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Science was Wrong! PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

pandaTaxonomy is a tricky subject. There are many ways to classify things, and all of them are valid in their own way. In the animal kingdom, organisms were historically classified by phenotype – how they look. This was fairly effective… it showed us that apes were related to each other more than they were related to monkeys, and they were related to monkeys more than bears, etc.

I was surprised to learn recently that pandas are actually bears again. Phenotypically, they look like bears, and some people still call them “panda bears.” When I studied them in high school in the 80’s, we were taught that this phenotypic classification was wrong, and that they’re actually more closely related to raccoons. However, more recent testing has shown that the original idea was actually correct! The panda didn’t change, but we learned more about them and discovered that they shared a lot more genes with the bear family than we suspected.

It would be easy to look at this and say, “Wow, science sure gets things wrong a lot.” And if you said that, you’d be right. And that’s a wonderful thing. Science IS wrong a lot. Science isn't a set of facts, it's a process, and that process self-corrects. New evidence or a better analysis of existing evidence will lead to better supported conclusions. And every time that happens, we've gained a bit more knowledge.

There was a recent case of “science being wrong” that’s a little trickier. Three deep-sea fish that few people ever see: the threebignose fish, the whalefish, and the tapetails (including hairyfish) were studied. Fanciful names to be sure… names based on what the animals look like. Each was classified very differently and none was closely related to the other, which seems to make sense. Specimens have existed in museums and labs for years, and no one questioned their place in the taxonomical tree beause it seemed reasonable.

Actually, they’re all the same fish. A bignose fish is a male whalefish, and the tapetails and hairyfish are the larvae.

How could the scientists have missed this? Easily. These fish are rare, and very hard to observe in the wild. It would be very difficult to watch one of these fish complete its lifecycle. However, more studying revealed more information, and voila! We have a more complete picture. I know of no other “belief system” that offers as much.

There is a great article on Science News that explains more about the fish.

We’re the first people to ever understand that these three animals are actually the same species. It may not be much, but only science can give that to us.

We also have a new resource to help us figure out these mysteries. When Randi and I were at TED 2007, we (and about 100 others) had lunch with E. O. Wilson to discuss how he could set up a database of every living thing on the planet. Two years later, and the page is live, at www.eol.org. This is just the very begining – only a fraction of a percent of all living things are there – but imagine where this will be 100 years from now. Hopefully, we'll be correcting the mistakes we're making today.

 

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==
written by daveg703, January 21, 2009
How refreshing to see voluntary acknowledgement of error, rather than have it come as a result of being backed into a logical corner by a person, or a group, that did their homework properly! Now if only there was a means whereby a member of the woo-woo consortium could be persuaded to see the advantages of such an approach to arriving at truth - in other words, facts - about ANY subject whatsoever.

The big question: How do you prove to those "living by faith", that the results of the scientific method are vastly more satisfying in the long run? The main advantage, of course, is that you don't have to dream up incredible, self-contradictory, irrational explanations for untenable hypotheses, which makes life ever so much simpler.
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written by Rogue Medic, January 21, 2009
Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to prefer the simple and unchanging rules of anti-science to the continual change with gradual (and occasionally dramatic) improvements in knowledge that comes from science.

If you believe Kurzweil, this will be completed, or mostly completed, in much less than a century.
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written by MadScientist, January 22, 2009
The discovery with the fishes is interesting (and good news) but hardly surprising at all. There are numerous animals (mostly aquatic ones come to mind) which have very different forms at different stages of their development (such as sea squirts, Tunicata, which have a mobile (pelagic) almost fish-like stage and then the cessile stage). A favorite animal in biological morphology is the amphioxus.
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Where are you, daniel?
written by BillyJoe, January 22, 2009
In another thread, I am trying to explain to daniel that intuition (revelation for the religious-minded person) should not be the end point of our thinking. Rather, intuition (reformulated as an hypothesis by the science-minded person) should be the starting point for which seeking evidence should be the continuing activity.

BJ
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===
written by daveg703, January 22, 2009
sayeth Rogue Medic:

"Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to prefer the simple and unchanging rules of anti-science..."

Not only seem, they actually do- and indeed there are lots of them! Weekly and meekly they swarm into grand, towering edifices, (aka "churches"), erected with funds scavenged from the rich and desperately poor alike. There, seated under the watchful eyes of their principal idols, (flanked by graven images of lesser-ranked mythical beings, all gilded and painted in a gauche style that would offend a 6th grade art student), they receive the maintenance doses of dogma that are apparently required to compensate for an inherent lack of self-sustainability. These gathered throngs, (aka "congregations"), intermittently engage in an interactive bit of silliness known as "prayer"- a futile, and therefore mystifying exercise, which serves no known purpose, although great claims (unsubstantiated) are made as to its efficacy in curing or preventing everything from IRS audits to warts.

A few intermingled obligatory musical interludes are supplied by a resident vocal group, which for their own protection is ensconced in the "choir loft", an elevated section at the rear of the building. Here they are safe from physical expressions of dissatisfaction by members of the congregation who, familiar with the tunes being rendered, have been known to hurl hymnals in exasperation, when the choir's rendition departs significantly from the printed version.

The high point, if there can be said to be one, in the proceedings is known as "The Sermon", wherein a person known variously as leader, minister, pastor, rabbi, priest or such, proceeds to deliver an overly long oration of sorts. The content usually involve fervent exhortation to the congregation to act in ways that conform to some supreme set of bylaws designed to improve the character and conduct of those in attendance. In other words, in direct opposition to their normal behavior.

Perhaps none too soon, at this point I yield the floor to the fellow furiously waving his hand back there, who obviously has something of value to add to our discussion.
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written by bosshog, January 22, 2009
Rogue Medic:
Are you describing a religious service or a presidential inauguration?
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truth != facts
written by advancedGIR, January 22, 2009
daveg, while it would be awesome, ariving at "truth" (the true, absolute one) on just one subject is probably impossible, no matter how many good facts we can gather. Each fact, how solid it is, only provides a snapshot of the studied field. Gathering enough facts AND FILLING THE HOLES (in other word, creating hypothesys) can give a model that probably holds some truth, but that truth will always be limited and tainted by the process used to obtain it, and most of the time, unfortunately also by the people backing it (most of the time, scientific advances mean telling bright people they were wrong on the things that mattered most to them, and mone way or another, that's never easy).
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written by JeffWagg, January 22, 2009
I once heard Bill O'Reilly say something like "Science can't give me answers, and until it can, I'm sticking with the Bible."
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written by cwniles, January 22, 2009
As the last line of the article linked to states, "bottom line is that bears and the giant panda are listed together in zoological textbooks, together in the family Ursidae -- the bear family."

Note the critical word "Giant", Panda is a generic term, the specific Panda is this case is the Giant Panda, not for example, the Red Panda which has it's very own family.
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written by Rogue Medic, January 22, 2009
bosshogg,

Rogue Medic:
Are you describing a religious service or a presidential inauguration?


I was not referring to any specific form of anti-science.

I was referring to people, who preach against science. I was referring to people, who claim that it is wrong to require evidence of their claims, because their claims are somehow beyond science. I was referring to people, who make up their own results, but cry foul when they are exposed by science.

I do not see a reason to limit my criticism to any particular anti-science group.

I was not referring to any ceremony.

I was contrasting the unchanging nature of the beliefs of the anti-science adherents, They are uncomfortable with change. Science is change. Without change, there is no science. Life is change. Without change, there is no life.

Science is self-correcting, it grows, develops, points out its own mistakes. Science is progress.
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written by Kuroyume, January 22, 2009
If you believe Kurzweil, this will be completed, or mostly completed, in much less than a century.


This echoes eerily of the scientists of the latter half of the 19th century - just before Planck and Einstein arrived to spoil their preemptive retirements.

There is a vast amount of knowledge, information, and learning to be done. It won't happen in less than a century.

While I respect Kurzweil's great intelligence, this is the same person who is on a special diet and vitamin regimen so that he can extend his life long enough to benefit from the obviously impending 'immortality' we will discover. I also greatly doubt that we will unlock ways to perpetually extend human life in less than a century. The human body is an astoundingly complex thing and we fool ourselves if we think that we know enough to do this. We can't even cure cancer or AIDS. Are we not jumping the gun a bit?
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written by Rogue Medic, January 22, 2009
Kuroyume,

He does claim that nanotechnology will, within 20 years, dramatically improve life span. I have not heard him claim any impending immortality. What I recall is a dramatic extension of human life, based on the exponential increases in knowledge. That biology evolves at an exponential rate. That technology is just an extension of biology, a product of the evolution of the mind, and evolves at the same rate. If the life expectancy were to expand by a few decades, that would be impressive. Over the past hundred years, this has increased by about three decades. An exponential increase in the understanding of medicine could result in a similar increase in life expectancy. we do not know what the limits of medical science are. He may be wrong about our ability to improve life expectancy. With the number of people living that much beyond the current life expectancy, that probably is not something to bet against. Only time will tell.

He described the amount of time taken in mapping DNA. He points out how little is accomplished in the early parts. The dramatic increases in ability to compute data and apply technology to extract data, is something that seems relevant to this example. He makes a very good case that progress increases on a logarithmic scale.

I do not see this suggestion as anything like the suggestions, by Mitchelson, Kelvin, and others, that science has nothing new to show us. I think that the more we know, the more questions we will raise. That does not mean that we will not have done an impressive job of cataloging the creatures that inhabit the planet. My suggestion is not that we have learned all there is to learn. My suggestion is that the technology we use to create a catalog of life, will improve much faster than we anticipate. This does not mean that we would not find other ways of cataloging life. Maybe we will find that something, that now appears insignificant or is not yet discovered, is more important than the information we currently use to catalog life.

Accepting an idea of a famous person, in this case Kurzweil, does not mean that I approve of, or that I am familiar with, everything he does. It only has to do with acceptance of that person's idea. I am not familiar with Kurzweil's life. I feel no need to judge his life, if some of his behavior is not consistent with his theories. Karl Popper is the philosopher of science, but he is an example of someone who does not live by his own principles. That would be a foolish reason to ignore his ideas. Acceptance of evolution does not require familiarity with, or a defense of, the personal lives of Darwin or Wallace or any of the more contemporary scientists working on evolution. I was only referring to an idea proposed by Kurzweil, not to his personal life.
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written by grochon, January 22, 2009
@ Jeff Wag

I remember the same exchange (and I want to say it was with Dawkins, but can't remember). Anyway, it saddens me that many view Bill O'Reilly as a "sage". Not that he can't espouse the occasional rational point of view devoid of any political agenda, but in my opinion he mostly comes across as bigoted, narrow-minded "loud-talker" with a chip on his shoulder. But that's just my point of view.....
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written by Cuddy Joe, January 22, 2009
"Science can't give me answers, and until it can, I'm sticking with the Bible."

That's what O'Reilly said, but what I 'hear' is:

"Science can't give me the answers I want, and until it can, I'm sticking with the Bible."

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written by Rogue Medic, January 22, 2009
Cuddy Joe,

I think I interpret that the same way.

Science does not give us the answers we want. Science gives us the objective truth (although it may not be accurate, it eventually gets there). When we try to make science give us the answers we want, we defeat the purpose of science - objectivity.
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written by Kuroyume, January 22, 2009
I'm not berating you personally, Rogue Medic. I think Kurzweil is being over optimistic. Remember that some very intelligent people put AI success at ten years, eh hem, sixty years ago. They were gravely and totally mistaken. Again, sometimes we extend what might be possible in the future beyond what is possible or practical in reality when the future does arrive. 'Mapping' DNA nucleotides is one thing. 'Unravelling' how the 3 billion (haploid) base pairs work (along with RNA, M-RNA, and other enzymes, proteins, etc.) to create and maintain a human organism is another story.

Shouldn't we have teleporters, flying cars, hand-held laser guns, FTL spacecraft, 'robots' that think like humans, or something on that order by now? No. The reason is simple - we can't do these things or they are prohibitively impractical even if possible. For instance, human travel to Mars. Is it possible? Yes. Is it practical? No. One reason is that it is almost lethally risky to the crew. It is a very long distance and time to travel in space exposed. You need all of the normal necessities - air, water, food, gravity, protection from solar and cosmic radiation, maintained environment. Even Dr. Zubrin's 'practical' plan is so practical that NASA won't even consider it. It may become practical in the future (say, forty to one hundred years) but it is not at this time.

Nanotechnology is in its infancy. It will be decades before anyone is allowed to put autonomous nanobots or nanomachines into a living human being.
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written by daveg703, January 22, 2009
advancedGIR:

Your point about Truth as an absolute is well made, and I agree. Therefore, I propose that we refer to the best facts that we have as our "Working Truth", until due diligence results in something better. Science universally has "working hypotheses", which change often, (and occasionally, it seems, due to whimsy), and these are based on the best information (aka "facts") available. The language of science - and conversation - being perenially in a state of flux, Truth itself may eventually be redefined. (Someone will probably comment that this has already occurred. So be it.)

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written by Rogue Medic, January 22, 2009
Kuroyume,

I was not taking it personally. I felt I should try to be clear about what I did mean.

I think that the use of nanotechnology was something he mentioned. I do not remember if he was making a specific prediction, or if it was just a comment in passing. If someone were to work with medical nanotechnology in another country, people would probably move there for treatment. They might be prohibited from moving back, but the hope for an increased life span might get people to be slightly less extreme than Walt Disney. smilies/smiley.gif

There are many promising areas where medicine could make dramatic improvements in life expectancy. CMV (CytoMegaloVirus) seems to be involved in heart disease. A CMV vaccine could act to delay heart attacks. Of course, this only affects those, who might be infected with CMV. It would not make a difference for Mr. Kurzweil unless he aleady is CMV +. Apparently most people are.

He may be right. He probably will only be partially right. I think it is unlikely that he will be completely wrong. I am younger than he is. I need to eat less, sleep more, and exercise more, so I am not counting on his prediction.
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Pandas
written by Weatherwax, January 22, 2009
The reason for the confusion with clasifying pandas is that there are actually two different kinds: The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), and the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). The giant panda is a bear, if I remember correctly related to the American Black bear (Ursus americanus). The red panda is distantly related to racoons, and looks very much like them. They are, in my opionion, one of the most beautiful animals around.

For many years, it was believed they were related because their markings are similar. We now know that the markings are simply convergent evolution.
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... and another thing ....
written by huonia, January 22, 2009
I think another essential point about the "panda mistake" that is useful to use in conversation with anti-science folk (by this I mean people who are likely to say "scientists don't have all the answers, you know" in a philosophical discussion), is that in this case science was "wrong" in a very narrowly-confined situation.

Scientists had not mistakenly placed the panda in the same family with leopards, or penguins, or octopi, or eggplants. Pandas have been volleyed back and forth between two extremely closely related families of mammals, the bears and raccoons (which also closely approach the dog family as well). What we have here is a case of a taxonomic re-assignment within a finite set of creatures, that have a somewhat shadowy relationship to one another. It's not as if scientists had boldly asserted that pandas hatch out of eggs, only to find -- oops! We were dead wrong about that, sorry.

So, it's a classic case of science correcting itself using its own rigorous parameters -- it's living up to the standards it set itself.
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written by BillyJoe, January 22, 2009
The Red Panda (not a bear)

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written by Rogue Medic, January 22, 2009
BillyJoe,

It's just a polar bear, who was playing in the mud. smilies/wink.gif
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written by cwniles, January 23, 2009
I thought classification for the red panda was incomplete. The red panda is the only species in the subfamily Ailurinae and has not yet been subject to the extensive studies of chromosome and protein characteristics that led to the re-classification of the giant panda. I am quite sure that once it is, the red panda too will be re-classified....and maybe it is a bear BJ, they don't have all the data yet.
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written by Cuddy Joe, January 23, 2009
I have useful replies to those who say, "Science doesn't have all the answers.."

I ask them, "Who does?"

Then I ask them, "Which method of inquiry has the best record of achievement, produces the most reliable, practical knowledge, and has a built-in system for self-correction of errors?"

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written by Alan3354, January 23, 2009
Did anyone else momentarily think this was about taxidermy? I'm fatigued, just got home.
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Another one...
written by BillyJoe, January 23, 2009
I have useful replies to those who say, "Science doesn't have all the answers.."

I tell them: "No one does have all the answers, but I would rather have some answers than no answers".
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written by Kuroyume, January 23, 2009
That won't work. Religious and other credulous people have answers.

I'd tell them: "No one does have all the answers, but I would rather have some evidentially sound answers than made up shit." ;P
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I'm right here
written by danieljref, January 23, 2009
@Billy Joe

It took a while (I was away), but I answered your questions in the other topic. Just to sum it up, I don't know why you thought I disagree with you.
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written by BillyJoe, January 23, 2009
Koroyume,

Right you are. smilies/cheesy.gif

I'll expand my "some answers than no answers" into your "some evidentially sound answers than made up shit" in future.

BJ
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written by BillyJoe, January 23, 2009
danieljref,

I must have missed something then. smilies/cool.gif

BJ
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written by BillyJoe, January 23, 2009
Okay, I found it, you must have uploaded whilst I was posting.
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written by kodabar, January 23, 2009
Amusingly, the Chinese have been arguing amongst themselves for quite a while about whether to call the panda xióng māo (bear cat) or māo xióng (cat bear). I personally prefer the way the former sounds in Mandarin, but the latter in English.
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red pandas
written by Weatherwax, January 23, 2009
Thank you BillyJoe. Also check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...re=related

I can't really approve of the situation, but it is cute.
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written by BillyJoe, January 24, 2009
Well, thank you fo rthe video link. smilies/smiley.gif
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written by tctheunbeliever, January 24, 2009
It has been pointed out that when scientists make a mistake, such as with fake or improperly interpreted fossil specimens, it is invariably (I'm sure I'll be corrected if I'm wrong) other scientists, or even those who make the mistake, who correct the problem, not the anti-science crowd.

And I've long been dreading the inception of flying cars--we have enough trouble with two dimensions.
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written by mjh937, January 24, 2009
I am a Christian and also a firm believer in science and the scientific method. I think most religious people can separate their spiritual beliefs (which are faith, and therefore by definition cannot be proven) from scientific facts and theories. While I agree there are some fundamentalist bible literists I think they are in the minority and I do not appreciate being lumped in with them. I will gladly change my beliefs as scientific knowledge may require and so far have not had to abandon my faith to do so.
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written by BillyJoe, January 25, 2009
mjh937,
That's called cognitive dissonance. smilies/cool.gif
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