Sunday, January 23, 2005

Promoting science

Titan Rivers

Atrios says:

If *I* had some money thrown at me to start a think tank-type organization, what I would do is set up a foundation which would provide grant money to liberalish academics which would free them up to spend some time marketing their research to a more mainstream audience.

This is such an excellent idea. A lot of the sense that “the academy is too liberal” would actually be solved by this. Right now, right wing think tanks put out research that pretends to be the marginalized work of an unfortunate minority. With real debate – genuine partisanship – there would be two sides to that, and most academics would seem moderate.

I have argued before that the main thing allowing intelligent design creationism to persist is a general sense that evolution is just partisan. If a think tank issued a press release for every scientific article that used science, they'd be producing tons of paper every day.

The discovery of methane rain on Titan means a lot from the perspective of the modern evolutionary synthesis, but almost nothing for IDC. The existence of free methane suggests a regenerating process. Maybe it isn't life, but there is organic chemistry going on, and at a grand scale. The article linked suggests some non-biological explanations, but dismisses life out of hand. Right now, anything is possible.

If you apply real science, you get interesting hypotheses. The rising concentration of methane nearer the surface means that the methane is coming from somewhere. If it's biological, we can proceed from first principles. We understand methane. We understand the frozen water that coats the surface of Titan. We know the basic chemistry, and can recreate the basic conditions of Titan in a lab, and see what recognizable compounds can be generated from those ingredients. It wouldn't be altogether surprising if amino acids exist in some concentration. Since life developed on Earth given simple organic molecules, water, and energy, we can use our knowledge of early life and proto-life on Earth to ask questions about Titan.

If you require the involvement of supernatural beings, you have to first decide whether the same being “designing” life on Earth can or could act on Titan. If the designer is different, then nothing we've learned on Earth is applicable, because the designer is different. But there's no satisfactory way to identify the “designer,” nor to determine its (or their) abilities. So science stalls if you try to apply IDC.

To recap: If we were applying the doctrine of intelligent design creationism, we would have no interest in Titan per se. After all, Titan is interesting to scientists because of its similarity to Earth, the presence of organic molecules, and its cloudy atmosphere, all of which scream “Life” to a scientist. IDC would only see life in the presence of a “designer,” and only after seeing the designer would you look for life. Since the designer is, by assumption, supernatural, IDC is scientifically useless.

Jazz (We've Got) ” by A Tribe Called Quest from the album The Low End Theory (1991, 4:09).