Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Of monkeys, planets, and tomatoes

Just to flesh out something I started a few days ago, and oddly enough came up again in another e-mail. For some reason I mentioned that I don't like being told that there's a difference between apes and monkeys. I understand that there is a convention determined by some academic group or another, who determines which piles of animals we call monkeys, which we call apes, and which we call neither. And I'm sure that since I was a young kid, I was not in accordance with their categories. In my mind, Chimpanzees are monkeys. They are the definitive monkeys. Lance Link, secret chimp? Monkey. Tarzan's cheetah? Monkey. Kurt Russel's "Barefoot Executive"? Monkey. Gorillas and Orangutan? Big monkeys. Rhesus, Gibbon, and Colobus? Small monkeys.

OK, I get it. I can't go using my own definition for words when there are scores of people in corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows working hard to make these definitions. That's my own problem and I'll have to deal with it.

But what does irk me is when people say "It's a scientific fact that monkeys are not apes." It's right up there with the scientific fact that tomatoes are fruits and not vegetables. Or that Pluto is not a planet.

One of my biggest pet peeves in this world is the unscientific nature of science in the classroom. Again, I get it... not everybody wants to be a scientist. We have to teach everybody SOME science, but don't need to teach everybody how to be a scientist. So we turn science class into a vocabulary class and too often we refer to the art of classification as if it were science. I'm sure classification is essential to science, but it isn't science. I see it more as bookkeeping which needs to be done before we can do science. For thousands of years people have been naming animals. God literally gave that job to Adam in the first book of The Bible. More recently we have been grouping animals into categories like vertebrates, mollusks, crustaceans, arachnids, birds, mammals, etc. I think in general, this was usually done by looking at the creatures and seeing which ones looked alike. Clams, mussels, and scallops... close enough, you're a group. Spiders and ants... nope, two many legs... three part body... two different groups for you. I'm sure there was a lot of interesting and lengthy observations made, including dissecting and using microscopes and whatnot. And that observation is, I admit, a big part of the scientific process.

But applying names to the various groups, I assert, is NOT science. It's bookkeeping. Science really deals with the unknown. It is the act of making a hypothesis, testing this hypothesis, and either rejecting it or letting it stand unfalsified until further testing. After sufficient tests have been taken, repeated in various locations independently, and the results are consistently reproduced we can finally reject the hypothesis or we can claim that it is supported by the evidence and thus it is a theory. So you can say "mollusks appeared on the earth before arachnids" or "birds evolved from reptiles", and then begin testing this hypothesis. And of course, these hypotheses could not have been made if we didn't have the groups such as mollusks and arachnids already defined. Thus the categorization is important to science... perhaps necessary to science. But that is not itself science.

The categorization process, as I see it, does not require hypothesis or testing. For example, the convention is that monkeys have tails and apes don't. So do we need a hypothesis to state "This creature I'm looking at swinging in the tree has a tail."... and then do we apply an experiment (i.e. look at it's tail as he is dangling off a branch of a tree w/ said tail)? Do we now replicate this experiment in various locations? That might be difficult since the creature I'm observing is really only in one location... right in front of ME. No, it seems to me that we just arbitrarily pick a set of criteria, and look for creatures with said criteria, and apply the name to all who fit the bill. At least that is how it's been done for hundreds, nay thousands of years. Has backbone... heats his own body... makes milk... has thumbs... has no tail... he's an ape. Oh HAS tail... OK, monkey. Tusks above the trunk? Mammoth. Bellow the trunk? Elephant.

Not really any hypothesis testing going on there. Just bookkeeping. It's not a "scientific fact" that monkeys have tails. It's a definition that monkeys have tails, then we go ahead and label the tail waggers as monkeys. Nothing was discovered, no hypothesis was confirmed or rejected. No secrets of the Universe were revealed.

Today we have a whole new dimension to the process. We see things in light of genetics and evolution. So the categorization process is a lot more dependent on hypothesis testing. You don't just look for a tail, you need to extract certain gene markers from a strand of DNA. Certainly a lot of science going on there. We see which creatures were descended from which, which couldn't possibly be related any time lately. I remember there's a creature that looks like a rabbit, with big floppy ears, but is classified as a Rodent. Now I don't know why a Rabbit is different from a Rodent... though I think it has something to do with the front teeth. But in any case, if you were classifying these buggers 200 years ago, you would probably say that they belong in the same group. But with the help of DNA we can say that the two had different evolutionary paths to similar outward appearance, and thus belong in different categories. THIS decision making process seems to be real science to me. There's a similar debate going on now about the Panda bear. Is it really a bear, or is it more like a big raccoon?

But in the end, the Panda is what a Panda is. It doesn't matter what label we put on it. It's an arbitrary grouping. A label based on arbitrary criteria. The fact that you know that a Kangaroo is a marsupial does NOT imply that you know your science. Any English major or political historian can memorize names and lists of criteria. This does not imply that they know how to apply the scientific method... that they are equipped to begin the task of explaining the unknown... that they know science. It only implies that they can memorize names and lists of criteria. This is NOT science.

This can be extrapolated to any of the sciences. Apparently Pluto is not a planet. Was it ever? Were the scientists of 20 years ago WRONG? What is the list of criteria necessary for a body to be called a planet? As far as I knew, it was a night time traveler, something in the sky that moved at a different speed than the rest of the stars. As such, I suspect we really have only three or four planets... unless we allow telescopes into the definition. Then it becomes ANYTHING that revolves around the sun? Anything of a certain size and heft that revolves around the sun? Anything that does not have a tail that revolves around the sun? (Yes, apparently that was one criticism about Pluto... he DOES have a tail... or he would if he were close to the sun). So again, I conclude WHO CARES ?!? This classification is NOT science. The science occurs while we explore the details... does Pluto have a tail? Would Pluto have a tail if it were closer to the sun? What is the size and heft of Pluto? THOSE are the kinds of questions that are asked by scientists, and answered by science. Once those things are all asked and answered (independently and consistently), then we can turn it over to the bookkeepers to drop these things into their buckets and slap a label on them. Then some smart alack kid can claim to "know" science and tell us that Pluto is or isn't a planet even if he knows nothing about the questions and methods used to derive the answers which were used to make the categorization.

OK, finally I come to tomatoes. Are they a fruit or a vegetable? First of all, can't you be both? What the heck is a vegetable? In my mind, it's all vegetation. The whole of the Plant Kingdom. Apples? Vegetables. Peaches? Vegetables. Green Pepper? Vegetable. Lettuce, Onions, Celery? Vegetable. Corn? Vegetables. Sunflower seeds? Vegetables. OK, so what's a fruit? Oh, those are the bloated part of a flower after the flower becomes pregnant. They swell up with water content, are usually surrounded by some sort of plant skin, and they bear seeds. Apples? Fruit. Peaches? Fruit. Green Peppers? Most certainly a fruit, as are cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and eggplant. Corn? By the ear... fruit. By the kernel... probably not. Sunflower seeds? probably not. Lettuce, onions, celery? Not so much.

Tomatoes? Unequivocally BOTH.

But here's the worst part of the fruit vs vegetable controversy. Who decides? It is NOT the scientists. It's not the white coats or even the corduroy jackets making this call, it's the dark suits with mirrored sunglasses. It is government law enforcement organizations such as the FDA who classify some vegetation as "vegetables" and some as "fruits". What criteria do THEY use? Generally orders from the president, or decrees from congress. And how on EARTH are they equipped to make these decisions? THEY control tax policy and tariffs. They determine that a can of crushed tomatoes from Italy is a vegetable but a can of whole tomatoes from Italy is a fruit. Thus crushed are tariff free while whole are subject to a tariff.

So in conclusion, I will keep in mind that categorization can be important for effective communication if you keep in mind that knowledge of categories is NOT knowledge of science.