Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Skeptical of Science: "Appendix Doesn't Seem to Serve a Function"

This is a continuation of my commentary on cl's "TheWarfareIsMental" blog.  As I noted in my earlier post, despite his claim that he is respectful of science, cl seems to be distinctly skeptical of various aspects of modern science, as evidenced by the way he takes issue with the distinction between real science and pseudoscience.  As I read more of his posts in the "Science" section of his blog, I came to realize that his skepticism is due to the creationist beliefs that he holds.  If science is right about evolution theory, then that would present a major challenge to his religious and creationist beliefs, and that's the fundamental reason he finds true science difficult to accept.

In today's discussion, I'll focus on another post that is labeled as "False Argument #3", where cl castigates the authors of a high school biology textbook for including the statement, “The appendix is a vestigial organ that does not seem to serve a function in digestion today.”  That word vestigial seems to have hit a nerve for one who believes in creationism.  In support of his own ideology, he needs to tear it down, and he attempts to do so without understanding the issue.

Here are some of the things cl has to say about that one statement in the textbook:
accomplished biology textbook writers holding Ph.D degrees and better occasionally succumb to confirmation bias and perpetuate errors and misconceptions concerning the human body

With the textbook editors I will be less forgiving, first for not catching the error in the editing process ...

what concrete point of reference do we have upon which we might reason the current state of affairs in the appendix is reduced or in any way rudimentary?

the claim is of the caliber one might expect from an irresponsible tabloid newspaper, cheap YEC tract or the machinations of science-fiction

the error of claiming the appendix "does not seem to serve a function in digestion today" reveals ignorance regarding nutrition and anatomy.

However it arose, the appendix is a useful feature of human physiology.
It does appear that someone has a problem with confirmation bias, and cl should be ashamed of himself.

The textbook in question is presumably "Biology", by Miller and Levine, although it is not explicitly identified, nor is the specific edition he was reading.  This textbook has been widely used throughout the country for years, and is updated and revised regularly.  Since the date of cl's post is May 11, 2008, it is safe to assume that the textbook was published before that.  The reason I point this out is that it was only seven months earlier, October 8, 2007, when a publication came out from Duke University researchers that called into question whether the appendix was a vestigial organ.  Prior to that, there was a certain amount of discussion about possible functions of the appendix, but it was generally held by the scientific community to be of little use to humans in the modern world.  And that's exactly what was reflected in most school textbooks that contained discussion of the appendix, including the Miller and Levine text.  This was not an error, nor was it confirmation bias.  It was what was understood at the time.  And that understanding was reasonably based, at least in part, on the knowledge that the appendix could be removed with no apparent ill effects.  The fact of the matter is that the appendix is more useful for primitive cultures without modern sanitation, but in modern society, it still appears to do more harm than good.

By the time cl wrote his post, some seven months later, the internet was abuzz with the news of this newly understood functionality, and the scientific community was ready to set aside its long-held notion that the appendix was just a vestigial organ.  Soon, there were calls for textbooks to be updated, too, as noted in this article from Live Science (dated August 24, 2009).

Does cl think that the scientific community and the school textbooks were pushing an ideological agenda that favors Darwinism over creationism?
when an assumption is not only unfounded and unscientific but also demonstrably wrong, I do have a problem, and when such assumptions are pawned off onto unsuspecting school kids in the name of science, whether in defense of creationism or evolution in my such tactics are certainly reprehensible
The trouble is that this assumption (about the appendix being a vestigial organ) was not unfounded, and not unscientific.  It would indeed be unscientific if new knowledge about the functionality of the appendix was suppressed or withheld, and if it didn't become incorporated into an updated scientific understanding.  But clearly, that is not the case.  Look up "appendix" on Google, and you'll see what I mean.  Unlike religion, science embraces new information.  The idea of the appendix as a vestigial organ was postulated by Darwin himself, based on what was known at the time.  But today, we have no problem acknowledging that Darwin was wrong about that.  (Nor does this new information in any way refute the existence of other vestigial organs and structures in biology.)  Science does not have an agenda to suppress information based on a supposed Darwinist ideology.  If cl thinks this is a good example of any such agenda, he has completely and utterly failed to make his case.

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