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Archive for Thursday, October 7, 1999

T PREDICT FUTURE

October 7, 1999

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The notion that science can predict the future is not true, a nationally known science figure said Tuesday at Kansas University.

An internationally renowned Harvard University scientist forwarded a hypothesis dealing with the Kansas State Board of Education's 2000 elections.

"I'm assuming you're going to throw out the school board in the next election," Stephen Jay Gould said, receiving applause from a packed house Wednesday night at Kansas University's Lied Center.

Gould criticized the board for its vote this summer to de-emphasize evolution standards in Kansas public schools.

His talk, "Questioning the Millennium: Why We Cannot Predict the Future," was sponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities.

While there can be predictability in some general areas, in most cases there are far too many intangibles for humans to predict the future through science, he said.

"Evolution is an elaborately unpredictable branching bush," said Gould, who has taught at Harvard since 1967.

"It's a stereotype of science that it can predict the future," he said. But because of the probability theory, people "look to science for answers."

Gould used several examples in biological evolution to outline how it would be difficult for humans to predict the future.

For example, he showed a slide of a heron species that uses its wings to shade the water while looking for prey. The bird rarely flies, he said.

"Now, you could look at that this bird's wings and conclude that the reason they are there is for shading the water," he said. "No one could have predicted millions of years ago that dinosaurs with thermal-sensitive scales (early feathers) would evolve into a species that used its wings to shade the water in a continent called Africa."

Gould also pointed out misconceptions in evolution.

He said that although most people believe that mammals evolved after extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, they evolved about the same time dinosaurs did.

"No one knows why the mammals survived the extinction " after they had been dominated for millions of years in the world of the dinosaurs," he said.

Gould, who was one of the original recipients of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship -- the so-called "genius grants" -- also spent time outlining probability theory.

He said much of the notion that science can predict the future is based on an 18th century French scientist's concept: If people understand the laws of science and could observe all the events in the universe at a given time, they could predict how it behaved in the past and how it would behave in the future.

Gould is a professor of geology and zoology and curator for invertebrate paleontology in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

He spoke to a full house in the 2,028-seat Lied Center. Event organizers had to turn away several hundred people from the talk.

-- Michael Dekker's phone message number is 832-7187. His e-mail address is mdekker@ljworld.com.

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