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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, March 12, 2021

Scientific Specialization Spawns Straw-hole Scholars

Many a person overestimates the knowledge of scientists, perhaps thinking, "If you are a scientist, you know all that science stuff." That's not at all true. Most scientists are specialists who concentrate their studies in some narrow field of study.  Science is divided up into several general fields of study, such as psychology, biology, physics, chemistry, and sociology. Within each of those fields of study are many sub-fields of study. Typically when a scientist gets a master's degree and then a PhD, he specializes in one of these sub-fields. The result is that the learning of the scientist may be a very narrow and very limited type of education.  The scientist may end up as a kind of straw-hole scientist, one who spends most of his career examining one very narrow line of evidence. 

For example, someone getting a PhD in the biological sciences may concentrate his studies in any of the following sub-disciplines:

  • Biochemistry
  • Biophysics
  • Cytology
  • Biotechnology 
  • Histology
  • Genetics
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Nutrition
  • Microbiology
  • Virology
  • Bacteriology
  • Protozoology
  • Mycology
  • Botany
  • Bryology
  • Phycology
  • Horticulture
  • Zoology
  • Entomology
  • Parasitology
  • Icthyology
  • Herpetology
  • Ornithology
  • Mammalogy
  • Endocrinology
  • Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Immunology
  • Immunopathology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Ethology
  • Marine Biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Biology
  • Forestry
  • Fisheries Biology
  • Wildlife Biology
  • Aquaculture
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Paleontology
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathology 
  • Forensics
  • Toxicology
There are countless other sub-disciplines within physics, chemistry and psychology. 

Once some scientist has entered one of these specialities, he may spend his whole career in it. This may have some benefits, but may also have some severe drawbacks. The first drawback is that the scientist may become a kind of thought prisoner of some ideological enclave where some dubious dogmas have become popular.  In this regard, the scientist may be very much like a seminary school graduate who spends his life spouting whatever narrow ideology he was trained in at such a school.  The second drawback of such specialization is that the scientist's studies may be so concentrated in some area that he may never gain  the broad knowledge he or she needs to voice wise opinions about matters of broad general interest. 

Let us look at an example of one such "straw-hole specialization": an example of a paleontologist. The paleontologist is a person who studies fossils, bones from animals that lived long ago. When someone gets a degree in paleontology, he is taught to believe that by studying old bones, scientists can figure out something about the origin of species.  This is a very strange belief, given that no bone ever tells us anything about the origin of the species that had such a bone. 

A paleontologist has been indoctrinated in the belief that by arranging fossils gathered from different places into chronologically ordered sequences, he can make some deduction that some species that existed at one time accidentally evolved into some species that existed at some other time.  This is a very strange belief that does not arise naturally from any characteristics in a bone. Paleontologists often insinuate that random mutations in the DNA of one species caused its bone structure to gradually change to slowly become (over long ages) the bone structure of some other species. But how could that be, given that DNA does not even specify bone structures or skeletal structures? DNA only specifies low-level chemical information, not high-level anatomical information. 

In his knowledge base of bones that have been discovered and dated to various ages, there are many puzzling things that our paleontologist has difficulty fitting into his conceptual scheme of gradual random evolution. The most mystifying thing is that all of the animal phyla appeared around half a billion years ago, almost all during the Cambrian Explosion about 540 million years ago. This is not at all what we would expect under the assumptions of Darwinist evolutionary theory. Under such a theory, we would expect that the animal phyla (the main anatomical divisions of animals) would have gradually appeared during the past billion years.  (Bryozoans have been called the youngest animal phylum, and appear in the fossil record about 500 million years ago; sponges, phylum Porifera, have been called the oldest animal phylum, and appear in the fossil record about 550 million years ago.)

Our paleontologist has no good story to tell to explain the difficulty of the Cambrian Explosion, this great innovation burst of so many diverse body plans in such a relatively short time. But when he finds unexpected fossils, our paleontologist may come up with imaginative tales to try to get himself out of his difficulties.  For example,  when it was found that New World monkeys from many millions of years ago were just like Old World monkeys, our paleontologists came up with the tale that monkeys million of years ago had somehow rafted across the Atlantic ocean.  And when fossils were unexpectedly found of hadrosaurs in North Africa, from a time when Africa was separated from other continents by 250 miles, some paleontologist started saying that hadrosaurs had somehow crossed that 250 miles of ocean.  This was despite the fact that hadrosaurs could not swim well, and also were way too heavy to have crossed such a distance on any raft of vegetation.  Or, to try to lessen the difficulty when the fossil record suddenly shows some fossil of a dramatically novel organism unlike any earlier-existing organism that left fossils we have found, our paleontologist may make very strange statements such as "lagerpetids are essentially flightless pterosaurs," a statement that tries to persuade us that one-meter-long organisms with no wings, short arms and long legs were like 6-meter-long organisms with huge wings, long wing-related arms, short legs and a very different head appearance.  Or he may try to claim that flying insects evolved from crustaceans, ignoring the many physical differences between the two.  Or he may make some laughable-sounding claim that some fossil of a "deer the size of a cat" shows us an ancestor of a whale. 

In such cases our paleontologist shows us his high imagination, something he often uses.  He may realize that people don't want to hear about old bones dug up; they would rather hear stories. So our paleontologist complies,  dreaming up many a story from the dug-up  bones.  Involving speculations about very poorly understood extinct organisms, their appearance, life styles and ancestry, these stories are often kind of like when a digging archeologist finds a tooth and says, "This tooth belonged to a lady whose smile was so beguiling she had many suitors."

Speaking about fossils between 100,000 years old and several million years old, the language of our paleontologist can be inaccurate or objectionable.  Paleontologists love to use the term "early human" to describe bones much older than 100,000 BC, such as bones that may be 500,000 years old or more than a million years old. Such language is very misleading. The uniquely defining characteristics of humans are the use of language and the use of symbols, and there is no evidence that such things were used before 100,000 BC.  Paleontologists are also often quick to pull out the term "human ancestor" when it suits their purposes. Remarkably there is no evidence standard regarding the use of this very important term, which can be used by the paleontologist whenever it pleases him.  Our paleontologist will tend to dogmatically use the term "human ancestor" in obscure and foggy cases when he should be using the more cautious phrase "possible human ancestor."  Such claims of human ancestry are often based on assumptions that skull size correlates with intelligence, an assumption that is dubious because of a reason I'll mention in a moment. 

If the study of our paleontologist had been much broader, he might not speak in such a way. If our paleontologist had thoroughly studied research into the origin of life, brushing aside the unwarranted hype and seeing how little real progress such research has made in attempting to substantiate claims of an origin of life from mere chemicals, or even an origin of the real building blocks of microscopic life (proteins and information-rich nucleic acids) from mere chemicals, our paleontologist might lose confidence in claims of accidental biological origins. If our paleontologist had made a very broad and very deep study of biochemistry and biological complexity, studying the oceanic depths of organization and fine-tuning and functional complexity in living organisms, their biochemistry, and their intricate systems so full of interlocking "chicken or the egg" cross-dependencies, our paleontologist might think it is silly to suppose that such systems (more complex than humans have ever built) arose from blind accidental processes. If our paleontologist had made a study of neuroscience and its failures to credibly explain such basic mental phenomena as thinking, imagination, creativity, long-term memory preservation and instant memory retrieval,  our paleontologist might realize that he has no credible explanation for the human mind. 

If our paleontologist had made a thorough study of anomalous medical case histories, such as people who think well and remember well with half a brain or very much less, or who retain their memories after half their brain is surgically removed, our paleontologist might be even more doubtful that he has any understanding of the origin of human minds. If our paleontologist had made a thorough study of anomalous mental phenomena such as near-death experiences and psi, and a study of the hundreds of years of written testimony establishing the reality of clairvoyance, and the many decades of experimental evidence establishing the reality of ESP, he might even more doubtful that he has a credible explanation for the human mind.  If our paleontologist had studied certain areas of history and literature and culture very well, he might be troubled that some of his most central assumptions arose as parts of a racist imperialist worldview strongly associated with an oppressive colonialist empire-building program and gigantic human misadventures such as eugenics. If our paleontologist had studied very well the cognitive test performance of some very small-brained animals (such as tiny mouse lemurs who do as well on quite a few cognitive test as apes with brains 200 times larger), he might doubt his confidence in saying some skull belonged to a human ancestor, mainly because of its size, skull size not being a reliable gauge of intelligence. 

If our paleontologist had studied very well certain aspects of biochemistry and mathematics, such as the mathematics of cumulative improbabilities and the binomial theorem shedding light on them, and the interlocking "chicken or the egg" dependencies of protein complexes, he might have thrown away his dogmatic claims after thoroughly pondering the improbabilites of a vast number of enormously organized proteins and protein complexes appearing accidentally. If our palenontologist had studied very thoroughly physics and cosmology, he might have discovered many reasons for suspecting our universe was tailor-made to allow living things to exist, an idea that is inconsistent with his assumption that living species have all appeared by chance natural processes, or at least clashes with such an idea.  If our paleontologist had made a good study of sociology, he might suspect that some of the central claims of his colleagues are just speech customs or unproven dogmas of a conformist overconfident belief community that he belongs to.  

If our paleontologist had made a good study of engineering, he might realize that very complex and extremely organized innovations never arise by some process (like that imagined by Darwinist gradualists) in which each little new part causes an improvement, but arise instead by a process in which many new parts must be arranged in just the right way to produce a particular functional effect.  If our paleontologist had throroughly studied developmental biology, he might have realized that without resorting to myths (such as the myth of an anatomy blueprint in DNA) biologists do not even have a credible account for the physical origin of individual adult mammal organisms and how they arise from speck-sized egg cells, which undermines all claims that the origin of entire species is understood. If our paleontologist had made a very good study of logic and psychology and bias effects, he might no longer think it wise to cherry-pick several fossils out of the collection of millions of fossils that have been studied, and to arrange several of them into some series designed to support some belief of ancestry he is trying to prove (which is rather like someone cherry-picking ten persons of some particular ethnic class to try to prove some "that's how those people act" generalization he wishes to make about such an ethnic class).  If our paleontologist had studied in depth linguistics, and how little progress it has made in explaining the huge mystery of the origin of language, he might have much less confidence that he has any real explanation of the origin of humans. 

But our typical paleontologist has probably not studied half of such things in any great depth.  No one told him he had to study such topics to become a paleontologist.  So he keeps looking through a straw-hole that points mainly just at old bones, paying little attention to a thousand observations that are far more relevant to questions of biological origins, observations that tend to raise doubt that we understand any such questions. When he sees through his straw-hole something he does not want to see, he quickly moves the straw around so that he can peer through the straw-hole to see something he does want to see.  And so it is for so many of our straw-hole scholars. 

scientific specialization

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