This one, published by New Scientist, really takes the cake. From the article:
God may work in mysterious ways, but a simple computer program may explain how religion evolved.
By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish… The model assumes… that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children…
The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people — those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.
It would be a colossal understatement to call this utter silliness, and it stuns me that anyone would take this seriously, much less allow it to be published as a “scientific” study by “The World’s No.1 Science and Technology News Service.”
I design real-world computer simulations in my work with a finite-element analysis (FEA) program called LS-DYNA, which is the world’s most powerful and thoroughly used and tested program of its kind. It originated at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and has been designed and refined over decades by some of the greatest minds in the field.
LSD (as I affectionately call it) models the laws of physics and Newtonian mechanics with stunning fidelity, and material properties are well understood, tested and documented, and are modeled accurately as well. LS-DYNA is capable of analyzing and simulating extremely complex systems involving all kinds of non-linear dynamics. This program is so powerful that it is used heavily in the automotive industry to simulate car impacts, airbag deployments, occupant injuries, etc.
Yet, even with all this, and a programmer who is experienced and knows what he’s doing, the simulations must always be tested against reality to finally validate them. (This way you only have to crash one or two real cars instead of 50 or 60 to get things right.)
So, when I hear about a computer simulation that demonstrates how religion evolved (or how any living system evolved, for that matter), all I can do is roll my eyes in wonderment and disbelief that anyone takes this stuff seriously.
The dissertation above should also cast doubt on computer models that attempt to simulate climate change. There are simply too many inadequately understood non-linear interacting dynamics, including positive and negative feedback mechanisms, to have any confidence that these simulations reflect reality. And, they can’t be tested against the real world, except by waiting and seeing what happens decades later, at which time the faulty simulations will have been long forgotten.
As a final observation, I can make an LS-DYNA simulation do just about anything I want, by arbitrarily tweaking parameters and material properties. I have done this on occasion just for the entertainment value. Those who attempt to model biological evolution, religion, or climate change can do the same.
Just for fun, check out this LS-DYNA simulation of a car airbag deploying (a 2 MB AVI file). It’s pretty amazing.
If you watch the clock in the upper left-hand corner you’ll notice that the actual deployment takes only seven hundredths of a second. (The AVI runs in slow motion so you can see what’s going on.) Note how DYNA accurately simulates the dynamic behavior of the inflating gas and all the details of the unfolding and inflating fabric. The squares on the airbag are the finite elements.
Visit this page for more DYNA simulation AVIs. These are simple examples of many of the program’s simulation capabilities, including impact analysis, fluid dynamics, fluid-structure interaction (FSI) using Arbitrary Lagrangian Eulerian (ALE) methodology, heat transfer analysis, metal forming, explosives simulation, and more. In addition to producing the animations, DYNA generates mountains of data in many forms that can be studied and analyzed with other sophisticated software tools.
This is what real computer simulation is all about, and it actually works, if you know what you’re doing. It is because of the success in the real world of software programs like LS-DYNA that “computer simulation” has become a magic phrase, often used in an attempt to add credibility to a claim. Just wave the magic computer-simulation wand, and all doubts are expected to disappear.
But don’t be fooled. Bogus computer simulations abound, like snake oil in The Old West.