A monthly feature on The Smiling Skeptic: Taking apart unreasonable anti-evolution arguments, in favor of hypotheses that are most certainly free of the burden of evidence. You may use this as a reference guide for debate, or just enjoy.
AUGUST 2011: THE SECOND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS
This is a favorite of mine for a lot of reasons. (1) It is a perfect example of the religious cherry picking certain aspects of one type of science in order to refute ad hoc another unrelated science. (2) The use of the second law of thermodynamics, in this context, also refutes the first law of thermodynamics, which makes it an even easier argument to refute. Let's begin, shall we?
I'm sure we'll all familiar with the laws of thermodynamics. The zeroth law states that if systems A and B are both in thermal equilibrium with system C, then system B would have to be in thermal equilibrium with system A. The first law is the law of the conservation of energy. The second law is the law of entropy in closed systems. And finally, the third law is the law of absolute zero. That said, lets concentrate on the second law for now: "In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves a system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state."
A great way to illustrate what this law means would be to stop breathing right now. Stop breathing and see what happens to the inside of your body. You'll feel it as it happens - well, some of it. What you won't feel is your cells not replicating or repairing themselves. You won't feel your body as it stops producing hormones. You won't physically feel your blood as it stops sending oxygen to your brain. Despite not physically feeling any of this, your body is basically shutting down, because it needs to inhale something in the range of four parts nitrogen and one part oxygen, and expel carbon dioxide in order to properly function. You've made the decision to raise your bodies entropy by cutting it off, thus making it a mostly closed system. Your body is in some ways, a closed system all the time, but its entropy is low, because, for the most part, it is an open system with a constant replenishment of its needed fuels. But despite your constant intake of fuel, your body still begins breaking down the second you're born, as even with this energy, your linear chromosomes' protective telomeres become gradually shorter, reducing their repairing effects, as well as their protection against chromosome fusion. Telomerase is an enzyme that allows for this deterioration to be prevented in children, but it gradually decreases in the body, causing the telomeres at the end of chromosomes to start to fray and shorten. There are, of course, options for prolonging this process, but make note that you are currently dying, and will someday complete the process, and it is mostly because of this.
One could also use the analogy of the broken down car, which is very popular. If your car runs out of gas (its external fuel) you will have to utilize the energy stored in your body and turn it into kinetic energy in the direction of the gas station. Only when you replicate this process again (unless you get a ride) and put fuel into your car, will it run again. In other words, it won't somehow start making its own fuel. It's entropy increases with every most minute measurement in which you drive it, because you're burning the fuel of an isolated system.
The second law is demonstrably true, yes. But does it work as an argument against life's 3.7 billion year evolution from unicellular microorganisms into the complex multicellular life we see today? Not in the slightest. There are many reasons for this, and they can all be summed up in one sentence: Earth is not an isolated system. Every single atom of our being was forged in the furnaces of space (or the freezer of space, depending on the particular atom). Every element on this planet was born in space during stellar collisions. Without greenhouse gases trapping heat from the sun, we would all freeze to death. Almost every bit of the body's essential vitamin D is absorbed from the sun. Every single plant on the planet is provided its life by the sun, in the process known as photosynthesis. Every animal we eat relies on either plants or smaller animals that live off the earth's fauna or flora, which feeds off of the sun. And the animals in group A all the way down rely on the sun for many things from essential vitamins, to the development of serotonin. Without the sun, we would not last very long. The sun is our fuel, and since the sun is an external body - well outside the earth's atmosphere - the earth is in no way considered to be an closed system. This is why the earth flourishes.
If the earth were a closed system, as the creationists seem to think, then why is there still life at all? Why would all life not deteriorated and succumb to entropy, as would a colony of bacteria inside of a tightly sealed glass jar with a limited supply of food would? Because we're not in a sealed glass jar - we're on an open rock, floating through space that is in perfect harmony between gravity and centrifugal force.
Now that we've established - more than, really - that the earth is not in any way a closed system, and that the second law of thermodynamics in no way applies to the life on the planet earth, lets step back a little bit to the first law. As I mentioned before, this is the greatest cherry-pick in pseudoscience history, because the second law is used to argue one aspect of science, while these same people choose to deny the existence of the first law, which disproves their entire hypothesis. The first law of thermodynamics is the conservation of energy. It clearly states this: Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot under any circumstances be created or destroyed. Every time we create kinetic energy, we're able to do so only because our body has stored other types of energy. A neutron may decay, but it will decay into another particle, such as a muon, or it will collide with oxygen to make nitrogen. All energy and matter on the planet and in the universe is the product of a cyclic transformation. When we die, the atoms that make up our face could easily one day be the same atoms that make up another person's legs. The carbon atom (the second most abundant atom in your body, just behind oxygen) that acts as a central composite piece to any amino acid in your body could easily have been nitrogen at one point. Any singular atom of Nitrogen-14 that you breathe today could have been Carbon-14 at one point, and vice versa, as Carbon-14 eventually decays back into Nitrogen-14. But keep in mind the half life of Carbon-14, which is 5730 years, give or take 40 years or so. This only means that in 5730 years, half of the atom would have decayed. In another 5730 years, half of the remaining half would have decayed. And so on, and so on, until you once again have a Nitrogen-14 atom, which could once again interact with cosmic radiation in the upper atmosphere, starting the Carbon-14 process all over again, or if it were to bond with oxygen, it would create carbon dioxide. Just like it could easily decay into another atom. Atoms go on to bond with other atoms in order to share electrons, and other atoms bond with them, and others with them, and this is how we have matter. When that matter breaks down, those same atoms will surely bond again, creating something else. We are, if there ever was one, a grand example of the success of recycling.
The point of all of this rambling is that creationists make up the majority of the world's evolution denialists, yet creationists seem to think that energy can be created, yet it cannot be. How did God create all of this energy and matter in violation of his own thermodynamic laws? And since God would have to be energy and matter himself in order to exist, who then created God? The big bang theory (as much as I hate to use that term, as it was originally meant to be derogation) compensates for this quite easily, in that something didn't come from nothing, as the creationist would have you believe. Instead, all of the energy and matter in the universe was compressed into one incredibly dense point, until it exploded, spreading out all of the matter and anti-matter that we know today, and from this chaos, emerged the chaotic system of space that we have today, where there is only order because of chaos. There are other hypotheses as well, but most of them stem from the big bang, because not only have most of the big bang's predictions confirmed, as with the gradual expansion of the universe, but also, we've taken photos of the central point itself. Lets remember, when we look into space, we're looking back into time because photons (light) can only travel so fast, and we only see because of reflections of light. Many of the stars we're seeing in the night sky may have already been destroyed, and we'd never know it with the naked eye. Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so it can take upwards of 100,000 years for us to see something happen in space in our own galaxy. Our galaxy is one of 10,000 that we've already discovered, many of which could have been completely destroyed millions, if not billions of years ago, and we'd never know it. Light itself stands as the single greatest evidence against the 6,000 year universe hypothesis, as if the universe is only 6,000 years old, then why can I see Andromeda, which is 2.5 million light years away? According to creationists, we shouldn't be able to see God create Andromeda for another 2,494,000 years. The second piece of evidence against creationism, included in the matter of light, is the photographic evidence of the big bang from NASA. And, of course, The first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed.
Thanks for reading. And don't forget to bring up Andromeda next time you're in a heated discussion about the age of the universe and of the age of the earth. It's kind of a debate killer in and of itself, assuming your opponent understands light and human vision. But I guess we can never assume, can we?
JULY 2011: JUST A THEORY?
The most common argument against evolution is that it's "just a theory," and therefore, has no business being taught to children as fact, put before other hypotheses such as special creationism (Intelligent Design), transpermia, or panspermia. There is, however, a fundamental flaw to this argument: The words just and theory don't under any circumstances belong in the same sentence with one another. This is purely a misunderstanding and an indictment of the disconnect between the scientific community and the general populace.
The common colloquial definition of the word theory is an opinion, hypothesis, or conjecture. The scientific definition of the word theory is very different. In its scientific context, the word refers to an interpretation or idea that has been proven correct through experimentation or with other types of evidence. The word theory applies to evolution just as it applies to gravity, the heliocentric theory of the solar system, and for that matter, the big bang. The word means, in this context, fact.
That said, I don't blame the general public for making this argument. It has a right to. This is actually our fault. And on behalf of the scientific community, I would like to take responsibility for this misunderstanding. You see, while those of us of scientific disciplines speak amongst one another, we utilize the word theory completely interchangeably with the word hypothesis. Amongst ourselves, we can infer from context which word the other person means. But when we're talking to the general public, we shouldn't do this. It confuses people. When we're on television or radio shows, we should not use the two words interchangeably, because we're making matters worse, and giving those who would capitalize on the disconnect just that much more fodder to try to convince the public that science is one big conspiracy.
When you mean theory, then say, "theory." When you mean hypothesis, then say, "hypothesis." Especially when addressing those outside the community. Every time we say the term string theory when we really mean string hypothesis or superstring hypothesis, or superstring interpretation, we're making things worse. Every time we say many worlds theory, when we really mean to say the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, we're making matters worse. This puts hypotheses on the same level as proven fact. So, in conclusion, let's stop this, heh? After all, we're supposed to be the smart ones.