My Response to Part 3 of Braveheart’s commentary of 9/2/08.

(Numbers refer to footnotes in Braveheart's commentary)


[Comments regarding the educational system]


1.  In your original commentary you asked, “What truly new knowledge or new inventions have come from the education system?”  In my response, I provided links to two websites that addressed that question.  Unfortunately, those links were not properly reproduced in the hard copy I sent you.  The two sites I linked to were “100 UK University Discoveries” and “University Inventions the Changed the World,” the latter sponsored by the University of Virginia Patent Foundation.  The first site lists such advances as:  genetic finger printing, cloned adult animals, fiber optics, liquid crystal displays, magnetic levitated trains, and the discovery of pulsars.  The second site lists such things as: Plexiglas, the electron microscope, penicillin, streptomycin, the heart pacemaker, the CAT scanner, ultrasound imaging, and the heart/lung machine.  Are you of the opinion that these sorts of discoveries do not represent “new” knowledge/inventions? 

You appear to be trying to make the case that, in order for it/them to be classified as “new,” knowledge/inventions must be independently developed without any reference to a pre-existing repository of knowledge.  I wonder, can you provide an example of any such “new” knowledge/inventions?

2.  I agree with you that K-12 education in this country leaves a great deal to be desired.  However, you did not make a distinction in your commentary between the lower levels of education and university level education.  You simply lumped all levels of education together.  While serious problems exist in education up through the high school level, many of the universities in this country are ranked the highest in academic standing in the world.  The problem that many universities are facing today is the necessity of bringing students up to speed in basic skills such as math, science, and English before they can take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them. 

It can be reasonably argued that that problem with K-12 education in the U.S. has more to do with the indifference of the students and their parents than with the quality of instruction.

3.  Until you learn the distinction between a documented scientific theory (TOE) and unconfirmed belief based on faith (creationism), there is no sense wasting any more time discussing this matter with you.  Please see my discussion of this subject in Part 1 of this exchange.

4.  The skepticism regarding “a round world orbiting around the sun” arose from the religious institutions that controlled the education system at the time.  Does your memory of history include the recollection of Galileo being put under house arrest and Giordano Bruno being burnt at the stake for daring to question biblical teachings on these matters?  Can you understand why those religion-inspired forms of retribution might have a tendency to stifle further inquiry?

Regarding opposition to human flight, it should be kept in mind that the Wright Brothers were not the first to fly a full-scale, heavier-than-air, powered aircraft.  That honor went to the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Langley, in 1896.  Because of problems Langley (an educated scientist) encountered with subsequent flight tests, public sentiment turned against him.  Nonetheless, it was not educated scientists who were vociferously arguing against powered flight, it was primarily the lay public who chided, “If God had wanted men to fly, He would have given them wings.”

I am not aware of any overt skepticism from the “existing education system” with regard to the ability of assembly-line automobiles to replace horses and buggies.  Could you provide documentation for your claim?

James Watt was educated as a mathematical instrument maker.  Because of his friendship with University of Glasgow professors, he was appointed mathematical instrument maker to the University.  While at the University, he had the opportunity to work on a model of Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine which was an improved version of Thomas Slavery’s previous model.  Thomas Slavery was an English military engineer and inventor who, in 1698, patented the first crude steam engine, based on Denis Papin's Digester or pressure cooker of 1679. The first crude steam device was invented by Hero of Alexandria, a Greek, before 300BC, but had no practical applications. 

Do you see a pattern emerging here?  Watt’s steam engine was not concocted out of thin air.  It was a refinement of a series of refinements that had come before it.  One of the problems associated with prior steam engines was the large amount of water that had to be injected to condense the steam. It was the theory of latent heat, developed by his friend, Professor Black, that led Watt to a solution to this problem.   (Note:  It was not the wild-ass guess of latent heat, the faith-based belief of latent heat, or the hopeful opinion of latent heat that helped solve the problem.  It was the evidence-based, verified, scientific theory of latent heat that led to the solution.)

Watt was educated as an instrument maker.  He enjoyed a fortuitous association with a university laboratory where previous models of steam engines were available for study.   He benefitted from consultation with university staff.  His application of Professor Black’s theory of latent heat provided him with the means to overcome one of the serious deficiencies of previous designs. To argue, as you do, that Watt’s success did not stem directly from his association with the university flies in the face of historical fact.

5.  Shockley had a Ph.D. degree in physics from MIT.  Bardeen had a Ph.D. degree in mathematical physics from Princeton.  Brattain had a Ph.D. degree in physics from the University of Minnesota.  These highly educated men were all trained at universities in disciplines that provided them with the knowledge and expertise that enabled them to develop the transistor.  For the sake of this discussion, it doesn’t matter where they did their work on the transistor.  While the final work was not done at a university, if these men had not received advanced training in physics and had not excelled in their studies at their respective universities, they would not have been selected to work on the project.  Nor would they have had the capabilities to bring the project to fruition.  Only someone oblivious to the realities of modern scientific discovery could insinuate, as you do, that the university-level educational system has failed to transfer valuable skills to its students and to engender an innovative attitude.   

Again, it should be noted that the idea for the transistor did not come as a bolt out of the blue.  On January 28, 1930, U.S. Patent 1,745,175 was issued to J.E. Lilienfeld (another Ph.D. physicist) for a "Method and Apparatus for Controlling Electric Currents." The patent shows an insulating material, such as glass, coated with a metal film having "unidirectional conductivity." There is no evidence that the device actually worked but it was clearly a clever precursor to the transistor. One of the biggest problems with this device was that the material to actually build a transistor just didn't exist at that time.  When the Bell team tried to get a patent on their first practical transistor, many of their claims were rejected because of the prior Lilienfield patents.  Again, this illustrates the importance of building on the knowledge of others in the origination of scientific discoveries.

You are correct when you say, “Being interested in & learning a mathematical skill is far different from exercising that skill to a new invention.”  Receiving a university education does not guarantee a Nobel Prize.  Only those individuals with extraordinary skills and determination (plus a large dose of good luck) are likely to make any truly revolutionary discoveries.  Nonetheless, while an advanced education is not sufficient to ensure that an individual will produce any meaningful breakthroughs, it is necessary, in this day and age, to at least give them a reasonable chance of success.

6.  I hope you don’t think this really means that Salk did his research puttering around at his kitchen sink instead of in a medical research facility.

7.  Where did Salk get his idea for using a killed virus to induce immunity?  He got it from a lecture that discussed the use of killed bacteria to induce immunity against diphtheria and tetanus.  He heard this lecture while he was attending the New York University School of Medicine.  Subsequently, he worked in the field of virology at the University of Michigan, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh.  While at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Salk used the knowledge he had obtained from his university training and his experience in working with influenza viruses at various university laboratories to develop an effective polio virus vaccine.  How does any of this support your contention that the educational system (apparently including the system at the university level) has failed to transfer critical skills to its students?

And, once again, it should be emphasized that Salk’s achievement would most likely not have been possible without the work of previous researchers.  Already mentioned was the earlier work involving the use of killed bacteria to induce immunity to diphtheria and tetanus.  Even more significant was the previous work by John Elder’s research team that enabled scientists to grow polio virus in test tubes.   It is unlikely that Salk could have achieved his relatively rapid success without the abundant supply of virus that the test tube source provided.

8.  Yes, “the world of science” does have a protocol for introducing new findings.  It involves publication of those findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.   It is a protocol that makes it possible for other experts in the field of study in which those findings were generated to analyze them, to critique them, and to conduct tests to determine if they can be reproduced.  It is a mechanism that filters out poor research, unsubstantiated claims, and hare-brained ideas.  And it has helped make science the best engine for problem solving ever devised by man.  Would you want widespread injections of a vaccine to be carried out on large segments of the population based solely on the word of some guy fooling around with test tubes in his garage?

9.  Until God starts submitting scholarly papers in educational journals, I think it is safe to assume that humans are indeed the source of all practical knowledge.  It would not be difficult to scientifically establish the existence of God if He would simply show up, tangibly, in person and make Himself physically present.  (He could also rearrange some stars to spell “God is Love” just to prove who He is.)  The fact that He cannot be scientifically authenticated is not a weakness of the scientific method.  It is a consequence of His apparent fascination with playing hide and seek or His nonexistence.   An invisible God who murders innocent children (according to the Good Book) and who allows all manner of natural disasters and diseases to wreak havoc on the objects of his creation (when ostensibly He could easily prevent such carnage and suffering) is more problematic than a nonexistent God, in my opinion.

Indeed, in His present state of self-imposed invisibility, God cannot be scientifically proven to exist.  The same is true of the Tooth Fairy.  Nonetheless, this is no indication that either of them actually does exist and interact with humans in any way.

10.  Oh My!!  You actually do think that someone who is referred to as a “kitchen chemist” does their research by puttering around in their kitchen at home.  To call Dr. Salk a “kitchen chemist” was to infer that he was a “cook book” chemist who lacked new ideas and always followed the established “recipes.”  Consider Sabin’s characterization of Salk in context.  After calling Salk a “kitchen chemist,”   Sabin said, “He never had an original idea in his life.” It was Salk’s originality that Sabin was attacking, not the location of his work.

 In fact, Salk’s vaccine was developed by following established procedures used to combat diphtheria, tetanus, and influenza disease vectors.  Be that as it may, when Sabin accused Salk of being a “kitchen chemist,” he was not inferring that Salk did his work at home in his kitchen.  Salk did all his work in university medical laboratories.  The fact that you misunderstood this characterization is further evidence of your scientific naivete. 

You are wrong when you say, “Clearly the EVIDENCE shows Dr Salk did not learn to kill viruses for vaccine use in the education system.”  He learned about the use of killed bacteria to induce immunity against diphtheria and tetanus and applied it to viruses.  He learned this technique of using killed disease vectors in a lecture he attended at the University of New York School of Medicine.  Salk’s success resulted from trying the technique on viruses which were previously thought to be incapable of inducing immunity after such treatment.  He showed that the previous hypothesis about using killed viruses was wrong.  That in no way detracts from the role that the educational system played in his success.

While learning to swim is a far cry from winning gold medals in swimming, intensive training at the hands of experienced coaches is essential for making it possible for talented athletes to achieve that goal.  The same is true, in the academic sense, for aspiring scientists.

While it can be convincingly argued that Dr. Salk should have also received the Nobel Prize in medicine, he was awarded a number of other honors:  the Congressional Gold Medal (1955), The Albert Laser Award for Clinical Research, one of the most prestigious honors in medicinal science (1956), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977).  He was also named Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor.

The previous awarding of the Nobel Prize to John Elder for his pioneering work on the polio virus and the acrimonious relationship between Salk (with his killed virus) and Sabin (with his attenuated virus) no doubt contributed to Salk’s failure to receive this award.  Then, of course, there were all the other scientists who contributed to the effort who would also have to be taken into consideration.  For example, Isabel Morgan, the Johns Hopkins researcher who accomplished more sooner – and, it has been argued, would almost certainly would have beaten Salk to the prize had she not abandoned her scientific research in favor of marriage and family.

Scientists, like other human beings, are not completely immune to having prejudicial attitudes.  The scientific method attempts to provide at least partially immunity to such emotional handicaps.

11.  The educational system in this country has served me quite well.  When you insinuate that the university system has failed to expand the knowledge base and to provide the resources and training for making novel discoveries, I feel compelled, as someone who has been there and knows better, to set the record straight.  When someone makes farfetched claims, a sarcastic reply is often the only appropriate response.

The problem with attempting to transfer essential skills to everyone via the educational system is multifaceted.  Some children are simply mentally incapable of learning all the essential skills.  Even if children are capable of learning such skills, factors such as economic disadvantage, family instability, peer pressure, disparagement of education by the popular media, and parental neglect or indifference prevent them from taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn them.  Instituting a voucher plan will not solve any of these fundamental problems, and, by and large, analysis of such plans reveals no clear advantage in student performance compared to traditional public schools. 

Voucher programs commonly do not provide enough money to enable many poorer families to participate.  Hence, an inherent socio/economic selection bias is built into the programs.  And if sufficient monies are provided, the public school system suffers.  For example, Milwaukee's program has resulted in a huge budget shortfall, leaving the public schools scrambling for funds. 

And then there is the fact that most voucher monies will go to parochial schools since they make up the majority of private schools.  I don’t know about you, but I am not enthused about the prospect of my tax dollars going to schools operated by the Nation of Islam or some other dubious religious groups I can think of.  In my opinion, charter schools, which still must adhere to mandated educational standards (including the separation of church and state), appear to offer a viable alternative to public schools, although not a panacea.

Incidentally, in your original commentary, you expressed the need to improve student problem solving skills and to encourage students to “think outside the box.”  I agree.  But, in your opinion, does this extend to the way they should approach their religious beliefs?  Should they be exposed to religious traditions other than their own and critically examine the history of the development of their own religious texts and “miraculous” claims made therein?  Should objective comparative religion classes be introduced into the curriculum?  Or should students just arbitrarily accept the religious teachings that predominate in their particular societal niche, on faith?  How far “outside the box” do you really want them to think?

12.  Your claim that I have failed to substantiate the validity of the TOE with verifiable evidence is misleading.  I did attempt to provide links to substantiating evidence, but, unfortunately, they did not reproduce properly on your copy.  I have now provided you with working links in Part 1 of this exchange.  Be that as it may, if you were truly interested in learning about such evidence, all you would have needed to do was to search the Internet for “evidence for evolution.”  When I did, I got over 11 million hits.  Don’t hold me accountable for your lack of knowledge about the evidence for evolution.  You have only your own failure to look for it to blame.

By the way, since when is it a crime to express one’s opinion about what someone else writes?  Of course, you know what they say about opinions.  They are like the opening at the distal end of your alimentary canal, everyone has one and no one knows what yours is like until you air it.

13.  I agree.  Rampant science illiteracy in this scientific and technologically oriented day and age threatens our economic viability and national security.  If creationists are successful in their campaign to incorporate their religion-inspired pseudo-science into the public school science curriculum, the situation will be even more dire.

14.  As I have stated elsewhere, I am using your comments as talking points for my website.   However, that does not mean that I don’t find your opinions interesting and provocative.  Obviously, your comments have stimulated a great deal of thought on my part. 

That said, the thing that I often find off-putting in my dealings with creationists such as yourself is the brazen manner in which they pretend to speak authoritatively on complex scientific subjects (such as biological evolution) which they know very little about.  Lack of education isn’t a sin, it is a lost opportunity.  As I have repeatedly acknowledged, I am ignorant of a great many things myself.  It is those who are ignorant about a particular subject yet unabashedly claim to know the TRUTH about it who are deserving of criticism.  If one does not have the background to judge the veracity of a claim, wouldn’t it make sense to give more weight to the knowledge imparted by experts in that field (such as mainstream biological scientists in the case of the TOE) rather than repeating baseless claims that contradict the documented evidence?

I sincerely urge you to avail yourself of the information provided at the “Introduction to Science, Scientific Thinking and the Scientific Method” (by Stephen D. Schafersman) and the “Essay V: Evolution for Christians” (by Robert J. Schneider) websites.  These should give you a better appreciation of how the scientific method works and why mainstream earth and life scientists worldwide are virtually unanimous in their endorsement of the TOE.

In my personal dealings with you, I perceive you to be an intelligent and perceptive person.  Too bad you did not have the opportunity to further develop that potential in a university setting.  Who knows, if you had, you might have become a noteworthy scientist developing new inventions and contributing to new knowledge yourself.  But it is never too late to learn the facts about science and evolution.  Reading and assimilating the material on the two websites above would be a good start on the path to enlightenment.

I do not find you boring at all - somewhat opinionated with a tendency to pontificate on matters about which you are ill-informed and prone to blanket statements, but not boring.  I have never met any adult who did not have some valuable knowledge to impart or interesting story to relate, regardless their level of education.  You are no exception.

I close with what I consider to be a profound truism:

One of the greatest experiences scientists, indeed anyone, can have is to have some truly and deeply cherished idea proved wrong by the evidence of reality, for only in this way can we learn to look beyond our a priori prejudices and be willing to judge the world for the way it is, not the way one would like it to be.  -  Lawrence M. Krauss, physicist