Earth Myths with a Sprinkling of Data
Some recent articles show that tiny bits of data can be used to generate whoppers.
According to Live Science, Bill Hammond has been measuring uplift of the Sierra Nevada range since 2000. Currently they have measured about a millimeter or two of uplift a year for less than 12 years. Launching from that, the article stated:
The amount might seem small, but the data indicate that long-term trends in crustal uplift suggest the modern Sierra could be formed in less than 3 million years, which is relatively quick when compared to estimates using some geological techniques.
This represents an extrapolation of five orders of magnitude (stretching 12 years of data to “suggest” what happened in 3 million years). Nevertheless, they are convinced they have determined a “young” uplift for the California mountain range (see also PhysOrg). Despite the bold announcements, Hammond said, “he Sierra Nevada uplift process is fairly unique on Earth and not well understood.” Whether “unique” phenomena can be used to inform laws of nature was not explained.
Even more hubris was displayed in another article, “Earth history and evolution,” on PhysOrg. The opening paragraph is the operative statement about mythology referred to in our title:
In classical mythology, the cypress tree is associated with death, the underworld and eternity. Indeed, the family to which cypresses belong, is an ancient lineage of conifers, and a new study of their evolution affords a unique insight into a turbulent era in the Earth’s history.
This article claimed that genetic data between several genera of cypress thought to have evolved independently after a mythical supercontinent, Pangea, split apart, has “revolutionized the field of biogeography” and given us “understanding” of earth history.
The new study confirms that cypresses represent a very old plant family. Their origins can be traced back to Pangea, and the evolutionary divergence of the northern and southern subfamilies of cypresses actually reflects the break-up of Pangea about 153 million years ago. As fragmentation progressed and ancestral lineages were separated from each other, new lineages were established and followed separate evolutionary trajectories. The Cupressaceae is the first plant family whose evolutionary history gives us such a detailed picture of the break-up of a supercontinent.
This adds another couple of orders of magnitude to the extrapolations from data evaluated in the present (see PNAS paper for the data used). The “insight” generated comes with some caveats, however. “Some groups have turned out to be surprisingly young in evolutionary terms, others much older than people had assumed.” It appears that using assumptions about a law of nature concerning evolutionary rates requires sacrificing laws of nature in other aspects of the story.
Myths usually require sacrifices, so we should not be surprised.
Let’s take stock of what we know (or think we know) based on the data presented. (1) The Sierras have risen 1 or 2 millimeters per year since 2000, give or take the uncertainties that always need to be factored into any measurement. (2) Certain selected genes in certain selected species of cypress have a measurable percent difference, give or take the uncertainties that always need to be factored into any measurement.
That’s it. The rest is interpretation.
Are you better off with modern mythology than the Greeks and Romans were? The fighting gods of classical lore have been lumped into a new god named Evolution that performs whatever miracles are necessary to keep the myth going. We are told “new lineages were established”. By whom? Evolution, the god of death, the underworld and eternity. Evolution weaves tales of “turbulent eras in earth history” when he fought the Earth Giants, splitting continents and sending the spirits of Life Force on separate evolutionary trajectories. We don’t see Evolution, but through his oracles, we gain “understanding”. We envision “detailed pictures”. We achieve “unique insight”.
Any mythmaker needs a sprinkling of data to keep the outsiders in awe. The priest of Delphi used gas from a cave to send the priestesses into ecstatic babblings. Now, GPS (gas of the priestesses of science) does the trick, while another group of divination prophets looks into the genes, like ancient Babble-onians looked into entrails.
We know what they tell us is mythology because each new understanding overturns the previous understanding (implying it was never understanding in the first place). We also keep seeing that the new data contradicts the findings from the gas the previous oracle used. We also know it’s bunk because the interpreters (the university press departments), translate the incomprehensible babblings into ambiguous pronouncements that can be interpreted various ways. Does evolution run fast or slow? It depends. Are the Sierras rising fast or slow? It depends. [Scientific principle: Mathematical physics does not permit the extrapolation of a linear function over five orders of magnitude. That’s like drawing a mile-long curve from an inch of data.]
Old King Croesus would have had equal luck listening to modern scientists tell him whether to go to war with Darius as we have trusting in the “understanding” we get from the priests of Darwinius. Don’t myth-take this for science. The rubric of their hubris is rootless.