Random Selection vs Random Mutation

Hey there, skeptics,

I have been in touch with a few creationists recently, who have trouble with the ‘random’ associated with evolution. Today I am going to be explaining the ‘random’ scientists talk about when referring to evolution.

There is a misconception among the public that evolution is a purely random process, that the evolution of species is completely random. This is completely untrue. The evolution of species are not random. There is definitely selection in the process of evolution, and this allows us to predict what type of organisms a specific species will evolve into under selected conditions. In the lab, tests have been done on small bacteria, E. Coli and others, where they have been submitted to a specific environment, say, a shortage of sugar, or an abundance of sugar, and have let the species evolve in the petri dish. Scientists can predict what sort of microbe the E. Coli will evolve into, in this way, evolution is not random.

Evolution is random on the individual DNA order, this is the random that Scientists talk about. In the normal life of any living organism, that organism will undergo the constant replication of genes inside of it. DNA is constantly being copied, but every now and then, there will be a mistake in the copying process. This is called genetic mutation. It is this process which allows for speciation, it allows for this lovely branching of evolution, it allows for these new adaptations to occur in biology. This genetic mutation is random, but rather oxymoronic, this process is not completely random.

Let me explain. In the genetic sequence, there are genes which are extremely important, like the ability to produce sex cells or heart cells or liver cells or brain cells, and there are genes which aren’t very important, like the length of one’s nose. So that the genes which create heart cells or brain cells do not get mutated away, (because they are very important) these genes are highly protected for. The organism creates many copies of those genes, so that even if one gets mutated, the information for building a heart is still there.

Look at it this way, in your body, you will find, say (the numbers aren’t correct, just a demonstration), 100 copies of the genes for making heart cells, were as you will only find a few copies of the gene for controlling how long your arms get. This is so that, in the case that one copy of the ‘make heart cells’ gene gets mutated, there are still dozens more there to back it up. Were as something like height or pigmentation, which is not important to function, but needs to be able to adapt to new circumstances, will only have a few copies of the genetic code.

This is how evolution is not completely random, there are barriers of protection, to stop the species from evolving to radically, and to ensure that the important genes don’t mutate. I will leave you all with a quote from James D. Watson, “Today, the theory of evolution is an accepted fact for everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles”, James Watson, Molecular biologist, geneticist, zoologist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

Penalty Shoot-Out, By the Numbers


I recently was engaged in a debate with a friend of mine, over which position is more important in a game of soccer, the goal-keeper, or the on-field players. This argument worked through things like the fact that the goalkeeper walked on to the field followed only by the captain at the start of the game, the fact that the goalkeeper is the last player left in a drop-out over-time situation, and that goalkeepers have been the only position to be unchanged for almost 150 years in the sport which is association football. Eventually, it got to the penalty shoot-out, the most pure goalkeeper vs striker situation. Obviously, my pro-striker debater did have the fact that most penalty shoot-outs end up with scores of at least 3 goals to each team. 85%, over four-fifths of penalty shots go in, so you must ask, “What makes the odds so stacked in the favor of the striker?” I’ll attempt to answer this question, and how to combat it if you are a goalkeeper, in this post.

The area of a goal is about 192 ft², and the area of a goalkeeper, if you give dimensions of 1 foot wide by 6 foot tall, that’s 6 ft². about 1/32 of the size of the goal… so actually, this initial number of 85% almost seems impressive. But obviously, the goalkeeper does not just stand in the goal at a random spot, and expect the striker to also kick to a random spot in the goal. Lets figure out how fast the reactions have to be for a goalkeeper.

An average penalty shot goes at about 100 kph (60 mph), so if you do the maths, that works out to about 0.4 seconds, or 400 milliseconds from kick to goal line. The speedy end of the reaction time for humans (which you would expect a goalkeeper to have) is 100 milliseconds. You can’t get the direction of the ball from the first 100 – 150 milliseconds of flight, so this gives about 150 – 200 milliseconds to get to where ever the ball has been kicked. This is extremely hard, so we have to be able to find a better way of saving penalty shots, but first, a bit of interesting findings on penalty shots which may help make things easier for the goalkeeper or the striker.

It has been found that goalkeepers will dive to the right more when their team is behind on the scoreboard, and strikers will kick more at the goalkeeper when their team is behind on the scoreboard. This could give the goalkeeper or striker an advantage if they were to know about the habits of their opposition, but any good soccer player will be studied up on things like these, so it becomes an infinite regression of:-
I know that he will kick to the right, but maybe he knows that I know that he will kick to the right, but now I know that he knows that I know that he will kick to the right etc.
So it is best to just rule out picking a side based on psychology, and look for some biometric ways to predict the direction of a kick.

A study has been done in Canada, looking at this problem. The looked at the following variables :- the penalty taker’s starting position, angle of approach to the ball, lean of the penalty taker, the placement of the non-kicking foot, or the contact of the kicking foot on the ball. They found that the cue which had the sweetest combination of both accuracy and reaction time was the angle of the non-kicking foot. This gave the goalkeeper an extra 200 milliseconds of time before the kick, allowing for almost half a second (which feels like a million years when the trophy is on the line, I swear) to move towards the direction if the ball. The placement of the foot gave an 80% accuracy at predicting the kick.

That’s great, but as a goalkeeper, I want to squeeze as much as I can out of the research, and luckily, research in England has found just that. They attached eye-tracking goggles to strikers and followed the eye-movement before and leading up to the kick. They found that strikers who stared down the goalkeeper kicked a lot more of their shots straight towards the goalkeeper than those who looked at the ground or to either side of the goalkeeper, so this suggests that a goalkeeper who finds their eyes locked with a striker should expect a kick coming closer to them than those strikers who didn’t engage eye-contact with the goalkeeper.

So what we can find these studies is that just guessing or reacting after the kick is just not going to cut it, and the best way to predict the direction of a kick is to look at the planting foot, and the direction which it is pointed at. I’ll leave it at that, and give you a customary quote from Max Planck, “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Max Planck, a German Physicist of some note.

The Job of Skeptics in Science

Greetings, skeptical and freethinking fellows,

I was recently addressed with a question from a family member about what makes being a scientific skeptic any different from being a scientist. They were obviously looking for the “Oh, we desire much more proof and are very cynical of everything new that comes up.”, looking for the big follow-up “Bam! You’re just a closed-minded skeptic.” But they didn’t get the response they were hoping for, and I will be extrapolating on my response to them today.

I will start with an opening difference between a skeptic and a scientist, and how it is useful to have a skeptical group in the scientific world.
What it means to be a scientist. A scientist is a person who devotes their entire career to a small topic in science, such as archaeology,  paleontology, nuclear physics, neurology or cardiology. Now that’s great, we need scientists spending as much time on a topic that they specialize in, so that all the details can be figured out, but a scientist can be very ignorant on fields that are not important to him, and this means that they can be very gullible on topics that do not relate to their interests and specialties. An engineer needs no knowledge of biology to get through university, so it is quite possible that this engineer could be a young earth creationist.

Skeptics are often the people set with the task of just stepping back a little, and looking at the whole picture. I will use the analogy of a wall, where the wall is science. Each scientist can be working on his little 2 x 2 inch part of the wall, and not have any idea what is going on in the other thousand 2 x 2 inch segments of wall. The skeptic is the person who just looks at the whole wall from 20 feet away, so that the whole picture can be seen. Obviously, when you stand 20 feet away, you cannot get the details of all of the little cracks and crevices of the wall, that is the scientists job, but the skeptic looks at the whole picture.

It is also the skeptics job to defend the wall from outside scientists who also want a look at the wall but aren’t doing a very good job of it. If somebody who isn’t part of the group inspecting the  wall decides to come over and take a hammer to the wall (creationists, homeopaths, acupuncturists, PSI researchers and ghost hunters), then it is the skeptics job to shoo away the person attacking the wall and tell them that it is wrong for them to be attacking the wall.

Of course, the skeptic can’t know all the details of all of the wall. He just needs to take the important bits from each scientist, and stitch together all the parts to make a wall.
Science is a brick wall, the closer you are to the wall, the more you understand what is in front of your face, but the more ignorant you become of the other parts of the wall.

I will leave you with a quote from Miguel De Unamuno, “The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found” Miguel De Unamuno, a Spanish Playwright, poet, author, essayist, novelist and philosopher.

ESP Researchers looking for invisible keys

Hello fellow skeptics,

I’m sure you have all heard the analogy comparing science to somebody trying to find their keys, and it demonstrates well how people use the process of science quite often in their everyday lives. For those who haven’t heard it though, it goes that when somebody looses their keys, they develop a hypothesis (my keys are under the couch) and then they proceed to test it. (look under the couch.) If their hypothesis was deemed incorrect (the keys weren’t under the couch), then they formulate a new one (the keys are locked in the car). This process is repeated until a suitable hypothesis which holds up to observation, (I found the keys) is found.

Now this is all well and good, but I recently heard this analogy abused by an ESP research proponent. He stated that when you lose your keys, you will keep checking the same place over and over again, ‘just to be sure’. This is his justification for why ESP research should continue to be done.

This is not true, for a couple of reasons. When somebody looses their keys, they first assess the prior probability of the likelihood that they lost their keys there. One does not check at great Aunt Sherle’s house if the last time one went there was when they were 11 for Easter one year. Nor does one check under the couch, if one has already looked 40 times, because every second time they checked they thought they saw something under there. I feel this is the point at which ESP research is at.

Prior probability says its unlikely, but we had a little look, just to make sure. We looked, we found nothing, the general scientific community left it, but a few cranks, nuts and loons stayed behind, convinced that 0.5000002 is worth investing millions of dollars in research. I think its well past time to move on, and the sooner ESP research is brought to a stop, The sooner the money can go to worthy science with real, interesting outcomes.

I will leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not to sure about the former.” Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist, master mind behind general relativity, special relativity, and mass-energy equivalence, Nobel prize winner & patent-office clerk of some note.