January 14, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Zatta Fact?  “Scientific Facts” Evolve

Every once in awhile it is good to be reminded that “scientific facts” are in a constant state of revision.  Here are some recent examples of scientists with surprised looks on their faces:

  1. Cholesterol for health:  Surprise, says EurekAlert: cholesterol may actually pose health benefits.  “… don’t push aside bacon and eggs just yet,” it begins: researchers at Texas A&M did not expect to find improvements in muscle gain among elderly patients: “At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that there was a significant association of dietary cholesterol and change in strength,” they found, with the highest gain among those with the highest cholesterol intake.  “Needless to say, these findings caught us totally off guard.
  2. The Hobbit:  The diminutive skeletons on the island of Flores in Indonesia were first declared to be a new species of primitive hominid, but now, according to the UK Telegraph, Mike Morwood (U of New England, Australia) is making a case that they were modern humans with a growth disorder (10/25/2005, 10/11/2006).
  3. Count me out:  Anthropologists thought they could determine primitive counting words in native languages from more advanced, abstract ones, but an article on Science Now says the reverse could be true.  The more primitive counting words could be derived from more complex systems.
  4. Backwards galaxy:  Spiral arms are supposed to lead, not follow.  How can the trailing tips of a spiral arm be leading the rest?  That’s what is apparently happening in NGC 4622, reported PhysOrg.  This is an “inconvenient” truth for astronomers who could not rule out the backward motion (08/01/2002).  They even found evidence of backward and forward motion in different parts of the spiral arms.
  5. Dino desert:  This dinosaur lived in a desert.  No, actually, it lived in the tropics.  The BBC News described a rethinking about the Bristol dinosaur Thecodontosaurus, discovered in 1834.  “The big surprise was discovering that these reptiles did not live on arid uplands but rather on small well-vegetated tropical islands around Bristol,” a researcher said.
  6. Rethinking dust:  “The discovery of a large disc of dust around a binary star system could force astronomers to rethink their computer models of the Universe,” began an article on the BBC News.  WZ Sagittae was not supposed to have any dust.  Now that the Spitzer Space Telescope has inferred the presence of a dust disk, “The discovery may have implications for the study of everything from supermassive black holes to the formation of planets.” 
  7. The eyes fool you:  Identical-looking animals may come from different species, according to a phylogenetic study discussed by Science Daily.  Does this mean there are many more cryptic species hiding in the genes that we thought?  Could be; studies of frog DNA in the Amazon and giraffe DNA in Africa indicate that multiple separate lineages can exist side by side with little interbreeding between them.  Taxonomists may have “hugely underestimated the number of species with which we share our planet.”
  8. Soiled assumptions:  A paper in Geology this month said there is a big discrepancy between mineral residency time and soil age.1  Scientists at University of Delaware said, “we demonstrate that traditional estimates of mineral-specific chemical weathering rates from soil chronosequences may diverge by several orders of magnitude from the actual weathering rates.”
  9. Y worry:  Men, take heart: your Y chromosomes are not functionally degenerate leftovers of once-prominent genetic structures.  That’s the evolving picture of the Y, reported Science magazine January 4.2  Scientists used to say, “Genetic and theoretical studies of Y chromosomes have led to the conclusion that they evolve to become functionally degenerate.”  The new picture is: “The Y chromosome has evolved to become a major regulator of gene expression in males.”  It may not have as many genes, but if it’s in the driver’s seat, it’s got balls of chromatin in its genes that are not losers.

These upsets and reconsiderations are spread across a wide variety of disciplines and may be considered typical of science news in an average month.  There is one subject, however, about which some scientists are so absolutely convinced, they call it a “scientific fact” that deserves to be taught with missionary fervor: evolution.  The lead editorial in Nature last week began,3 “Spread the word.  Evolution is a scientific fact, and every organization whose research depends on it should explain why.”  The conclusion said,

As the National Academy of Sciences and Padian have shown, it is possible to summarize the reasons why evolution is in effect as much a scientific fact as the existence of atoms or the orbiting of Earth round the Sun, even though there are plenty of refinements to be explored.  Yet some actual and potential heads of state refuse to recognize this fact as such.  And creationists have a tendency to play on the uncertainties displayed by some citizens.  Evolution is of profound importance to modern biology and medicine.  Accordingly, anyone who has the ability to explain the evidence behind this fact to their students, their friends and relatives should be given the ammunition to do so.  Between now and the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth on 12 February 2009, every science academy and society with a stake in the credibility of evolution should summarize evidence for it on their website and take every opportunity to promote it.

1.  Kyungsoo Yoo and Simon Marius Mudd, “Discrepancy between mineral residence time and soil age: Implications for the interpretation of chemical weathering rates,” Geology, Volume 36, Issue 1 (January 2008), pp. 35-38.
2.  William R. Rice and Urban Friberg, “Functionally Degenerate–Y Not So?”, Science, 4 January 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5859, pp. 42-43, DOI: 10.1126/science.1153482.
3.  Editorial: Spread the word, Nature 451, 108 (10 January 2008) | doi:10.1038/451108b.

The evidence for Darwinian evolution (universal common ancestry of all life by an unguided process of chance mutation and natural selection) is flimsier than any and all of the categories listed above, but it is a FACT that must be forced on students and the public.  Otherwise, who is going to show up at the big Darwin Day party that is being planned for 09?  If you don’t want all that money to go to waste, do your duty: help preach the propaganda everywhere, at every opportunity.  Just don’t ask what a “fact” is.  (For help, see Dunlap’s Laws of Physics).

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