Re: Public perceptions of science: was Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

From: Terry M. Gray <>
Date: Tue Sep 13 2005 - 01:58:02 EDT

On Sep 12, 2005, at 9:11 AM, Alexanian, Moorad wrote:
> The drastic difference between biology and physics is that the
> notion of life enters the former while is totally foreign in the
> latter. The real question is how much of biology can be reduced to
> atoms and molecules without tackling the question of what life is.
> However, I believe that life cannot be defined in terms of purely
> physical concepts. Of course, people still talk of complex
> molecules like DNA as describing much of what humans and animals
> are. Needless to say, the question of human rationality and
> consciousness presupposes life but must represent an astronomical
> jump in complexity, whichever way the problem is tackled.


That's the difference between a physical science and a biological
science! There's a sense in which "life" is a given the biological
sciences. Indeed, that's what sets biology apart from the the
physical sciences. That doesn't mean that there are not lawful
regularities and patterns that can be discovered. Nor does it mean
that observations and characterizations cannot be made. While some
physicists have pejoratively labeled observation and classification
as "stamp collecting", I am unapologetic about the tag; such
activities are well within the realm of science and are crucial
precursors to any kind of systematizing and unifying theory generation.

Also, there a few true reductionists left today. At the same time
there are few or no vitalists today. Among philosophers of biology
there is an active discussion about what all this means. A good start
is Mayr's Philosophy of Biology, a collection of essays that tackles
many of these topics. Most biologists who think about these things
regard emergentism to be a form of anti-reductionism rather than a
form of reductionism. No doubt there is substantial material physical
and chemical basis to life; much of the success of modern molecular
and cellular biology attests to this. However, I know of no
biologists who think that the organism that they chopped up in the
blender or even the bacterial cells that they broke open are still

There is a "whole" in the biological system, the cell or the
organism, that is more than the sum of the parts. This does not mean
that there some "vital substance" as many early biologists believed
(although, in principle, I suppose there could be--Occam's Razor
suggests to most that there is no need for that hypothesis). Even
without a vital substance, however, anti-reductionists think that new
properties and behaviors (the things we associate with living
systems: reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, growth, response to
stimuli, movement, etc.) arise out of the physical-chemical things
arranged in particular ways. Of course, there's a lot hidden in that
little phrase "arise out of".

But, in many ways, it doesn't matter. We can seek to understand some
of the material basis of life by studying biochemistry, metabolism,
enzymology, molecular genetics, membrane systems, etc. by taking
things apart and then putting them back together again. Perhaps at
some point we'll come up with a minimal configuration where what we
end up with is considered "alive". Biologists have always believed in
irreducible complexity! But the living system results from a certain
level of organization and/or complexity.

At the same time, we can start with cell and the living system as a
given and treat them as wholes that have properties that can be
observed, characterized, hypothesized and theorized about. The fact
that these systems are alive, even if we don't really don't know what
that means, doesn't mean that there aren't regularities, patterns,
laws, etc. that can be discovered using scientific methodologies.
This is what organismic biology and ecology is all about.

Again, in the for what it's worth department, I'd probably regard
mathematics as a science as well! (At CSU mathematics, statistics,
computer science, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and
psychology are all departments in the College of Natural Science!)


> From: [mailto:asa-
>] On Behalf Of Terry M. Gray
> Sent: Sunday, September 11, 2005 5:49 PM
> To:
> Subject: Re: Public perceptions of science: was Why Most Published
> Research Findings Are False
> Hi everyone,
> I'd like to suggest a more conciliatory approach to moderate the
> recent rancor on these two threads.
> Loren Haarsma from Calvin presented to following paper at the ASA
> meeting this summer as part of the ID "vs" TE symposium:
> IsIDScientific_ASA2005.htm
> Loren, I think, masterfully set the right tone for a productive
> debate. Dembski followed him prepared, of course, to argue that ID
> is "scientific" and when Loren didn't come loaded with that
> particular critique was surprisingly, in my experience,
> conciliatory himself. He even admitted that theistic evolution is a
> plausible Christian position.
> I created a web version of Loren's handout and paper and he gave me
> permission to put it on the ASA web site. If you would like a Word
> document version, you can get it directly from Loren's web site at
> Calvin at
> I am in Loren's "explainable" or "partially explainable" camps when
> it comes to most of the ID examples from biology (flagella, origin
> of life, other irreducibly complex systems). I'm quite content to
> argue against ID on the basis of plausible scenarios rather than
> demarcationist arguments.
> For what it's worth, in my opinion as a biologist (and otherwise),
> the recent arguments that biology is not science are just pompous
> physical science arrogance. From the information about joining the
> ASA: "Science is interpreted broadly to include anthropology,
> archeology, economics, engineering, history, mathematics, medicine,
> political science, psychology, and sociology as well as the
> generally recognized science disciplines." I've long disagreed with
> Moorad on this and it's just putting your head in the sand to say
> otherwise. Most people say that biology is not a physical science,
> but a unique, autonomous scientific discipline, biological science.
> Most people will, however, categorize biology as a natural science
> (notice that natural does NOT equal physical in these
> characterizations). Natural science is conventionally contrasted
> with human or social sciences (please, don't make the joke about,
> if science is in your discipline's name, it's not science). We
> really must abandon these demarcationist arguments and be willing
> get to more substantive discussions asking whether or not the
> claims are correct not whether or not they match up with someone's
> rules of the game.
> TG
> ________________
> Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
> Computer Support Scientist
> Chemistry Department
> Colorado State University
> Fort Collins, CO 80523
> (o) 970-491-7003 (f) 970-491-1801

Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
Computer Support Scientist
Chemistry Department
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523
(o) 970-491-7003 (f) 970-491-1801
Received on Tue Sep 13 02:03:05 2005

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