In praise of ambiguity in science:
I have often thought, “Science is not a book of true facts, it’s a work in progress.” Years ago, somebody published a paper pointing out that half of all science papers are disproved in about 30 years. So I’m not alone in this and I was intrigued by this title: Jerry Ravetz “Stop the Science Training that Demands ‘Don’t ask’ Nature vol. 575 no. 7783 November 21, 2019 page 417 (Jerome.Ravetz@gmail.com) Ravetz is good enough to his word, but what I was really hoping was that he’d come up with a few examples.
I was disappointed, so I thought I’d offer a couple myself.
First, and I’ve pointed this out before, is the “cause of inbreeding.” Scientific dogma asserts that there are bad genes, which do harm when the person or other living thing has two copies; generally, we have two copies of each gene, one of which has to be good or we wouldn’t survive, to oversimplify a bit. Well if the gene lottery hands two bad versions of a gene, the person will suffer, and that is more likely to happen in a small population, since the diversity of the genes is overall less than in a large population that is otherwise quite similar.
Well and good. I’ll buy that. But they go on and say that if the population remains small, the bad genes accumulate; that’s why inbreeding is bad and gets worse over generations.
But think about it. These bad genes are rare, since everybody has a copy of a good one. And each gene has an even chance of getting passed along. So if you have one bad gene in a population of ten, there is an even chance it will simply not win the flip of the coin and thus will be eliminated in the first generation. But suppose it’s a big population with ten bad genes in 100. Now the chance of eliminating it simply by it not getting carried along – it’s caused genetic drift – is less than one in a thousand.
Now suppose for argument’s sake that we turn off genetic drift. Consider a population with the copies of a gene, two of which are bad. Looking at one bad gene, it is among nine other comparable genes. In the first generation it has a one in nine chance of getting together with the other bad gene and getting eliminated from the population. But if there are a hundred copies of the gene and two are bad one bad one is among 99 others and has a one in 99 chance of being eliminated. So either way, a bad gene is eliminated from a smaller population.
So the laws of genetics dictate that bad genes will not accumulate in a small population relative to a bigger one. Yet we are told that continued inbreeding causes problems because of increasing bad genes. This is simply not true. So why are we told something so clearly wrong. Well science is a work in progress. What is on offer is not Truth but a Best Guess, even if wrong. Actually, I can prove that inbreeding has nothing to do with genes at all, or at least very little. It’s epigenetic, having to do with the control of genes. But this has not become the consensus.
That’s all a bit abstract so let’s do a second one. People who watch birds a lot notice that if the female does all the work, she will look rather drab, while the male will be quite colorful in order to attract her. If they share the work, their drabness will be similar.
The peafowl carries this to an extreme. We are told that the male has spectacular plumage because it shows he is metabolically very fit since all that glory carries a cost. She can thus choose the most fit bird. But that’s just silly. What use is that metabolic fitness if it is squandered on display? Yet silly or not, that’s the guess and that’s the Science.
But people who watch peafowl can notice that they are robust birds, and although they can fly, they tend to spend more time strolling about than does a typical songbird. This leaves them more vulnerable to poisonous snakes. When the peacock spreads its tail, what you notice is that the pattern looks like a lot of staring eyes, and pretty much any animal will interpret being stared at as being threatened.
I have a tee shirt that was crafted to be invisible to a computer trying to do facial recognition. A person will see it as a yellow shirt with a seemingly random pattern of little black squares and rectangle. When the computer tries to interpret the image – and I’d guess this glitch has been corrected – it starts to interpret all those spots looking for a face. Inspecting the pattern, it’s clear that at least most of the spots roughly make up crude faces of varying sizes. It cannot decide which one is really a face, so it fails to see any face at all, including my real face. It is a poor man’s cloak of invisibility, as least with regards to the facial recognition system it was directed against.
I don’t know how the computing power of a poisonous snake compares with that of a facial recognition computer, but I really suspect the effect is similar; confronted with a peacock on guard, that snake finds it hard to decide which pair of eyes is the threat. Now the peacock strikes. It has a very long, flexible, sturdy neck and has a good chance of delivering a lethal blow. If it misses, it needs to get its head and neck back out of harm’s way very quickly, but its balance is forward. Recovering by stepping forward would be a poor strategy, so it must be that it uses the air resistance of that big fanned tail and snatches its head and neck back.
At least that’s the way it seems to me. So high speed footage of a peacock fighting a snake would seem to be in order, but that might be problematic if activists decided that was hard on the snake. So I guess politics trumps logic – as is probably true on the inbreeding front as well – and we’ll be stuck with the party line for the foreseeable.