to Charles Townes. The whole idea seems to be based, in a large part, on what is in essence an implied false analogy. They are treating the Big Bang or the beginning of the universe or whatever as if they knew all the conditions to a high degree of exactitude “before” it unfolded. As if they are in a position to state what the odds “were”. But we don’t have this kind of knowledge (as Jeff S points out, we would have to get a look at something outside of time to get it).

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on June 17, 2005 6:35 PM.

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