Ira PilgrimIRA'S CORNERFilename:N-program

September 18, 2003 (Ira Pilgrim)


When more is known about a subject, less is written. Volumes are written about things that are mostly unknown.

My first experience with the above principle was when I was a senior at the University of California. I did a library research project on mongolism(now called Down's syndrome). The problem was "What causes mongolism?" There was a large amount written on the subject, including several whole books on theories guessing what caused it, all of which had no basis whatever in fact. I was able to find only a few bits of solid information. Those bits were the few cases where a woman with mongolism gave birth to a child. In one case, the child was normal, in the other, the child had mongolism. The other bit of information was that the incidence of mongolism increased with the age of the mother. This was also true of mutations of the gene for the dominantly inherited condition of achondroplastic dwarfism. That is the kind of dwarfism where the long bones are shortened, in contrast to the kind where the dwarfs are normally proportioned. I concluded that mongolism was inherited as a mendelian dominant trait. The reason why this wasn't evident was that people with mongolism rarely reproduced. As a consequence, there were none of the characteristic pedigrees. Some 8 years later I received a letter from Prof. Curt Stern in which he told me that my conclusion was essentially correct and that Lejeune had discovered that mongolism was caused by an extra small chromosome. The cause of mongolism can now be simply stated as: Down's Syndrome (mongolism) is due to the presence of an extra chromosome number 21. One short sentence tells the whole story, not volumes.

When something is really understood, often a simple factual sentence takes the place of masses of conjecture. Two well known examples in science, where a simple factual statement now tells the whole story instead of the volumes that had been written about it before are:

1. The Sun is the center of our solar system and the planets revolve in elliptical paths around it. Earth is a planet.

2. The material that contains the information about heredity is encoded in DNA and usually involves various arrangements of 4 bases called adenine, thymine, guanine and cytocine.

Facts are easy to express, while theories can go on forever, filling libraries with what is essentially conjecture, often with little basis in fact. The stuff that religion is made of is mostly conjecture, with a few historic facts. Each religion has its own stories, which may or may not be true. Adherents of most religions believe that theirs is the true religion.

How did life begin? The only honest answer that a scientist can provide is that we don't know and, in all probability, we will never know. That doesn't prevent volumes from being written about the subject. In fact, it encourages just the kind of speculation that is the basis for much science fiction.

Fiction is not true, even though it may be based on facts. There are a number of different purposes of non-fiction writing, aside from a writer earning a living. One is to inform the reader and the other is to confuse him and the third, and most common purpose, is to make money and become famous. Different writers have different objectives.

Everyone knows that fiction is imaginary, while non-fiction is supposed to be real and true. My personal experience is that much of what has been written as non-fiction is also fictitious.

Am I saying that most of what has been written is baloney? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.

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