Re: My last word

Mark D. Kluge (
Mon, 19 Apr 1999 15:25:02 -0400

Brian D Harper wrote:

> My post was not intended to be an
> endorsement of Wells but rather it was kind of a knee jerk
> reaction against the approach to debate that seems to be favored
> by some. Wells made some specific allegations that can be dealt
> with specifically. Instead, some seem to want to take the track
> that Wells has no right to raise these objections since his
> robes are not long enough and his hood is of the wrong color.
> This I find enormously irritating and contrary to the spirit of
> science.

Had Wells confined himself to scientific issues I would agree with you. However,
his "specific allegations" of fraud place Wells' own remarks outside of normal
scientific intercourse. It is true that within scientific disputes what is
important is the arguments themselves, and the qualifications of protagonists to
raise their arguments does not need to be considered, since a protagonist who
brings forth quality arguments is perforce qualified to do so, while one who
fails to bring forth quality arguments is ignorable whatever his qualifications.

When, however, discussion shifts to allegations against someone's morals or
character, as is the case with Wells' allegations, the questions of standing and
qualification must be raised. This is so because such allegations are inherently
inflammatory, and by their very nature tend to obscure debate rather than
illuminate it. Hence, prior to entering into debate on the merits of such
allegations, the qualifications of whoever makes them must be established.
Failing to resolve those necessary preliminary determinations of qualification,
there is no choice but to continue those inquiries in parallel with the debate
about the facts of the case. I recognize that that is not a desirable situation
for any plaintiff to find himself; but this is the bed chosen by Wells himself,
so he ought to lie upon it without complaint.

> One thing I've tried to do in the past few years is to see if
> some particular controversial event or practice in evolutionary
> biology or teaching of same also occurs in other fields. This is
> in an attempt to ward off suspicions that certain things happen in
> evolutionary biology because of metaphysical prejudices etc.
> This particular incident reminded me of something I read in
> Richard Feynman's biography. It seems that he had volunteered to
> review physics textbooks for local schools and immediately became
> enormously frustrated by the task. For one thing, it appeared to
> him that he was probably the only reviewer who actually read the
> books :). More to the point, he found really significant and
> fundamental mistakes in these books. I would be inclined to
> think, then, that if such is possible in elementary physics,
> surely biology would not be immune.

I think your point that one should not expect elementary biology texts to be
better than elementary physics (or mathematics) texts is well taken. It is
another reason not to get involved in arguments over fraud.

Finally, it's a little bit off point, but there might be a recent example from
physics where the way a fundamental principle has been presented in text books is
examined and found wanting. See An experimentum crucis,
at least conceptually, is redone in modified form; but the canonical text book
explanation, in this case in terms of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, fails
for the modified experiment. This is too recent to know how text book authors
will respond.

What's interesting to me is that the double-slit experiment is cited ubiquitously
in text books as an example where quantum effects are essential for its
understanding. If you had asked almost any physicist to explain the (traditional
version of) the two slit experiment he would have probably explained it in terms
of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. However, if you had asked that same
physicist to predict the outcome of the modified two-slit experiment (for which
the Uncertainty Principle) does not suffice), that same physicist would have
predicted correctly that the interference fringes would disappear when the beam
of microwaves detects which slit each photon goes through. Why? Because
physicists actually think in terms of the correct quantum analysis (whether
explicitly stated in terms of quantum entanglement or not). We didn't really
think in terms of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in analyzing the double
slit experiment. We used it because it was a convenient (and
pedagogically-useful) simplification for the real analysis. When push came to
shove we might even have thought that that pedagogically-useful simplification
was applicable to a wider class of situations than was warranted. However, that
was in retrospect, after we knew that the simplified Uncertainty Principle advice
gives the same result as the real analysis.

Anyway, despite our not actually using the Uncertainty Principle for the
double-slit experiment, until last year we (most of us) did not know that there
were simple variations on the experiment to which it would not apply. It will be
interesting to see how text book writers and physics educators treat analysis of
the two slit experiment, even in those cases where the Uncertainty Principle
analysis works.