Improbable not the same as impossible

August 13, 2013 • Dear Editor

Dear Editor:

As the local anti-science brigade has been writing letters full of disinformation again, I need to set a few things straight for those who would prefer to hear the truth.

Some letter writers have repeated the tired old arguments to the effect that such things as the human cell could not have arisen by natural processes as the probability of doing so would have been exceedingly low, but these arguments always stem from an inadequate understanding of probability theory. Let me illustrate.

Take an ordinary deck of 52 cards, give them a good shuffle, and lay them out in a row face-down on the table, then turn them up to see what particular arrangement (we mathematicians call this a permutation) you obtained. Computed up front before the shuffle, the probability of getting this particular arrangement would roughly have been 1 in a number represented by 8 followed by 67 [auth] zeros, i.e. virtually zero probability.

Yet the point is that the particular arrangement did happen. It was “improbable” only because its probability was computed so early that not enough information was available. For instance, if you turn over all the cards but the last two, then the probability of eventually getting the particular arrangement in question is 50 percent. It all depends on when you assign a probability, and what is known at the time. Virtually everything that happens in your life (the particular combination of people present in a large store at a given time, for instance) would have been “impossible” if the probability had been computed too soon and on the basis of too little information.

Similarly, in the gradual development of life on this planet (and very likely on millions of others) over a period of billions of years, at any stage in that process the probability of the next stage is much healthier than it would have appeared if you had calculated its probability too early. One can profitably read Richard Dawkins’ book “Climbing Mount Improbable” to gain an understanding of how such things work. Remember, vast spans of time are involved.

Letter writers continually parade other non-arguments in front of us, e.g. the idea that “many” scientists doubt the validity of radiometric dating methods (not true), or believe that the laws of physics (including the speed of light) have changed to accommodate some cherished religious belief system (not true), or that we scientists just don’t understand how things work. For instance, one writer mentioned the (to use the correct term) nonlinearity of production of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, but this is well understood among real scientists, as opposed to people who get their information at pseudo-science tent meetings.

Presumably we’re supposed to believe that humankind just “appeared” in a creative flash a few thousand years ago, but if this were the case, the human genome would clearly reflect that. It does not. Rather, it clearly and unambiguously reflects millions of years of evolution. No one has correctly refuted what I pointed out early about retro-pseudogenes providing powerful evidence for evolution, because no such correct refutation is known. Like it or not, we share common ancestors not only with other primates but with rodents, fish and insects, and this is abundantly demonstrable in the field of genetics.

Evolution a “religion masquerading as science”? Don’t make me laugh. Try putting that one across at any respectable science conference and see how far you get. Science only seeks the truth. Unlike groundless belief systems that think they need to distort reality to survive, we have no sinister agendas.

Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.

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