December 29, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

In Science and Politics, Expect the Unexpected

Two findings reported this month illustrate how science changes.  Paradigms and policies can have their scientific underpinnings yanked out from under them, causing both consternation and opportunities for new ways of thinking.

  • Bring back the acid rain:  Pick your poison: acid rain or global warming.  Acid rain was the bogeyman of the 1980s, leading to severe cutbacks in sulfur emissions by law.  Now, reported EurekAlert, new studies of streams in Appalachian hardwood forests show an “unexpected result” of the reduction in acid rain: an alarming rise in dissolved carbon dioxide.  The streams are now as pristine as you could get, but that means the plants are now more efficient at respiration and are emitting more CO2.  A Penn State researcher said, “Rising amounts of carbon dioxide in streams and soil could have implications for the forest ecosystem, and the carbon balance in general.”  And what does that imply?  “Higher amounts of carbon dioxide in the soil means more of it ultimately may be emitted back to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.”  Maybe the forests need to do their fair share in abiding by the Kyoto Protocol.  Or, maybe some nations will now have an excuse for not cutting back, saying they are emitting less than plants.  See also the report in LiveScience that agrees “less acid rain is not always so great.”
  • Silent mutations get noisy:  “Another dogma in cell biology seems about to be toppled,” reported Science Now last week.  Certain mutations in the DNA translation process were dubbed “silent mutations,” because they didn’t affect the amino acid inserted into the protein.  If a triplet codon with a silent mutation inserts the exact same amino acid, what could possibly be different in the result?  A new discovery by researchers for the USDA hinted that these mutations are not so silent after all.  It turns out that an unexpected triplet codon can slow down the rate of translation.  When this happens, the resulting protein takes slightly longer to form.  This, in turn, can affect its folded shape.  As a result, the protein may act differently, even though it is composed of the same amino acid sequence.
        The researchers found this out when observing that some cancer cells are more effective at pumping out chemotherapy agents.  The protein pump that performed better had a silent mutation that slightly altered its shape.  The news report issued an analogy: “Like designs made with Silly String spraying out at different velocities, the folding of an amino acid chain into a 3D structure is somewhat speed-dependent, and slower production could cause the protein to take an altered final form,” Mary Beckman reported.  “The cell might be able to compensate for one silent mutation but not for multiple rarely used triplets.”  This “entirely new concept” is causing scientists to “start listening to what silent mutations have to say.”
        One possibility is that the “degeneracy” in the genetic code (i.e., the fact that some amino acids can be coded for by up to six different triplet codons) has a function, regulating the rate of protein production or the activity of the resulting protein or enzyme.  As in the case of the cancer cell, environmental pressures may trigger the dominance of one form over another to provide robustness under varying circumstances.

As these examples show, anything from cancer treatment to global environmental policy is subject to change when paradigms shift and assumptions fall.

If we are vulnerable to this much uncertainty about present-day, observable facts of science, how can the Darwinists be so smug that they know how the universe and life began and what dinosaurs were doing 100 million years ago?  The role of assumptions in scientific knowledge cannot be overemphasized.  The only way to be certain about anything is to have an omniscient being who always existed and who made everything tell us.  But that would require faith.  Science is not about faith (see Finagle’s Creed and the rest of the Quick Guide to Evolutionary Theory).

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