Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Philosophy Dressed Up as Science

There seems to be a relationship between right-wing politics and ignorance about science. Here, Tom Bethell in the conservative tabloid The American Spectator displays a complete lack of understanding of basic evolutionary theory (or willfully obfuscates evolutionary science for political reasons). Bethell is a journalist who feels that he has the expertise to declare that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, that global warming is a lie, and that evolution is "best seen as a 19th Century philosphy--materialism--dressed up as science."

In his article, Bethell derides evolution in part because it can be used in "support of any cause whatsoever." Indeed this is true. It is also true that Christianity, which is the opposite of evolution in Mr. Bethell's estimation, has been used to justify war, slavery, genocide, rape, and any number of crimes against humanity. Bethell would be horrified--and rightly so--if I claimed that Christianity is to blame for every evil perpetrated by its adherents. His invocation of misuse of evolutionary theory is a non sequitur.

Bethell's treatise is loaded with such non sequiturs, along with misconceptions and fabrications about evolutionary theory. The most egregious:
The underlying problem is that a key Darwinian term is not defined. Darwinism supposedly explains how organisms become more "fit," or better adapted to their environment. But fitness is not and cannot be defined except in terms of existence. If an animal exists, it is "fit" (otherwise it wouldn't exist). It is not possible to specify all the useful parts of that animal in order to give an exhaustive causal account of fitness. If an organism possesses features that appear on the surface to be inconvenient-such as the peacock's tail or the top-heavy antlers of a stag-the existence of stags and peacocks proves that these animals are in fact fit. So the Darwinian theory is not falsifiable by any observation. It "explains" everything, and therefore nothing. It barely qualifies as a scientific theory for that reason.
This same tripe has been trotted out in creationist arguments before. It might be convincing if it were correct, but unfortunately for Bethell, it isn't the least bit true. Scientists don't define fitness as a quality or trait that allows an organism to be successful--such a quality is an adaptation. Fitness has a precise definition: the ability of an organism to get its genes into the next generation. Such an ability can be quantified and measured. Adaptations may contribute to fitness, but they're not the same thing. (Wikipedia has a pretty decent explanation of fitness.)

It's not surprising that Bethell doesn't understand the difference between adaptation and fitness; it's clear from his writing he doesn't understand the difference between science and religion. He claims that Intelligent Design is "informed" by science, and if by that he means that it uses scientific words to dress up pseudo-scientfic mumbo-jumbo, then I guess it is. So is astrology. Bethell toes the company line on Intelligent Design "theory":
Intelligent design is...aggressive and therefore potentially dangerous. It says to the Darwinians: "You don't have the evidence to support your claims. Your lab results and fossils don't support your theory. Organisms are way too complex to have arisen by chance. Take all the time you want, it won't be enough. Even though we don't know how it happened, these critters must have been designed somehow."
Bethell is right--the IDers are aggressive. Their idea is also dangerous, since it threatens the teaching of real science in public schools. ID makes provocative claims about evolution, but they're easily shown to be baseless--fossils don't support evolutionary theory? Such a thing would be said only by someone who's never looked at a fossil. Complexity as an argument against evolution is nothing more than an argument from incredulity: "I don't believe anything so complex could possibly evolve." Intelligent design is indeed a philosophy dressed up as science. Here is another part of the intelligent design movement that Bethell gets right: They "don't know how it happened." That's the difference between IDers and evolutionary biologists. We do know how it happened.


rundeep said...

Arch: This is terrific stuff. Bethell is not a journalist, he's an apologist.

kol said...

Some years back I almost choked on my morning coffee when I read that there was a movement afoot to put Intelligent Design on the school SCIENCE curriculum. I mean, sure, there's a place for it in World Myths--right up there with Shiva dancing the universe into being.

I'm tired of explaining that science is empirically proveable, even if I don't possess the knowledge base to understand those proofs at this moment in time, whereas ID is faith-based and every bit as proveable as the Tooth Fairy or Santa.

Keifus said...

It took a long time for science to get out of the bed it shared with philosophy. I'm not sure it even is today, but natural philosophy is a little different than that buried in abstract thought and tradition. (I mean, c'mon. Can you get a doctor of science degree? I think not.) The progression of empirical thought was as slow as it was interesting. I should read more history. (I'm not making a whole lot of sense.)

This Bethell guy is obviously a kook. It's funny how he needs science to "inform" his faith, and also how he needs to call the vast body of countervailing science unempirical. He's bought empiricism without realizing it.

Kevin Clark said...

"We do know how it happened."

Don't you think that's a bit overstated? Evolutionary biology (it seems to me at least) is in its infancy. What can be said to be known is like looking at a globe rather than a roadmap. It doesn't really give the details. Just as one example, it's not known what the first living organism was. It seems pretty important to me to "knowing what happened" to know how it all started.

Archaeopteryx said...

Thanks, run--I wish I could write half as well as you.

Kol--I disagree. There's no place for this stuff in a world myths class--at least that stuff you mention has some history behind it. ID is just bastardized creationism, without the benefit of the history. But I get what you're saying, and agree--more people should be choking on their coffee.

Kev, I don't think it's overstating to say we know what happened. Obviously we don't know every detail--we never will. But we know how things happened. We have the mechanisms down pretty well. I think of it like this: if we find a house in the forest with a plane crashed into the second story, we don't know what happened, but we have a pretty good idea of how the plane got there. Same with evolution. IDers pretend that there are just some things we'll never even be able to put together speculation about.

Also, I'd disagree that evolutionary biology is in its infancy. It's older than genetics, and about the same age as psychology. Not as old as medicine or chemistry, certainly, but Origin of Species came out nearly 150 years ago. That's fairly old as sciences go. It's already gone through some big changes--the Modern Synthesis, and now all the advances in Evo-Devo.

Archaeopteryx said...

Keifus, I'm sure you're well aware that Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box.

dogscratcher said...

"eifus, I'm sure you're well aware that Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box."

How bohemian of you.

If evolution is "A Philosophy Dressed Up as Science," does that mean ID is an IDeology dressed up as science?

Archaeopteryx said...

Hey Dogscratcher--that's a good way to put it.

Keifus said...

I was thinking it might be a smile on a dog...but I didn't figure just how to work that in. What can I say? I'm not aware of too many things.

Kevin Clark said...

I was reading once that in 1905, a well-known physicist (Neils Bohr, I believe) stated that within 10 years, everything of significance in physics would have been discovered. This was before either relativity or quantum mechanics. Now, if Mr. Bohr had said in 1905, "we know how the universe works," he would have been utterly wrong. Actually, if anybody said that today, I would wonder about them as well.

It may be there are no big surprises in evolutionary biology or genetics. It may be that in 100 years, scientists will look back at 2007 and say "Wow, they really knew their stuff." On the other hand, they might look back and view us as we would view the physicists of 1907.

Maybe you know how it happened; and then again, maybe you only you think you do. Perhaps what you ought to say is "Evolutionary biology offers a strong, coherent explanation that is strengthened by ongoing research in biology and other related fields. It is a model which is consistent with known facts, and also opens up new insights." Of course, your version is more pithy.

Archaeopteryx said...

"Pithy" is my middle name, Kev.

Of course we don't know everything that happened. And I fully expect that your grandchildren will be discovering things that make present-day biologists look like idiots (hey, that's the fun of science!). But just like Einstein didn't completely negate what Newton had found, no one is going to find anything that completely negates Darwin (he stated confidently). Sure there'll be adjustments. Maybe somebody will figure out what the first organisms were like, or how they evolved. But we've got the basics down.

Your statement is more reasonable. I think I've told you before to quit being reasonable...

Al-Ozarka said...

"We do know how it happened."

And you call Christians irrational?


Macro-evolutiuon=Hypothesis...nothing more.

Archaeopteryx said...

Daddio, there's no arguing with your "logic."