A mini-pre-vacation rant roundup

I don’t seem to have provoked anyone for quite sometime, so I thought I would set up a quick Hist­_Sci Hulk triple threat match before I disappear off on holiday. What follows are three things that irritated me on the Internet in recent days.

The major scientific theme of the day has been, of course, Monday’s total eclipse over America. In the lead up we have seen a lot on the Internet about eclipse maps. Eclipse maps are maps that show/predict the shadow path of the eclipse usually differentiating between those areas experiencing a full eclipse and those only experiencing various degrees of partial eclipse. On 17 August the website Atlas Obscura had an article on eclipse maps with the title How Edmond Halley Kicked Off the Golden Age of Eclipse Mapping that featured Halley’s 1715 eclipse map. Now this title contains a serious history of astronomy error and Atlas Obscura were unfortunately not the only ones to make it in the lead up to Monday’s great solar event.

Halley’s 1715 Eclipse Map

Edmond Halley did not kick off the Golden Age of Eclipse Mapping, the seventeenth-century mathematician and astronomer Erhard Weigel (1625–1699) (who you can read about here) did with an eclipse map published in 1654 sixty-one years before Halley’s effort.

Weigel’s 1654 Eclipse Map

Halley wasn’t even second in the eclipse map stakes as Weigel’s student Johann Christopher Sturm (1635–1703) (who you can read about at the Weigel link) published one 1676, thirty-nine years before Halley.

Sturm’s 1676 Eclipse Map

Both Weigel and Sturm were known to the Royal Society, of which Halley was both a member and for a time an employee, and Sturm was also a member, so there is a strong possibility that Halley knew of the efforts of his German colleagues and cannot even be regarded as an independent inventor.

If you want all of the dope on eclipse maps then I highly recommend the excellent Eclipse-Maps website, which can fill all of your eclipse map desires whatever they might be. It is the source of the three eclipse maps shown here.

Another eclipse related false claim is the one presented below:

Now Ibn al-Haytham (c.965–c.1040) is one of the most important figures in the history of optics and he put the pinhole camera effect to very good use in his optical researches but he can’t be said to have invented it. You don’t actually have to build a ‘camera’ to display the pinhole camera effect and there are plenty of images on the web of people projecting images of the eclipse onto some sort of background through a hole in a hat, through a colander, through the holes in a salt cracker etc., etc.

The earliest known description of the pinhole camera effect can be found in the so-called Chinese Mozi writings, which date from the fifth century BCE, so about one and a half thousand years before Ibn al-Haytham lived. A description of the pinhole camera effect can also be found in the writings of Aristotle (384–322). In his Problems Aristotle wrote:

Why is it that an eclipse of the sun, if one looks at it through a sieve or through leaves, such as a plane-tree or other broadleaved tree, or if one joins the fingers of one hand over the fingers of the other, the rays are crescent-shaped where they reach the earth? Is it for the same reason as that when light shines through a rectangular peep-hole, it appears circular in the form of a cone?

 As you can see he’s even describing using the effect to view a solar eclipse. As a small bonus, the name camera obscura for the pinhole camera (the origin of the term camera) was coined by Johannes Kepler.

My third rant of the day leaves the direct field of history of science and moves into the sphere of science communication and philosophy of science. Also provoked by the eclipse several different versions of the following meme have been circulating in the Internet over the last few days. I don’t know who originated it but Neil deGrasse Tyson has been aggressively tweeting a shorter version.

Now I’m a one hundred per cent supporter of science and the scientific method (whatever that might be) and the results that they produce in their attempts to explain our world but I find the analogy drawn here simplistic, naive and anything but helpful. I will endeavour to explain my thoughts on the matter.

Put very simply people are making the mistake here of comparing apples with oranges. A solar eclipse and its scientific explanation are of a very different type to the science of evolution or vaccines and all the other things that denialists reject.

First of all there is a time dimension. Already in the second half of the first century BCE Babylonian astronomers were pretty good at explaining solar and lunar eclipses and could predict lunar ones accurately and at least predict when a solar eclipse could theoretically take place. This knowledge was acquired through many centuries of astronomical observation. So, we are talking about more than two thousand years for people to digest and accept the science behind solar eclipses. In contrast to this, the theory of evolution and the scientific explanation for vaccines are both products of the nineteenth century and less than two hundred years old, far less time for people to digest and accept.

The second factor and the more serious one is complexity. Once you accept that the sun, the moon and the earth are just three balls rotating through the heavens, something accepted in Europe around five hundred BCE, – whether your model is geocentric or heliocentric doesn’t make any real difference to the explanation – then the scientific explanation of an eclipse is, to put it mildly, trivial. In fact it can be easily demonstrated in any classroom using a powerful torch (that’s a flashlight for Americans), a basketball and a large inflatable terrestrial globe. I’ve even seen it demonstrated using a torch and three children as the sun, the moon and the earth. There is not an awful lot you have to understand.

If we now turn to evolution or vaccines we are in a wholly different ball game. The theory of evolution is a highly complex scientific theory based on a vast amount of scientific material. The same can be said of the science behind the theories of disease and the use of vaccines to combat some of them. These are not scientific results that can be lucidly explained by a simple classroom demonstration in a couple of minute.

A third factor is personal involvement. There is a certain distance between a human being and the object of astronomy. It is true that we are dependent on the sun for our existence but on the whole we don’t connect to celestial objects on a very personal level. Things are very, very different with both the theory of evolution and vaccines. The theory of evolution says very directly where we as a species come from and that people have difficulty getting their heads around the fact that we are, over a long period of time, descended from some sort of proto-ape-like creature, in fact from the very same proto-ape-like creature as chimpanzees and gorillas shouldn’t come as a surprise. Remember that infamous Victorian quip, “You might think that your grandfather was an ape, sir but your grandmother!” It’s very easy to mock but it’s a hell of a long stretch to convince people to believe the theory of descent. Add to this the complexity of the actually mechanisms of evolution and that you are going to have problems convincing people to accept them shouldn’t surprise anybody.

All the above can be repeated for the theory of disease and the explanations for the function of vaccines; it’s all very, very complex and difficult to swallow for many people. Add to this the fact that vaccine damage is a reality. Before anybody tries to teach me how to suck eggs, I am well aware of the fact that the risk of any given child suffering vaccine damage is by several factors lower than the risk of death or serious brain damage, from say measles, for a child in a non-vaccinated population. But this statement has two problems, firstly ‘my child’ could be damaged by the vaccine, people are emotional, and secondly people don’t understand statistics. Any scientific explanation that involves statistics is likely to set the recipient in a state of panic.

As science communication, or spreading the science gospel, I find the meme above underwhelming to say the least. To say in an arrogant, sneering tone that if you accept the scientific explanation for, trivial phenomenon, A then you have to accept the scientific explanation for, anything but trivial, B is in my opinion anything but helpful and is more likely to antagonise than convince.



Filed under Myths of Science

33 responses to “A mini-pre-vacation rant roundup

  1. The second factor and the more serious one is complexity. … the scientific explanation of an eclipse is, to put it mildly, trivial…. There is not an awful lot you have to understand.

    If we now turn to evolution or vaccines we are in a wholly different ball game. The theory of evolution is a highly complex scientific theory based on a vast amount of scientific material. …

    Is it really, though? The basic idea is summed up in a catch phrase: “Survival of the fittest”. I think people understand the concept pretty easily. “OK,” I hear you objecting “but the proof of evolution and the details involve masses of data and sophisticated mathematics.” Well, doesn’t this apply to eclipse prediction? The basic idea may be easy to grasp, but if you want actually to predict eclipses, not so simple! The modern approach uses some pretty hairy math, namely celestial mechanics. Even the Sumerian predictions relied on centuries of data (as you say), plus some rather intricate computations (see Neugebaurer’s classic studies).

    Much the same can be said about vaccines (basic idea versus detailed mechanism). Anyway, do the anti-vaxxers really fail to understand the concept of vaccine-conferred immunity? I think your other explanations tell the whole story of their objections.

    • I find it mildly amusing that you quote one of the most often misquoted and misunderstood expressions in the whole history of science, “survival of the finest”, as a proof that the theory of evolution is easy to understand.

    • The basic idea is summed up in a catch phrase: “Survival of the fittest”

      It is a well-known phrase, but it begs the questions what do you mean by “fittest” and is “fittest” the same thing whether you are looking at the phenotype or the genotype? Spencer, like Darwin before him, didn’t know about genetics, at that stage evolution was a phenomenological theory, and indeed Spencer believed in Lamarckism. It is only with the “modern synthesis” of the early 20th Century that evolution as we understand it today began. Using phrases like “survival of the fittest” as if Spencer would have understood it in the same way as we would today is falling into presentism.

  2. I find it ironic that in a post complaining about comparing apples to oranges, you compare apples to oranges.

    For eclipse prediction, your criterion for understanding is grasping the basic concept of how an eclipse happens (not even how it’s predicted). I am confident that none of the children who saw the torch-basketball-globe demonstration has the foggiest idea how modern highly accurate predictions are achieved. Just try asking them about evection!

    For evolution, you demand— what? It isn’t clear. The basic concept of Dawin’s theory is also easily grasped, and I’ve seen it demonstrated in a classroom with simple means. (Balls of various colors drawn from a jar— you can imagine the rest.) Sure, mathematical population dynamics is a complex field, and the evidence for Darwinian evolution is not simple. But so what? With an apples to apples comparison, Darwinian evolution is certainly no more complex than celestial mechanics.

    “Survival of the fittest” — misattributed, certainly (though not by me in my comment), but it’s a correct quotation from Herbert Spencer. Yes, often misunderstood, but then, “The moon goes round the earth and blocks the sun” is also subject to misunderstanding. Quiz for your pupils: where is the center of the moon’s orbit, relative to Earth? Which attracts the moon more strongly, the sun or the earth? Spencer’s phrase captures an aspect of Darwinian evolution.

    Similar story for vaccines. I’ve seen a cartoon pamphlet, intended for children, that did a pretty good job explaining how vaccines work. No, it didn’t get into full detail about the immunological response. But it explained more than Jenner knew!

    I believe your larger point in that paragraph is mistaken. You seem to imply that evolution and vaccines are too complex for most creationists and anti-vaxxers to comprehend, and that’s an important (“more serious”) reason for their objections. As far as creationists go, this is abundantly refuted in Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists. And you don’t need to know much about anti-vaxxers to realize that they understand the idea behind vaccination. To say that “it’s all very, very complex … for many people” is (if I may quote you from a different context) rubbish. “Difficult to swallow” for emotional reasons, sure, but not because of its intellectual complexity.

    Have a good vacation! (But shouldn’t that be ‘holiday’?)

    • Vacation is a perfectly good English word derived from the French in the 15th century.

      • Yeah, I know. I was joking. Vacation is the standard American term. Has it driven out “on holiday”? If so, score one for globalization. Or were you just making it easy on some of your readers?

    • araybold

      I thought I understood something about how evolution worked, but I have to admit that it is beyond my capabilities to imagine how drawing colored balls from a jar is going to lead to an explanation. Perhaps that approach also explains vaccination, as nothing in my limited understanding of Darwin’s theory leads to the feasibility and efficacy of vaccination being a necessary consequence.

      • Darwinian evolution and vaccination are two separate issues, both used as examples in Thony’s post.

        As for the colored balls: it illustrates the selection aspect of evolution. Say you start with 100 green balls and 100 red balls in the jar. You repeatedly draw a ball from the jar. You roll a die to determine how many surviving “children” it will have. You make rules to illustrate relative fitness. (For example: if you draw a green ball and roll a 1 or 2, you replace it with two green balls, but otherwise it isn’t replaced at all. For a red, a roll of 1 through 4 means replace with 2 red balls, otherwise none.)

        With more complicated rules, you can illustrate more complicated aspects of evolution. Now before Laurence Cox starts complaining about phenotype and genotype, and the hox genes and methylation and who knows what else, this is a classroom tool meant to help the kids understand one aspect of evolution. Just like Thony’s torch-basketball-globe demo, which falls way short of illustrating everything going on in modern eclipse prediction.

      • Mr Weiss, I take exception to you libelling me by alleging that I have written what I have not written. If you have not read Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” (and I would add the following books in his series) then you really should, and if you have read it you have clearly not understood it. “Survival of the fittest” is a loaded term and is only strictly correct for the genotype (as Dawkins makes clear). It is the use of it for the phenotype that led to the worst excesses of eugenics (particularly the belief that some races/classes were fitter than others) and which is why biologists prefer not to use it nowadays.

        As for your coloured ball example, which requires an understanding of probability, this is hardly in the same category as the understanding that light travels in straight lines.

    • Calm down please, gentlemen ;))

      • @LaurenceCox: I certainly did not intend to libel you. Truth be told, I don’t see how I have.

        I have read The Selfish Gene and other books by Dawkins, as well as several more on these topics. Enough to know that the interaction between genotype and phenotype is a good deal more complicated than (it appears to me) you suggest. But that’s neither here nor there.

        Anyway, I don’t want to drag this out, so that will do it for me.

      • @Thony: Well, you did start your post with I don’t seem to have provoked anyone for quite sometime… 🙂

      • I will just end by saying that I am still in agreement with Thony on this issue. I have still not seen a reasoned argument that evolution can be explained in the same simple way as eclipses. Whataboutery is not a substitute for reasoned argument.

      • araybold

        Michael, if the creationists among your audience are sharp enough, one of them will say something like “I don’t see any new colors appearing.” I don’t know that you could introduce a new color without begging the question.

        Admittedly, your demonstration is nowhere near as wrong as the idea that you can understand general relativity with a bowling ball and a trampoline, but it falls far short of conveying some of the essential parts of the theory of evolution – one of which is that it is not only possible, but it is sufficient to explain the history of life on Earth. For that, Darwin had to recognize the existence and importance of sexual selection, among many other things.

      • araybold writes:

        it falls far short of conveying some of the essential parts of the theory of evolution

        Right. And Thony’s demo falls way short of conveying all that goes into modern (astonishingly accurate) eclipse prediction.

        Apples to apples, please. That was my whole point.

      • araybold

        Michael: Apples to apples? When you were comparing a simple flashlight-and-ball model of an eclipse to your model of evolution, your criterion for objecting to the eclipse model was extremely pedantic at best, while it turns out that your model of evolution leaves out some of the most basic issues, such as the origin of species.

        But your objection to the eclipse demonstration is not just pedantic, it is premised on an invalid criterion, as to understand something does not imply or require an ability to make perfect predictions about it. Darwin did not know either the mechanism of genetic inheritance or its statistics, so he could not possibly model or predict evolutionary outcomes in detail (as is now done in experiments and field studies), yet it would be ludicrous to suggest that he did not have a good understanding of it.

      • @araybold: Let’s remember how the whole discussion started. Thony objected to an internet meme, which wondered: why do people accept that scientists can predict solar eclipses with great accuracy, while rejecting evolution? (The exact quote is in the post. Have another look.)

        Please note: not even the theory of evolution, just evolution. And eclipse prediction was very much the issue raised by the meme!

        I am frankly flabbergasted that evolution is (apparently) regarded as arcane and esoteric, beyond the grasp of mere lay people, simply because a deep understanding involves layers of complexity. While celestial mechanics is (apparently) a piece of cake, because you can give a demo to children illustrating the most basic features of the mechnism.

        And—key point—this alleged disparity is given as one of the main reasons why creationists reject evolution while accepting eclipse prediction.

        Like I said, apples to apples.

      • araybold

        Michael, up until now, I have only taken issue with your claims about evolution and apple-comparison, but if you want to extend it to the whole of Thony’s nuanced, page-length response to Tyson’s plaint, one of the first things to notice is that he is not claiming that the flashlight-and-ball demonstration alone establishes the plausibility of eclipse predictability – it deals with just the first part of a two-part argument for that which claims a) it is readily believable that solar eclipses are caused by the moon passing between the earth and the sun, and b) it is well-established that the movements of the moon and sun across the sky are predictable, and have indeed been predicted for millennia. Consequently, any argument that the demonstration alone fails to establish the combination of a) and b) would be beside the point, even if it didn’t depend on a ridiculous standard for what it means to understand that idea (one that implies that I, along with at least 999,999 in a million people, and would guess also you, do not really have a sufficient understanding of the issue to rationally accept that eclipses are predictable).

        Meanwhile, you have said nothing to address my points about your evolution-is-simple claim and your repeated comparison of apples to apples through wildly inconsistent criteria.

        FWIW, I think Tyson has a valid point, even though most of Thony’s explanations of the paradox are reasonable.

      • Araybold, from the start the argument has been a compare-and-contrast. Thony repeatedly makes the claim that evolution is much harder to understand than eclipse prediction, and that this is one of the main reasons people accept the former and reject the latter.

        I don’t buy this argument; as I wrote, “Grasping any scientific theory takes place at many levels.” I never made an “evolution-is-simple” claim. My claim is, “evolutionary theory is intrinsically no more difficult than celestial mechanics”. I claim this holds at a basic level, and at a sophisticated level. Thony’s second argument hinges on setting a sophisticated understanding of evolution against a crude understanding of eclipse prediction. That’s what I meant by apples to oranges.

        Sure, it’s easy enough to understand, at a basic level, how eclipse prediction is possible. And it’s easy enough to understand, at a basic level, how evolution is possible. So just listing various aspects of evolutionary theory (as you did) is off-point.
        If you want to make a column A, column B list—evolutionary theory vs. eclipse prediction—well, I mentioned a few entries in my comments.

        As you note, Thony offered three explanations for the “accept/reject” phenomenon. His third (personal involvement) makes total sense; I believe it’s the explanation, complete and entire. I don’t buy the first (time dimension), for reasons I gave in another comment.

        Now, you link Thony’s first two reasons to support “the plausibility of eclipse predictability”. Take away the personal involvement, and we have equal plausibility for Darwinian evolution.

        If Darwinian evolution is really intellectually so incredibly difficult to grasp by lay people, then I guess Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Sean B. Carroll, Neil Shubin, and countless other authors have been wasting their time writing their flood of books….

      • araybold

        Michael, you are, of course, entitled to your opinion that evolution is as easy to understand as solar eclipses, and I am glad to see that you are no longer making the most flawed of the arguments that you originally advanced for that proposition, but you are still doing the same things that led you to make those flawed arguments in the first place.

        Your last paragraph is an argument against the proposition that evolution can only be understood at any meaningful level by experts, but no-one has stated anything that is predicated on that proposition, or anything that necessarily implies it – it is just another in a sequence of straw men that you have created (or did they evolve?)

        It seems to me that you keep getting into this trouble through false dichotomies: for example, either evolution is simple to understand, or it is utterly beyond most people, so an objection to the latter makes the case for the former, and an objection to the former must imply the latter. When the situation is not actually a dichotomy, however, you end up with a non-sequitur at best, and sometimes in stating the indefensible.

        You are also drifting towards an invalid substitution of the general for the specific when you substitute ‘celestial mechanics’ for ‘solar eclipses’.

        As for the facts behind your claim that “it’s easy enough to understand, at a basic level, how evolution is possible”, you have not offered any support for that proposition since I pointed out that your balls-in-a-jar demonstration doesn’t cover the origin of species, and if there is one thing that a basic understanding of evolution requires, it is that something like a protozoan may eventually beget humans. Given that it did not come easily to Darwin, that Wallace never took the final step, and that many of their peers (contemporary intellectuals) did not accept it even after seeing the arguments, I think any burden of proof is on you.

        With regard to Tyson’s paradox, my personal opinion is that most evolution deniers display a specific instance of conditioning, having been told from the time they could first grasp the issue that scripture is the ultimate authority (are there any outright deniers who are not motivated by religion?) In addition, there are doubters who realize that there are arguments for evolution, but who cannot make the leap of faith to put aside what their personal involvement tells them, and embrace reason. It is (IMHO) similar, but not the same, in the case of vaccination: there are those for which vaccination is seen as unnatural, and therefore innately bad, while there are others who accept that vaccination works, but suspect that vaccines also do harm. The latter put personal testimony (“my son was vaccinated and then began regressing”) over statistical studies (which is understandable when it is someone they know), and are influenced by the undeniable fact that medicine has sometimes endorsed things that turn out to be harmful.

      • @Araybold,

        Sheesh. What part of

        Grasping any scientific theory can take place at many levels.

        don’t you understand? However, I despair of getting you not to grossly misinterpret what I wrote. So enough about that.

        Turning to your last paragraph: I think you, I, and Thony are in substantial agreement. Personal involvement, as he put it. With regard to vaccines, I think he nailed it, for many anti-vaxxers. You also suggest another category (“vacccination is unnatural”), and I agree that this is probably also a fair description for many.

        I would have guessed, like you, that creationists are chiefly motivated by scriptural literalism or maybe the “monkey’s uncle” objection that Thony mentioned (a genuine issue in the 19th century). Then I read Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line . Rosenhouse is a mathematician who believes in evolution, and understands it at a pretty deep level. Out of curiousity, he attended a creationist conference. From the introduction:

        After several dozen such events over a number of years, I found myself dissatisfied with much of the scholarly literature in this area. I felt there was a story to tell in what I had experienced and that I could paint a realistic picture of why creationists believe the things they do…

        This book…is a memoir recounting some interesting experiences I’ve had socializing with people whose worldview differs greatly from my own. It is also an explication of the beliefs and attitudes that are common in the anti-evolution subculture. And it is a discussion of certain questions about the relationship between science and religion that arose naturally through my experiences.

        Rosenhouse found that the main objections he encountered were moral and philosophical. I summarize briefly, at the risk of oversimplifying. It can be difficult to reconcile the idea of a loving, omnipotent God, who takes a personal interest in all his creatures, with the picture painted by Darwinian evolution. Not that reconciliation is impossible, but the creationists chose rejection instead. In addition, most felt that Darwin’s materialistic viewpoint poses a dangerous threat to morality. In short, they found Darwinian evolution offensive to their whole worldview.

        While Rosenhouse certainly did not find universal understanding of evolutionary science, he did encounter many who had a very good understanding of what the science says, and still rejected it for the reasons just mentioned. In short, empirical data weighs in against the complexity argument and in favor of personal involvement.

      • araybold

        Michael, The phrase “grasping any scientific theory can take place at many levels” is so trivially true that the only thing I don’t get about it is that I cannot figure out where I said anything that stands in contradiction. Meanwhile, I am very interested in Rosenhouse’s investigations, of which I was unaware before. I wonder if some of the people he writes about go so far as to accept the plausibility of evolution, while still taking the position that it should not be taught on account of what they consider to be its corrosive effects on ethics? If I thought that the teaching of evolution had such outcomes, I would take it into consideration, but I think such ideas are in turn predicated on a mistaken belief concerning the roots of ethical behavior.

        We should also recognize that the attendees at such conferences are probably very much in the minority of all creationists, and indeed of just the subset who go so far as to oppose the teaching of evolution. However, they may all be rejecting evolution in broadly the same way: they don’t like it because, as they see it, it implies things that they don’t like, and for them, the rational plausibility of the argument for evolution simply does not come into it.

      • Araybold: I agree with your last sentence, but I’d add that people have a remarkable ability to double down on what they believe when faced with countervailing evidence (whether factual, or lines of reasoning, or combinations of those).

        Anyway, “rational plausibility” is not like a proof in mathematics. What are the premises? What are the rules for weighing evidence? Whom do you trust, who merits skepticism… It’s not like I’ve personally witnessed any of the eclipse predictions becoming true. (Yes, I’ve seen the pictures on TV. I also believe the moon landing wasn’t faked.)

        If I thought that the teaching of evolution had such outcomes, I would take it into consideration, but I think such ideas are in turn predicated on a mistaken belief concerning the roots of ethical behavior.

        I agree with you, but good luck convincing a creationist.

        I wonder if some of the people he writes about go so far as to accept the plausibility of evolution, while still taking the position that it should not be taught on account of what they consider to be its corrosive effects on ethics?

        That’s flirting with cognitive dissonance. Most people like to believe they are being honest with other people. Most people will agree, at least in principle, that adults should be taught the truth. Very easy to go from “evolution has a corrosive effect on morality” to “evolution isn’t true”. Especially if your whole upbringing supports that standpoint.

  3. Jacob Kanev

    To my dismay, not only could we not see the eclipse in Europe, but also, all the latest XKCD comics dealt with nothing else. Your post reminded me of this one: https://m.xkcd.com/1877/

    All the very best from Jacob.

  4. The meme “scientists can predict eclipses, so trust scientists” could also have been applied by Babylonian philosopher/priests on their people. “We can predict eclipses, so we know more than you, so STFU and do what we say”. Ditto Chinese astronomers 2000 years ago, Mayans, Aztecs, etc.

    It really is a stupid meme.

  5. To Laurence Cox: I plead not guilty to presentism. First let me try to make my point differently; I’ll address presentism in a separate comment.

    The meme pairs off eclipse prediction against vaccine protection or evolution. Thony characterizes this as a comparing the explanations of a “trivial phenomenon” versus one “anything but trivial”. The meme invokes modern solar eclipse prediction: astronomers predict, decades in advance, the time within minutes. Thony substitutes the most naive possible explanation of the mechanism of an eclipse—the moon blocks the sun—for the celestial mechanics enabling these predictions.

    When it comes to evolution, he waves his hands a bit. “The theory of evolution is a highly complex scientific theory based on a vast amount of scientific material.” And: “Add to this the complexity of the actually mechanisms of evolution.” You mention genetics and the modern synthesis. Well, if understanding evolution has to include all this, then I think the astronomers may justly demand at least the perturbation theory of the three-body problem. Hardly trivial!

    Grasping any scientific theory takes place at many levels. Deeper understanding involves (almost always) clarifying and/or correcting crude early conceptions. True both individually and historically.

    OK, let’s look at the history. Thony says: “So, we are talking about more than two thousand years for people to digest and accept the science behind solar eclipses.” Note that “the science” here encompasses the span from Babylonian methods (zig-zag functions, no geometry) through Ptolemaic models through Newton through Euler, Lagrange, Clairaut, Hill etc. to modern algorithms. Is the progression from Lamarkism to the modern synthesis really more sweeping than this?

    As for individual understanding, Thony claims (apparently) that evolution is too complex for average folk to grasp, at least compared with eclipse prediction. Grasp at what level? The standard is set by his torch-basketball-globe demo. (Which, to repeat, doesn’t explain how eclipses are predicted. Ask the pupils why we don’t have a total solar eclipse every month!)

    He who can accept that demo as an adequate explanation of modern eclipse prediction, need not, methinks, be squeamish about the “survival” quote.

  6. To Laurence Cox, continued: I stand accused of presentism, or more specifically, of believing that Spencer intended the phrase the same way a modern evolutionary biologist would.

    But I made no such claim. I asked, what would an apples-to-apples comparison between eclipse prediction and evolution look like? Thony called evolution “a highly complex scientific theory based on a vast amount of scientific material.” As I said, there are levels and levels of comprehension. Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Sean Carroll have all written books making much of the theory, in its modern form, quite accessible to the interested layman. I have yet to see a non-mathematical treatment of celestial mechanics that goes anywhere near as deep. (And of course without the math, you have no predictions.)

    At the other end of the scale, what do naive explanations—catchphrases—look like for our pair? We have Thony’s torch-basketball-globe demo, which I summarized as “The moon goes round the earth and blocks the sun.” Just as with the “survival” quote, the implied level of understanding is shallow. (Another question for the quiz from earlier comments: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So how come the path of eclipse went from the west coast to the east coast of the U.S.?) But it’s a possible first step towards deeper knowledge, to be clarified and refined. The phrase “natural selection” also has its problems.

    So the exact history of the “survival” catchphrase isn’t really the point. But as long as you’ve brought it up, let me add a couple of things. First, Spencer used the phrase originally with reference to Darwin’s theory:

    This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life. (Spencer, Principles of Biology, 1864.)

    And Darwin came to accept the term:

    This preservation, during the battle for life, of varieties which possess any advantage in structure, constitution, or instinct, I have called Natural Selection; and Mr. Herbert Spencer has well expressed the same idea by the Survival of the Fittest. The term “natural selection” is in some respects a bad one, as it seems to imply conscious choice; but this will be disregarded after a little familiarity. (Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 1868.)

    He also included it in a later edition of On the Origin of Species.

    It’s true that modern biologists prefer “natural selection” to “survival of the fittest”. But saddling Spencer (and I guess Darwin) with all the misconceptions that have accreted around the phrase—how’s that for presentism?

    • Michael,
      Your own quotes reveal the evidence for presentism:
      “the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life” (clearly this has to be what we would now call ‘group selection’). Both Darwin and Spencer were exclusively concerned with the ‘fitness’ of the phenotype, which is why I questioned the assumption that fitness of the phenotype and the genotype were the same. It is the ‘gene’s-eye view’ of evolution, popularised by Dawkins et al, that really brings an understanding of why evolution operates in the way it does (The Selfish Gene is always worth re-reading, although like “natural selection”, “selfish” has developed connotations of conscious choice that were not intended by their authors).

      On the subject of celestial mechanics, it is quite true that there are very few popular books on the subject. I have one: “An elementary survey of Celestial Mechanics” (the Dover title) by Y Ryabov, published first in 1959 and which I bought in a Dover edition in the early 1970s. You can download the book here: https://archive.org/details/CelestialMechanics

      The first few pages of the introduction to this book clarify why the track of the eclipse was from west-to-east and not vice versa. The Moon, like the Sun travels from west to east when referenced to the stellar reference frame. In the Sun’s case it takes a year to make one revolution, while the Moon takes one month. The apparent motion of both from east to west is an artefact of the Earth’s rotation, so should have been understandable once the heliocentric theory was accepted.

      I suspect that the reason why there are so few popular books on celestial mechanics is that it is not a ‘hot’ subject. Apart from the additional perehelion advance of Mercury predicted by Einstein’s General Relativity it is all purely Newtonian mechanics. Ryabov’s book reflects a resurgence in interest following the launch of the first Sputnik in 1957.

  7. Two more comments and then I’m done. I promise! (Unless I get accused of vehement suspicion of heresy…)

    The thing about memes is, everyone has his or her own reaction. Thony saw (it seems) an attempt to persuade anti-vaxxers and creationist via a snide attack (a doomed enterprise, I agree). Dermot O’Conner saw “STFU and do what we say”.

    I saw a cry of frustration at the way the value of expertise is often dismissed. (“Value” not being the same as “unquestioning deference to”).

    Ironically, Thony has been beating that drum repeatedly vis-a-vis the history of science.

  8. Thony gave three factors to account for the disparity highlighted by the meme. I’ve beaten the second one (complexity) mercilessly. How about the first (time dimension)? More than two thousand years for eclipse prediction, vs. less than two hundred for vaccination and evolution?

    I don’t buy it. First point: the timeline for eclipse prediction is inflated. Thony: the Babylonians could “at least predict when a solar eclipse could theoretically take place.” Underwhelming! A better date: Horrocks, 1630s (see Curtis Wilson, “Predictive astronomy in the century after Kepler”). Not that much earlier than Jenner’s smallpox vaccinations (~1800).

    Anyway, social acceptance is not linear in time! Electric lights, telephones, cars, planes, the internet… Younger than vaccination and evolution. Where is the “Answers Without Electric Lights” website?

    Not just non-linear—these things go up and down and up and down and… When I got vaccinated against polio as a kid, you had to look hard to find anti-vaccination screeds. The anti-chlorination movement got all the publicity. There was a flare-up of anti-vaxx in the 1970s; it seems that the most recent wave of opposition stems from Andrew Wakefield’s infamous 1998 article. This page has more on the history.

    As for the third factor (personal involvement), there I’d say Thony nailed it. Indeed, for my money, that’s the whole story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s