Who’s the audience?

 My friend Walter makes the following very sensible point about my recent article on evolution and the second law of thermodynamics:

The paper about thermodynamics and evolution is neat. Though of course it will not convince any creationists as their argument was never truly science based anyway.

This is certainly true.  I don’t harbor any hope that even a single creationist will read the article and see the error of his ways.   So then who is this article written for, and what’s the point of writing it? There are actually a few answers.

1. The people who are most likely to read the article are people with an interest in the teaching of physics.  It’ll appear in the American Journal of Physics, which is kind of a funny journal: it publishes some articles explicitly about physics education research (comparing different instructional techniques, etc.), but its main emphasis is articles about physics, written in a way that are of interest to physics educators. The main reason I wrote the article is because I think that it raises some interesting physics points that educators may find useful.  In particular, I like the fact that you can use back-of-the-envelope estimates using standard undergraduate statistical mechanics techniques to get an answer to this interesting question.  I wish I’d worked all this out before the last time I taught statistical mechanics: I would have liked to use it in my class.  I expect I’ll get another chance.  Anyway, I hope that other statistical mechanics instructors find it useful.

2. My article is a followup to an earlier article, which I really liked but which had an unfortunate error in it. I wanted to set the record straight.

3.  Despite Walter’s correct assertion that I’m not going to win any creationist hearts and minds with this article, I do hope it fits in in a tiny way to the ongoing arguments on this subject.  Walter’s quite right that fundamentally the creationists’ argument is non-scientific, but on the other hand creationists do frequently try to make scientific (or scientific-seeming) arguments in support of their beliefs.  In particular, the claim that there is a conflict between evolution and the second law is a scientific claim, and the right way to refute it is scientifically.

When creationists make scientific claims, they like to use the traditional signs of scientific authority to bolster these claims.  For instance, they prominently refer to the academic degrees and positions held by their advocates.  Moreover, they use the peer-reviewed literature, and prominently note that they’re doing so.  I’m not criticizing them for doing this: peer review (for all its flaws) is the main way that scientific quality is evaluated.  But this does suggest that, when a claim is made in the creationism/evolution debates that has the form of a scientific argument but is scientifically incorrect, it’s worthwhile to have an authoritative, peer-reviewed refutation of it. When a creationist tries to use the authority of the peer-reviewed literature to make an incorrect point, a scientist can fight fire with fire.

Another tactic used by creationists (and other people who reject well-established science) is to claim that scientists are unwilling to even look at arguments that go against the standard orthodoxy.  That’s another reason it’s worthwhile to examine the creationist argument and take it seriously enough to show why it’s wrong.

The intended audience is not the already-convinced creationist, of course, but the innocent bystander who may not know much about the subject and who hasn’t made up his mind.  I don’t expect such a person to read the article (although if they’ve had enough undergraduate-level physics, it’d be great if they did); I want scientists and science teachers who are talking to such people to be able to say, “Yes, scientists have looked carefully at this argument, taken it seriously, and shown why it’s incorrect.”

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

2 thoughts on “Who’s the audience?”

  1. Well, I’m writing a popular book on entropy and the arrow of time, and I’m going to cite it on my chapter about thermodynamics and life. So there’s that.

  2. Great! I’m looking forward to reading your book. I don’t remember if I mentioned it to you before, but I really liked your talk at the AAS a year or two ago on the arrow of time.

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