Friday, February 24, 2006


On Special Relativity

This is the revised version of an article I wrote for Farrago (the Melbourne University student magazine). Unfortunately, by the time I had finished the revisions, they had already printed the old version.

Three centuries before Einstein published his theory of relativity, Galileo developed the now self-evident principle of relativity.

Before Galileo, it had been assumed that all movement should be measured relative to the earth, because the earth was believed to be the centre of the universe. He argued, though, that the universe had no centre. And since the universe has no centre, it must be just as reasonable to measure movement relative to the sun or to Venus, or even to earthbound objects such as boats and carriages.

For example, passengers on an aeroplane in mid-flight are not affected by the fact that the plane is moving relative to the earth. At whatever speed the plane is flying, they’ll feel the same as they would if it were just sitting on the runway (apart from the turbulence). In fact, if the windows were shut, the engines and doors silent, and there was no turbulence, it would be impossible for a passenger inside the plane to determine whether it was moving or not.

From the plane’s perspective, an object’s speed would be its speed relative to the plane, rather than its speed relative to the earth. The important thing to note is that this perspective depends on the observer’s speed and direction, but does not depend on their position. (This concept of perspective is crucial to Einstein’s special theory of relativity.)

In other words, if a second plane were flying in formation with the first, the passengers in that second plane would have the same perspective as those in the first. To both sets of passengers, the earth is moving, while the planes are not. But to the people on the ground, the planes are moving, while the earth is not.

In this way, the movement of all objects is relative to the movement of the person (or machine) that it is being observed by. From one perspective, an object will be moving, but from another perspective, it will not. But no object could be stationary from all perspectives, and neither could all perspectives agree on an object’s speed.

That was the principle of relativity, which, until early last century, was considered to be the definite law governing motion in the universe.

There was, however, a problem: the speed of light is a constant, regardless of the perspective of the observer. This means that it is the same from the perspective of the people in the plane, the people on the ground, or even people on another planet. The speed of light is even independent of the speed of the light’s source. This certainly does not conform to the principle of relativity.

And the principle also implied that any speed would be physically possible; but in fact, nothing can exceed the speed of light. So, the principle of relativity is simpler than the universe. It was clearly true for low speeds, but could not be applied to things like light.

Reconciliation came in 1905 with Einstein’s special theory of relativity. The passage of time, Einstein realised, is relative in the same way as speed. In fact, time and distance are relative to each other. But to compare the two, it is important to note that distance and time are similar concepts. The system of measurement for one can be used for the other as follows:

The speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second. Therefore, if something travels at the speed of light for one second, it moves 299,792,458 metres. And so, one second can be treated as being equivalent to that many metres. (Then, by definition, the speed of light becomes one second per second.) The purpose of this is to be able to relate movement through space to the movement through time (as measured by the ticking of a clock), without comparing apples to oranges.

Imagine an object had to move at exactly the speed of light, and it was moving in some direction between north and east. The maximum speed at which it could move northwards is therefore the speed of light, and it would only move northwards at that speed if it were travelling directly northwards (i.e. not travelling eastwards at all). Similarly, its fastest possible eastward movement would also be at the speed of light, and would be achieved when it was not moving northwards at all. And for any vaguely north-easterly direction, its northward speed would be dependent on its eastward speed (and vice versa).

Now imagine that space were north and time were east; so that all things are moving through space-time at the speed of light; and, just as with the above scenario, they can only move through time at the speed of light (one second per second) if they are not moving through space at all, and they can only move through space at the speed of light if they are not moving through time at all (so that a clock moving at the speed of light would not tick).

That’s how it is with all things that have been observed. All things are moving through space-time at the speed of light; but they vary in how much of that movement is through space, and how much is through time (and this is dependant on perspective).

For example, from a person’s perspective, they themselves are not moving, but anything else could be moving. Therefore, they are not moving through space at all. However, they are moving through time (as we all are), and the speed at which they are moving through time is the speed at which their watch would tick, one second per second (the speed of light).

But if someone else were observing them, then from the observer’s perspective, the person would be moving through space. And they therefore could not be moving through time at the speed of light, from the observer’s perspective. For this reason, the moving person’s watch would be ticking slower than the observer’s (although, unless the speed is astronomical, the effect is negligible). This effect has been experimentally observed with very precise clocks in aeroplanes, and by increasing the half-life of fast moving decaying particles.

As the person’s speed approaches the speed of light, the ticking of their watch would slow to nothing. In other words, the speed of light is the speed at which all travel becomes instantaneous from the traveller’s perspective (while obviously not from the observer’s perspective). Since the traveller’s and observer’s perspectives are simply related by the rule that if it is instantaneous from the traveller’s perspective, then from the observer’s perspective the traveller must be moving through space at the speed of light, it follows that this must be true from any observer’s perspective, which logically leads to the invariance of the speed of light.

However, the special theory of relativity is also simpler than the universe. It does not hold in the presence of varying gravitational fields, or when distances or masses are extremely small.

Friday, January 20, 2006


Osama the Dove?

It was a bit of a surprise this morning to read that bin Laden has offered a truce to the United States of America.
Al Qaeda has previously offered a truce to the nations of Europe, but this latest offer was completely different in its political implications. Europe is, after all, only a minor enemy.

Of course, no one would expect either truce to be accepted, and I don’t think many in the west would view either offer as genuine.
The political effect is what is important. By offering a truce to its most powerful enemy, Al Qaeda could possibly make themselves appear to be peacemakers in the eyes of some people (I’m not sure who), but it must be at least as likely to give the impression they have been weakened (or at least, it could easily be spun that way by certain politicians and the media).

For mine, I don’t think this is a reliable sign of anything. I do not know whether Al Qaeda has truly become weaker or stronger over the past few years, but it will be interesting to see who makes political capital out of it.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


The AFL Must Not Now Overspend

When Channel 10 walked out on their four year old alliance with Channel 9, and teamed up with Seven at this year’s round of AFL TV rights negotiation, their aim was to drive down the overall price, in order to purchase a similar number of home and away games to what they currently had (and as many finals as possible, after Nine had made it clear that they would cover the finals under ay new agreement), for the lowest possible price. And their plan couldn’t possibly have gone more wrong.They had hoped that by teaming with Seven they would ensure that there would be only one bidder capable of winning the TV rights, and they seem to have achieved that. But ironically, thanks to the aggressively competitive nature of Kerry Packer, it has instead resulted in a 56% increase in the total cost of the rights.
Knowing that Seven were desperate to regain the rights, and that his Nine Network couldn’t outbid the combined Seven and Ten without making an overall loss on the deal, Packer made the risky move of bidding significantly above the rights’ value, in order to make his rivals’ costs as high as possible. Most people would be unwilling to use Kerry Packer’s spoiling tactics for fear that their rivals would pull out, and they’d be left holding the bill. What’s more, the newspapers are full of reports that Seven and Ten are set to make an overall loss on the deal. If this is true, then Packer took a huge risk that he would be the one left holding the potato.
All of this underscores the freakish nature of the price that was reached, and should caution anyone within the AFL against expecting anything other than a significantly smaller price at the next round. After all, Kerry Packer is now dead. Whether his son would have been as bold and aggressive as his father, we don’t know. But one thing we do know is that if James Packer floats the Network in the next few years, and it comes under the control of a board of share-price conscious management technocrats, they won’t be anywhere near as bold. And Ten’s tactics would be expected to work, the next time around.

This is why the AFL Commission, and the competing interests within the AFL, must view this money as a one off cash injection, and not as an ongoing increase in revenue that that could be used to support an increase in the overall running costs of the league and its 16 clubs.
The Commission, to its credit, has said that it intends to put a significant amount of the extra money into assets, but after everyone has taken their piece, there may not be very much left.
The clubs have already called for an extra $1million each from the league annually. And you could hardly blame them, considering that they cover so much of the costs of running the competition (including player payments), and that several of them are currently in debt and continually posting losses.
But that is only a small amount of money, compared to the 50% wage increase the players association has called for. The obvious problem is, if the next round of TV rights negotiations do turn out to be less lucrative that this one, will the players immediately agree to take a comparable pay cut? I doubt it. And so there is a very real threat that the players may be about to receive pay increases that are unsustainable in the long term.

The AFL must not only resist the urge to spend this extra money on grand one-off schemes, such as improvements to stadiums or the AFL’s headquarters in the Docklands; but most importantly, must resist any substantial increases in ongoing costs.
Otherwise, a brief flood of money could be more damaging than a long drought.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


No Bill of Rights for Victoria

For several years, the Victorian government has been drafting a bill of rights, with the aim of putting it to a referendum at the time of the 2006 election. After 55 public meetings, they have settled on a very disappointing compromise.

Instead of a bill of rights that could have protected Victorians against even the state parliament itself, we will have a charter of human rights, a non-binding statement about democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of association.

The purpose of this charter is that people will be able to go the supreme court alleging a breach of their human rights. The supreme court will not then be able to overturn acts of parliament, or to order reparations or punishment for breaches of human rights. All it will be able to do is to declare that the charter has been beached, and order that parliament be informed of that fact.

It will surely be little more than a paper tiger. How many people will be willing to incur the costs of going to the supreme court, just to give the government a rap over the knuckles?

Many people will argue that because, in a democracy, the people act as a check on the politicians, they therefore perform the role of a bill of rights, making it unnecessary. Some will even argue that by handing more power to the courts, a bill of rights would take power from the people. However, these arguments miss the point.
The people only take an interest in a tiny portion of the bills that parliament passes. If the majority of people scrutinised the majority of the acts of parliament, no more safely checks would be necessary. But very often bills are passed that the community wouldn’t support, and that a bill of rights should strike down.

For example, most Victorians aren’t aware that the Kennett government, in order to reduce the cost of construction contracts, passed laws stripping Victorians of the right to compensation if their property was damaged by the construction works. The affect was that people whose houses were damaged by CityLink or Grand Prix construction works (and possibly others) had no legal recourse. This would be unthinkable in many countries, and would be legally impossible due to their equivalent of the bill of rights.
Similarly, an employee was killed at the Melbourne Grand Prix some years ago. He was hit by flying debris from crashing car. It was found that the safely fences were inadequate, and added to the risk. However, his family could claim no compensation because a law had been passed giving the organisers immunity from any injury claims, even in the case of negligence.
(I have no idea whether this practice of removing Victorians’ rights as a bargaining chip in contract deals has continued into the Bracks government.)

I doubt very much that the people of Victoria would have supported those laws, and they would all have been declared unconstitutional under any decently written bill of rights. But under our present system, they slip through, because there is currently nothing to stop them.

I assume that the government has determined that a bill of rights would be unable to pass a referendum, and they therefore downgraded it to a charter of human rights for that reason.
It is true that there seems to be no groundswell of public support for a bill of rights. What’s worse, the Newslimited media began their scare campaign on this issue years ago (and would certainly build it up prior to any referendum).
It would take a lot of guts for any government to take a referendum of this kind to the people, a referendum in which they stand to expend a lot of political capital, and which they are likely to lose.

The charter of human rights, on the other hand, can be brought instituted by a simple act of parliament. But this means that it can be just removed by another act of parliament. Fortunately, the new upper-house should prevent that, for the time being.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Cronulla and Rupert Murdoch’s Sacred Cow

The editorial in today’s Australian leads with a defence of the undefined “ordinary Australians” against the suggestion that there may be an underlying racism within Australian society. Not surprisingly, “academic and sundry other Howard haters” are the paper’s targets once again.

It is not the purpose of this post to argue one way or another on this issue, mainly because it would become a fairly pointless debate about the exact definition of the word ‘racism’. But the editor himself recognises that there exists “a great deal of prejudice directed against migrants”, and yet is seemingly appalled that anyone would describe that as racism (at least when it happens in Australia).

It is disturbing that a major newspaper, such as The Australian, does not feel that it has to justify its position on this issue except by accusing those who disagree with it of being “elitists” and having “contempt for ordinary Australians”. It is as if they feel that once they have implied that the accusation is being made against a majority of the community (which it isn’t necessarily), that they then no longer need to counter it with any arguments at all.

It is unreasonable also that the paper demands that the benefit of the doubt be given to the one million people who voted for One Nation, while at the same time accusing millions of Australians of hating the general public on the flimsy premise that they suspect a fair portion of people of harbouring some racist attitudes deep down.

Janet Albrechtsen, in her article today, makes similar accusations. But she makes it even more ironic by calling for an open minded (or, in the Australian’s lingo, non-politically correct) discussion of multiculturalism, while attacking several people for even suggesting that there may be a streak of racism within the general community.

Surely you cannot have it both ways. You cannot treat “ordinary Australians” as an unquestionable font of wisdom and virtue, while at the same time urging more open recognition of the problems that exit within Sydney’s Lebanese community and the complicated aspects of multiculturalism.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


How Will VSU Affect Party Recruitment?

Most of today’s politicians started their careers in the campus elections of their student unions. The prospect of paid (and slightly influential) positions within the union, as well as the fun and excitement of a (fairly pointless) political contest, has been a lure with which all parties have recruited their young footsoldiers. Not least the Liberals, who for decades have used opposition to compulsory student unionism as an effective recruiting tool.

So what will these changes mean for party recruitment? Surely aspiring young right-wingers in the future will not be joining the student unions that they’ve fought for so long to be removed from. And even though some may join up in order to contest the student elections, VSU will probably result in the union membership becoming far more left-wing. Will campus politics still provide the Liberals recruits if they stand no real chance of winning?
Of course, the Liberal Party will still be able to recruit through its Young Liberals, but that social club will not provide them with the political experience that they currently get through campus politics. And if they no longer have to convince anyone other than rusted-on Liberals during their debates, then the party is likely to become even more insular than it currently is.

The Labor Party will be affected differently. A reduction in the number of student union members will mean a reduction in the number of people who are eligible to join the ALP. So Labor will now have to encourage many potential new recruits to first join the union, and then the party (a big ask, considering the limited finances of the average undergraduate student).
Labor’s factions are likely to be fighting between eachother (and with the Greens, Socialist Alliance, Resistance, etc.) for control of a much poorer, and probably much more left-wing, union. The Labor Right candidates had better have think skins.

I don’t see how this change could result in anything other than a considerable decrease in the importance of student politics in the recruitment of both Labor and Liberal MPs. But with the tendency of established politicians to view colleagues who haven’t “done their time” as interlopers, we will surely see either major changes in the way our parties go about their recruitment, or we will see another significant drop in the quality of our politicians.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


VSU Passed

Several decades of Liberal ambition have just been fulfilled. The government has passed its voluntary student unionism bill; but not in the way many of us were expecting. Barnaby Joyce, the rogue Queensland senator, was holding out for concessions, leaving the government just one vote short of passing the bill.
Where, on previous bills, the government had granted him minor concessions in return for his vote, they have this time gained the support of Family First senator Steve Fielding (also known as Mr. 1.9%).

Senator Joyce had wanted compulsory student unionism to be replaced by a services fee levied upon the students by the universities themselves. To me that would seem to have been the best possible outcome. The universities could have been allowed to raise money in that way, under the condition that it could only be spent on student services and activities.
Students unions are not efficient users of money. Victorian law currently prohibits student unions from spending money on political activities (how effective this law is I don’t know), but it can not prevent the nepotism or the self-serving nature of student union hierarchies. And besides, no premier, or prime minister, can legislate for financial competence.

Who knows what the government may have offered Senator Fielding. We may well find that in the upcoming conscience vote on the abortion pill, the “no” side unexpectedly finds the numbers in the House of Representatives.
The official word from Senator Fielding is that, “Family First does not do deals,” and he insists that he does not recall discussing RU-486 with the coalition during the talks they had over VSU.

The problem is that the bill does not provide any alternative funding source for the services currently provided by the student unions. An $80 million transitional fund for the first few years has been mooted, but is not a part of the bill. The fund was the result of earlier negotiations with Senator Joyce, so chances are, we won’t be hearing about it again.

I suspect that the universities will partially pick up the shortfall on the most visible services (surely a university wouldn’t let its student newspaper disappear?), but the less visible, and more expensive, services are in danger of being withdrawn completely.

The two signature issue, for mine, are counselling and child care. I do not personally know of anyone who uses these services, but it strikes me as horribly wrong to remove either of them.

University students are usually young people who are living off their own means for the first time, working part-time jobs while studying. They are therefore unlikely to be able to afford either counselling or child care. On the other hand, university students have a high rate of drug abuse, which may be the outward sign of a high rate of anxiety and depression. It would be hard to argue that a free counselling service is not necessary.

No doubt some would argue that it is not the university’s place (or the union’s place) to be providing free child care. However, denying child care to a single mother (or, in a small number of cases, a father) will, in most cases, make university unaffordable to her. She would therefore, most likely, earn a lower wage and have a career that is well below her ability. (The argument that she could just put off university until her child is older doesn’t take into account the episodic nature of life, that for many reasons her window of opportunity to study at university is likely to be brief.) To remove child care, therefore, would be likely to severely disadvantage both the child and the parent.
Now, how could that possibly be good for families?

Disclaimer: I have eaten a handful of biscuits paid for by the Melbourne University Student Union.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Melbourne University's Great Leap Forward

Suspiciously soon after the end of the undergraduate semester, the University of Melbourne’s new vice chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis, announced a bold (and controversial) new plan for the university’s future.

For those who don’t know…

Australian universities receive a certain amount of government funding per student. So in order to increase their funding, our universities have been increasing their number of students. This is seen (probably correctly) as having contributed to a general decrease in education standards.
Melbourne University, instead of continuing this trend, will decrease its student population significantly. It’s part of their ambition to become Australia’s elite university.

The plan also involves a fundamental restructure of the university’s degree system into something similar to the system used in the United States. Students will do a “generic” undergraduate degree, and then the ‘better students’ (hopefully based on undergraduate marks) will go on to do professional degrees (law, engineering, medicine, dentistry, etc.) at postgraduate level.

There’s a lot to like in this plan. Although the undergraduate degree won’t be truly generic (students will have to choose their subjects according to what postgraduate degree they want to get into), they will still expose students to a broader range of subjects before it becomes impossible for them to change their direction without incurring increased costs or extending the length of their studies. Many students, after a year or so at university, say that if they had their choice again, they would pick a different course. They are the people who will benefit from this change.
More interestingly, basing entry into the professional courses on undergraduate marks will remove the enormous advantage that private school students have over government school students.

However, there is a less egalitarian side to these changes. Current federal government regulations restrict the proportion of undergraduate students who pay full-fees to 25% (soon to be 50%). This restriction does not apply to postgraduate students. This plan therefore allows the university to significantly reduce the proportion of students who are only on HECS (partial fees). The university has made it clear that this is exactly what they intend to do. (At some US universities, the postgrads are mostly all on scholarships, while only the very rich can afford to study there as undergraduates. Melbourne is going to use the opposite fee-emphasis.)

In the US, all universities use this degree system; with high-achieving students attempting to get into the better universities at postgraduate level. The European Union’s universities are planning to adopt the system within a few years. But you’d have to wonder about the implementation of this new degree system in just a single university.
So far, none of Australia’s other major universities have indicated that they will follow Melbourne’s lead. Smaller and regional universities are unlikely to willingly be made into the equivalent of liberal arts colleges, places where students go in order to get into more prestigious universities later.
So where does that leave Melbourne? Other universities will be able to offer high-achieving high school students a place in their course of choice straight out of school. They would therefore be less likely to choose to go to Melbourne, where their future prospects would not be guaranteed. Would Melbourne then become the school for those who failed to get into Monash?

Of course, this is not the end of the political argument. The other major universities have so far been unwilling to back Melbourne publicly, but they may well be active behind the scenes. We’ll have to wait and see what new policies are announced over the next year or two, by the education minister, Brendan Nelson, who is nothing if not unpredictable.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Science Vs Intelligent Design

Following on from the preceding post.

Ordinarily, an explanation, or a proposed explanation, leads to new questions; and these new questions can lead to worthwhile hypotheses.
However, when God is placed within an explanation, it is implied that we should enquire no further. In this way, God, and the supernatural, can be used as an intellectual barrier. They allow people to claim that they already know all that there is to know, and even that it may be immoral to want to know more.

In The Simpsons, Ned Flanders parodies this attitude by saying, “Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends. Well I say there are some things we don’t want to know… Important things!”
But that is not a realistic portrayal of the fundamentalist Christians’ attitude to science. In reality, Ned Flanders would believe that he already knew all that was worthwhile knowing, and that science, rather than revealing the ending, was in fact leading people astray.

Intelligent design, as with any divine explanation, intends to put a stop to any further analysis of the subject.
So, if we were to teach intelligent design in high school science classes, we would be teaching students that to oppose further scientific study is itself a legitimate scientific position.

Earlier this year, the federal education minister, Dr. Brendan Nelson, announced a government policy of supporting the teaching of intelligent design in high schools.
It is the states who determine the curriculum of government high schools, as well as the content of all schools’ final year exams, so Nelson does have the luxury, here, of being able to say anything he likes, without actually having to follow through with it. The state governments have responded by saying that they have no intention of adding intelligent design to science classes.

It may never have been the federal government’s intention to try and push intelligent design into state schools against state government resistance; it’s more likely that it was just an attempt to convince creationists that the Liberal Party is on their side, or to throw a political bone to the army of protestant fundamentalists who campaigned for the government at the last election (officially because the opposition had elected an agnostic as its leader).
There is a sizeable and growing fundamentalist faction within the Liberal Party, but as far as I know, Dr. Nelson is not one of them. It is very possible that this was not his policy, and that it was forced on him from somewhere within the non-parliamentary party.

American secularists have known for decades that creationists and intelligent design cannot simply be ignored, but Australia’s scientific community still seems to take the view that ignoring it is the best course of action. Their reasoning is that by arguing against it, they would only be legitimising it.
However, although the creationist movement in Australia is nowhere near as strong as it is in the US, it is well organised, and well-funded. They have been lobbying effectively, and they have been sending professionally produced DVDs to schools throughout the country with the purpose of convincing school principals that intelligent design is scientific.
Unfortunate as it is, the anti-evolution movement is not only influential, but fortifying. It’s fair to say that it can no longer be contained by being ignored.
Their aim is to enter popular culture, and if left to their own devices, they will eventually achieve it.

The problem with just ignoring them is that it allows them to have a debate on their own terms.
While the Australian public could be convinced of the legitimacy of a “new” theory with the unreligious name of ‘intelligent design’, I doubt that they will ever be convinced that ‘creationism’ is anything more than religious dogma. Therefore, it is important not to let them politically separate intelligent design from creationism.

Creationists call for the teaching of what they call “flaws” in the theory of evolution. If any real flaws in evolution had actually been found, it would have been disproven by definition. What they actually mean by ‘flaws’ are just gaps in our knowledge (which are not actually flaws in the theory at all).
Gaps in our current knowledge would be a reasonable topic for any science class, but there is no reason why teaching about the gaps in a current knowledge of the paths of evolution should lead to the teaching of intelligent design. If evolution were 100% wrong, that would not by itself make intelligent design the slightest bit right. Only evidence supporting intelligent design (of which, as I explained in my previous post, there can never be any) can be used to argue in favour of intelligent design. You cannot support one scientific theory merely by rubbishing another.
It is a very false argument that creationists are using here, but they continue to get away with it simply because the scientific community has not properly challenged them on it.

Using the language of a political debate, creationists call for “equal time” for both evolution and intelligent design in the classroom. This is a deceptively unreasonable argument. There are no barriers preventing them from using their hypothesis to predict experimental results, and then performing those experiments; but there is no reason at all why any fledgling theory, that is without a single piece of supporting experimental evidence, should be taught to high school students. (High school classrooms are not the place for testing the validity of new theories. )
The counter to that argument is not easy to make publicly, because it requires a reasonable amount of explanation. However, that should not stop secularists from sending out their own pamphlets or DVDs to schools, outlining the problems with in intelligent design as a hypothesis, the flaws and fallacies in its supporters’ arguments, and suggesting that students should be taught about the scientific method prior to any discussion of intelligent design that might take place in the classroom.

More importantly, the scientific method should be taught and tested in high school science classes so that the public can see politically motivated pseudo-theories, such as intelligent design, for what they are.

Monday, November 21, 2005


On Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Basis of Science

The scientific method essentially consists of three stages:

First, the hypothesis, a possible explanation of previous observations.

Second, the prediction. If the hypothesis is correct, this is the expected outcome of an as yet unperformed experiment.

Third, the experiment. If reproducible experimental results contradict the predictions, the hypothesis is disproven. If reproducible results concur with the prediction, the hypothesis has been supported, but it has not been proven.

The meaning of the word ‘proof’ in a scientific context is not the same as the normal meaning of the word. In an everyday context, ‘proof’ would imply an absence of reasonable doubt. However, in science, ‘proof’ refers only to an absence of all doubt. (Reasonableness is a human construct.) Since philosophically nothing physical can be proven beyond all doubt, the only aspect of science that can be proven are mathematical theorems.
The result of this is that every tenet in science (outside of mathematics) is officially a ‘theory’, regardless of the weight of evidence supporting it.

Recently, the schools board of the state of Kansas has voted to adopt intelligent design as part of their science curriculum. As a part of this, science teachers in that state will have to teach their students that “evolution remains unproven”. I doubt that they will also be made to teach them that that statement is in effect meaningless.
This is part of a long, concerted campaign in the US (and now recently in Australia) to confuse the issue in high school science classes. High school science students are not, as a rule, rigorously taught the scientific method. Neither are they taught the scientific meanings of the words ‘theory’ and ‘proof’. Why then the selective pedantry in pointing out that this one particular scientific tenet is in fact a theory?
It is wordplay. It uses the fact that the words ‘theory’ and ‘proof’ have a different meaning in science from what they mean in daily life in order to imply that the evidence supporting evolution is in some way lacking, but without actually saying so, because that would be a difficult claim to justify.
There are very few significant gaps in our current knowledge, and a very large body of supporting evidence. It is certainly true that the paths by which some things have evolved are unknown (such as the bacterial flagella), but knowledge of a mechanism itself does not provide complete knowledge of the entire history of the workings of that mechanism, and it is unreasonable to expect it to.

Not all creationists believe in a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. The term ‘creationism’ encompasses a large number of belief systems with sometimes significant differences between them. Some no longer hold that the age of the Earth is just 6000 years. Some even recognise the mechanism of evolution, though believing that God guides the process at least some of the time.
While creationism by itself is no more a threat to biology than tarot reading is to meteorology, it’s when creationism is rebadged as ‘creation science’ and sold to the public by men wearing labcoats that the concept of science is threatened by what seems to be a deliberate attempt to blur it in the eyes of the public.
Their tactics are subtle; we are told that creationism (or more usually intelligent design) is supported by “a growing number of scientists”. (‘A growing number’ is usually politspeak for a very small number, and the number of ‘creation scientists’ is certainly miniscule. But in any case, they’re no doubt defining a ‘scientist’ as someone how earns at least some of their income from activities that their benefactors describe as ‘scientific’. However, considering that creationist organisations have taken to funding ‘scientists’ themselves, this increase is not very surprising.) It’s not just the trickery in the argument that is a concern; the argument itself is entirely unscientific. A scientific theory can only be put forward on its own merits, and therefore the number of people who subscribe to it, whether they have a scientific degree or not, is a total irrelevance.

‘Creation science’ is easy to disprove, that has made it relatively politically weak (despite its popularity in the United States); and the official separation of church and state prevents it from being taught in government schools (which was its real target). So in 1988, out of the political arm of the anti-evolution movement came a rhetorical weapon they have named ‘intelligent design’.
Unlike most other forms of creationism, intelligent design is not a complete belief system. Instead, like a scientific theory, it is just a single proposition; that the nature of species are under the partial or complete control of an unspecified intelligent being. As a theory, it is very open ended. It could be argued that it is in fact several theories pretending to be one. i.e:

· That the unnamed being has completely constructed all organisms from the ground up. (This would involve the renouncing, not only of evolution, but also of species change.)
· That the unnamed being has been responsible for any altering of species throughout time, and current species have derived from earlier species according to its will. (While this accepts species change, it renounces evolution as a mechanism.)
· That evolution, as a process, is occasionally guided by an outside intelligence. (It could be argued that this position is closer, in effect, to Darwinism than it is to other forms of creationism or intelligent design.)

It has been politically important for the intelligent design movement to not make the clear distinction between these three theories, in order to prevent factionalism and infighting. But politics and science to not mix well, and if they want their theory tested, they will have to specify exactly what it is.
It is when it comes to be tested scientifically that the true purpose of intelligent design becomes apparent. Regardless of which form of intelligent design is used as the hypothesis, you have an unspecified being, which is completely undescribed, aside from being sentient; whose powers are not clarified, but has the ability to alter very large numbers of things at the atomic level; and whose personality and intentions are also unknown. Since so little is specified about this designer, it is impossible to predict what its other actions would be.
There it is, intelligent design is a hypothesis that leads to no predictions whatsoever. Sick of scientists disproving their theories, and thus preventing them from being able to make them mainstream “alternatives”, they have come up with a nothing theory, that by its nature, cannot be disproven. However, since the theory does not lead to any predictions, it also cannot be supported by evidence.
Creationists do often claim that they have found evidence of intelligent design, but this always takes the form of finding ways to explain previous observations through their theory. That is not the scientific method, and it has no validity because it’s usually possible to explain any observation in many different ways; and research, via that method, would only ever lead you to a hardening of your own preconceived opinions (which is why the scientific method was developed).
So here we have a theory, constructed to be undisprovable, that is also, as a result, unsupportable, whose proponents claim it to be equal in validity to evolution for no greater reason than that neither of them have technically been ‘proven’ (if you use a very convenient definition of the word).

Despite what its opponents would claim, evolution is about as well supported by evidence as any theory can be. Not only does the nature of life and living things conform to its predictions, but its effects have been observed again and again.
Even now, we are seeing a non-fatal (and therefore, well adapted) bird virus evolve, in a very ungodly way, into a deadly (and therefore, poorly adapted) human virus.
And scientists, using the theory of evolution, and the mathematical concept of probability, have been successfully able to predict the likelihood of deadly forms of the virus arising in particular regions.

Next post, how serious is this issue, and what should be done about it…

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