Science, evidence, and paradigms

Last night was a big debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Creationist Ken Ham. This was to help inform people that the science supporting evolution and how that refutes the “science” behind creationism. One of the key questions during the debate was around what would be required to convince Bill Nye that creationism was true and evolution was false. He said “Evidence” essentially. While, this is the ideal answer for a scientist, I find it unlikely. This, of course, isn’t a popular oppinion. It’s not that Bill Nye doesn’t believe that he would change his mind or that he would change his mind quickly, but it’s unlikely. People aren’t purely rational, in a purely rational world, yes that’s exactly what would happen. Even scientists have a serious problem with this. Scientists still suffer from the same sort of denial that global warming denialist, however, this impact is the largest inside of their field rather than outside.

Why do we know that this is true? According to Karl Popper whenever theories are incommensurate it’s unlikely that a leading theoriest in that field will switch to the new theory or paradigm. What does this mean? Well, if we think about scientific theories in terms of technology it will become easier to understand. Let’s look at jets and propellors for airplanes. It was clear in the early 50’s that jet engines were the way to go, but not all companies decided to pursue that type of engine. Instead these companies decided to continually tweak the capabilities of props instead. A similar reaction happened with sail technology and steam engines in this case sail techology was still more effective than steam, it took years before steam would catch up let alone surpass sail.

This similarly happens with scientific theories. What happens is that flaws start to appear that the theory cannot easily explain. For example, in the Geocentric theory planets would seem to track backwards over time and then begin to move forward. Theories about how these planets had small circles that would regularly appear through the course of their normal revolution around earth. The mathematics for this theory became increasingly complex and seemingly less realistic. The heliocentric approach reduced the complexity and eliminated the small circles and allowed for the eventual creation of Newtonian physics. However, whenever this started to break down and Einstein proposed relativity, it was largely ignored for decades. Essentially, it took until that generation retired for relativity to finally get accepted by the broader scientific community. This happens to scientific theories on a regular basis.

In fact, there are some pretty serious debates going on about the full mechanics of evolution. The original basis of the theory are still true, heredity, competition/pressure, and variety, however the nuances are being debated. For instance Richard Dawkin’s theories have started to fall a bit out of favor, while we’re learning that there are some things that we do in our lives that impact our genes. Those changed genes could be inhereted, which could change the next generation – this was Lamarcain to the core. However, Dawkins will likely not accept a different theory than the one he’s devoted to his life to. So, while to some extent it’s true that scientists will and do change their mind, it’s more likely that Science will change while individual scientist will take significantly longer if they ever do.

Evolution and Innovation

Apparently I published this before I meant too. Anyway, today in Techdirt, they published a discussion on copying, innovation and evolution. Basically, a biologist argued that we are evolutionarily predisposed to copy and use group learning to develop new tools. What this means is that instead of going out and developing something out of the blue we first have to see what someone else has done and then we copy whatever they did, then in a parasitic way, make marginal improvements on the original. We’re nothing but freeloading copiers that make things a little better.

Techdirt completely disagreed with this point of view. They argued that simply copying something or a part of something doesn’t mean you’re freeloading. You can add a great deal to something to the point that whatever you copied simply becomes a part of a larger whole.

Anyone should know from my writing that I support Techdirt’s perspective. This comes from several several different arguments. The first is from the evolution of technology. If you ignore some of the human motivation behind the changing technology itself and focus on the selection process, you can see that technology changes through incremental adjustments. These changes are selected by the market or in primitive societies by the end result of an improvement. Spears that last longer, less energy expended on making new spears, spears that can be thrown farther, less danger from the animal being killed, or sharper shovels, less energy spent gathering food – more food. This selection process is a very natural process. Additionally, there would be some specialization of skills even at this point in our history. Some people would have been better at making spears and in a collaborative environment, because there were no patents and sharing was for the best of everyone, many people could experiment with new spear designs. This innovation while based on copying is a very real form of innovation that likely lead to gradual improvement over a great deal of time.

The second argument that supports innovation after copying is the argument of Cesar Hidalgo, which argues that looking at what countries are currently producing you can see a relationship with their innovative ability. By looking to see what technologies they import and export you’re able to see how well they have developed scientifically and in the manufacturing world. For example you can expect to see more advanced products come out of a country if they got into producing fertilizer very early in modern times. This typically leads to a general chemical industry which can lead to pharmaceuticals and semiconductors. Why? Well developing a strong base in chemistry with fertilizers can be expanded into drugs and as a base for semiconductors.

How do new countries move into these fields? Essentially, they have a knowledge transfer from a country that is already doing it. This can be done in two ways, one is the easy way: have a multinational company set up a manufacturing then R&D facility in your country. This allows a direct flow of knowledge on how to manufacture the material, which increases the rate of copying. Would allow the country to be a fast follower but will still require significant time for them to eventually innovate on that technology. Having an R&D facility would increase this rate, because local scientists would have already been trained on how to innovate in that field. They would have already been doing research in that industry and would more easily be able to innovate if a spin-off was created (or if the state nationalized that part of the multinational). The second manner is much slower: repatriating of knowledge workers. This is essentially what has happened in Taiwan and India. Educated Indians or Taiwanese returned from the US and created spin-offs and became professors at the local universities. This isn’t always successful.

Saudi Arabia is trying to develop a third way, which is having some success. They are recruiting experts from around the world to develop their own universities and companies. This is having mixed results and education and industry needs to pay attention to these attempts to see how well it plays out in the long run.


Copying is extremely important in education and is required to develop new industries in a country. Technology evolves through copying previous technology, recombining with new learning from other fields and from experimentation within the current field. Without copying there cannot be innovation. The more people participating in an economy where innovation through copying is rewarded, the greater our culture and the greater or technological evolution will be. Biology needs to take a lesson from Evolutionary economics.

Evolution and Synthetics

An amazing scientific announcement has recently occurred, we have been able to show that synthetic DNA, XNA, is capable of evolving. This is interesting for several reasons. First, it’s just more evidence of evolution, which should be a rather no brainer at this point. Second, it shows that there are other materials that can function similarly to DNA and RNA. Finally, we can make these structures and they will behave in a similar fashion to DNA and RNA.

If we can create something that evolves under stress, it indicates that evolution is still extremely robust. If this type of material did not evolve, it would have made scientists look at both that material itself and check a few things. First, would we expect this material to evolve. Second, if yes, why doesn’t it evolve. If we are developing a material that is expected to mimic DNA/RNA, it is likely that we would expect it to evolve in a similar fashion. If it doesn’t evolve, then this could have serious consequences. This would not disprove evolution, as DNA/RNA both evolve, it would indicate that either we have the wrong material or that only DNA/RNA can evolve. It would explain why only DNA/RNA have been found on earth and not any other type of xNA material.

Since this material can evolve it leads to interesting questions itself. Did evolution occur  between DNA/RNA and other xNA’s? Did the RNA/DNA combination beat out every other stain of xNA’s? This would be interesting to understand. If RNA/DNA did evolve because it was better suited to Earth’s early environment does that mean that our current environment still suits it best? Could we evolve completely new life forms based on these structures? Only time and more research will allow us to answer these questions. But we do know that these new strains could allow us to develop treatments and other solutions to biological problems.

One way we could answer these questions is if we discover alien life that is based off of non-RNA/DNA combination. This could be in the form of anything from bacteria to full blown organisms. At this point, it is more likely we’ll find a bacteria life form based on another XNA than anything else as they are capable of surviving exposed space transportation, such as on an asteroid.

The fact that we’re able to create XNA is an amazing accomplishment. It indicates that we understand biochemicals required for life to an extent that we are able to create new enzymes that mimic RNA/DNA. We also understand that the most important metric for this experiment is not the fact that we could make a stable XNA, but that it must evolve. A stable or static XNA would not be interesting as it would have no ability to adapt in an environment where there is competition. The ability to change as the conditions change is what separates RNA/DNA from other proteins and enzymes. Only the best combinations are able to change and develop over time.

I’m excited to see how these changes will impact us. I think there are some significant long term implications for this, but at this time I’m not sure what they are. The fact that we’re capable of doing this is an incredible step.

Creationism coming to a school near you in the US

While the UK has effectively banned the teaching of creationism in sciences courses through an application of incentives, the US is going the other direction. Recently, Indiana’s Senate Panel just OK’d the teaching of creationism in science courses. It’s not completely confirmed yet, it still needs to be ratified by the full State Senate, but this is a step in the incorrect direction.

I’m not saying this because of any religious beliefs on my side, which I’m against creationism as a whole, but because it will have a massive impact on any scientific future for these students. None of these students will have the proper understanding of biology to be a doctor, biologist, virologist, biomedical engineer and the list goes on. These are just professions that they are being directly impacted on. The secondary professions will be most of science and engineering professions.

Why? Well as Neil de Grasse Tyson argues, the moment you start saying God did it, you’re useless in the lab. Not because you can’t research or you’re religious, but because that means you’ve lost the burning desire to know “why?” A researcher needs to have a desire to explain what has been unexplained. To investigate the how and what of making things work.

This can also have a chilling effect on entrance into science based universities. Essentially, these students, to the universities point of view, would have had no biology what so ever and the rest of their scientific education may be suspect as well. If creationism is allowed in biology, what sort of impact could this have on their physics and chemistry courses?

Will this ultimately pass in the larger Senate? I honestly don’t know. Should it pass, I hope that there will be an injunction before this is instituted and a case to determine the constitutionality of this law. While the law is likely written to be rather aspecific on what religions it is not supposed to be from, it is obvious to most observers that this is based on Christianity. Essentially, this would be a state endorsing a religion. Thus many people could object to this including Muslims, Christians that don’t support the Young Earth Creationist view, Hindus, and of course atheists.

Now, if you want to send your kid to a private school to learn about creationism then go ahead. That’s why there are options. But I know if I ever have children, they are not going to be educated in a public school system that allows creationism to be taught next to evolution.

Technology Theft

Apparently in the Steve Jobs bio there’s discussion about how he plans on destroying Android because he thought Google stole his idea. Well, yea, a phone operating system is genius, it’s just difficult to get a critical mass for a given operating system. There’s the problem of lock-in and network effects, which impact the likelihood of a given person adopting a new technology. That’s also why Google followed Apple’s lead with creating the Android Market. It’s also why Apple is suing every single major Android phone manufacturer. However, Jobs shouldn’t have been that upset there have been a lot of dead cell phone operating systems like Palm’s, many mobile windows and most recently the beautiful MeeGoo from Nokia.

Cell phones aren’t the only place where this sort of “theft” happens. Typically, it’s more considered technological borrowing by taking from one technology type and applying it to another. This happens when some technological limit is hit on a technology. This technological theft basically allows the engineer/designer to overcome some inherent limitation in a technology. An example of this was the effort that allowed proper planes to compete with jets for an extended period of time. They use super chargers and similar technology to allow the plane to fly at heights and speeds they shouldn’t normally be able to fly at.

However, this borrowing can lead to major legal issues. Which is why it’s fairly common to see licensing agreements between major firms that involve thousands of seemingly unrelated patents. This is so they can avoid any sort of legal issues if they have to use a technology the other company owns.

Other types of theft are really common, such as in software. Look at how much Facebook has taken from both twitter and google+.

What should we do about technology theft? Well, we need to deal with the patent problem first. However if we address that issue I think that technology theft is one of the best things that can happen. It’s a way that drives improvements of subtechnologies that make the larger technologies more efficient. It’s a way that technology evolves through selection process.

On a side note, I get to see my wife tomorrow, so I’m probably not going to be blogging much for the next week or so.

Enabling Technological Convergences

In my last post I discussed technological convergences. I didn’t really discuss anything ground breaking or earth shattering. We all know these things happen. Even if we never really make a note of it. What’s a more interesting question though is why do some companies, like Apple and Blackberry, succeed and others like Microsoft and Rio (early MP3 maker) fail, either in creating technologies that converge or create technologies that then fail.

One of the first reasons is the culture of the company. To create a totally different product that will shake the core business firms may have to do something called “corporate venturing.” This is where a company decides they are going to take people that normally work on the major product and put them into a different area and seclude them and allow them to create a new product. Whatever sort of leadership structure develops, develops. It really doesn’t matter if this matches the rest of the firm. Essentially, these people are put into a position where they are starting a new company. Apple famously did this with the original Macintosh program. It was called a skunk works area. Of course recombining the two portions of a company creates huge problems, but good management can figure out how to deal with this.

Another piece required for a firm to successfully move into a new product space is the ability to identify the market need. This one is pretty obvious, but it still needs mentioning. In many cases it’s really obvious that there’s a product space and that some one should fill it. When companies don’t move into it there must be some sort of reason.

One of those reasons comes down to firm capabilities. Every firm has something at its core that it’s best at. I would argue that Microsoft is best at taking advantage of a virtual monopoly of a platform and moving into new directions within that platform. Internet Explorer and the Office Suite are the best example of this. Microsoft has also tried to do this with servers and other peripheries. Which is why Microsoft has had difficulty moving into other platform positions. They have failed (or mixed results at best) over and over again with phone OSes because it doesn’t rely on their dominate platform.

Another company that is an R&D powerhouse in energy but has failed at anything outside of their major focus is Shell. As a major energy company you’d expect Shell to be moving into other types of energy production to make massive amounts of money in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. You’d actually be right. They have tired and failed. Aside from having a failed solar industry Shell has a moderately successful Wind program. Between the two it actually makes sense why solar failed and wind is doing well.

First, wind is closer to extracting material from the ground than making energy from the sun is. Now hang on, I know, but Shell has to maintain offshore oil rigs in tough conditions. Understanding how to build a wind farm out in the ocean has some similarities. Shell doesn’t actually make the windmills themselves, they buy the windmills and put them together to harvest energy. Shell was trying to make solar panels. Intel would be a significantly better solar panel producer than Shell. Why? Because solar panels are semiconductors. You make them with similar machines the technologies are adjacent to each other.

What’s technological adjacency? It’s whenever you are able to use your current skills and apply them with some research to a related technological field. I’ll discuss this more in my next blog.