Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Over at Cliopatria, you can find a beautiful open letter by Timothy Burke on the subject of the public evolution debate in the U.S. It is, I think, dead-on in many respects, and recognizing that it is would be real progress toward ending the debate. As I've noted before, I think the real root of the dispute is ethical/political; and that I think biologists bear at least part of the responsibility for the fact that they can't make any headway. The self-policing would go a long, long way toward reversing this. Were I to have written something along the lines of Burke's letter, I would also probably have noted just how badly prepared many biologists show themselves to be for dealing logically and rationally with disputes. I once had a friendly discussion in an online reading group forum with a biologist who was presenting his argument against what has come to be called 'intelligent design theory' (in particular, that of Dembski); and his argument was that it was fatally flawed because it was indistinguishable from evolutionary theory. A little puzzled, I pointed out that, if evolutionary theory isn't fatally flawed, intelligent design theory can't be fatally flawed due to being wholly indistinguishable from it. He insisted, and so I spent the next several parts of the exchange trying to find some reasonable interpretation of his claim, and my every suggestion turned out not to be quite what he was going for. It turned out that he had somehow gotten it into his head that total indistinguishability was an asymmetric relation. When I pointed out it was symmetric, he didn't understand. So I ended up having to argue that if A is completely indistinguishable from B, it is necessarily true that B is completely indistinguishable from A. And then I pointed out that he might be better served by arguing that a major part of what seemed plausible in IDT was empirically indistinguishable from some of what you can get through ET, and that ET has additional advantages of its own.

It gets worse when ethical and political issues are in play; one occasionally hears intelligent, well-trained, deeply knowledgeable people give the most utterly bizarre and incoherent arguments, or (worse) give arguments that exactly parallel the bad arguments they recognize as bad when 'creation-scientists' use them in arguing against evolution. And when scientists get hot-tempered over some issue, they just make things worse by saying things that confirm to people who might otherwise have been persuaded that the position the scientist is putting forward is actually not based on reason but is (as it were) some sort of power play.

But the primary issue isn't really anyone's fault, at least not in particular. The fact of the matter is, most people have no convenient way to distinguish reason from quackery; they often have neither the time nor the interest to sort the matter out, and they don't have the latter in part precisely because they have no easy way to sort the matter out, in part because little effort has been made to clarify how being interested in sorting the matter out will help them do things like put food on the table or release the stress of their full-time jobs. So when it becomes necessary to decide the issue, they choose the option that seems on the face of it to be the least ethically and politically questionable. And if you don't recognize this, and don't act accordingly, the end result will inevitably be a mess. One of the reasons I think someone like Stephen Jay Gould made so much headway in the 'creation-science' dispute is that he had a fairly good feel for precisely these sorts of issues, and therefore he was able to phrase at least some things more correctly. For no matter how right you are on any subject, your way of communicating it can be entirely wrong. And I'm afraid that's often been the case here.

Burke goes about the matter somewhat differently, and makes a number of points that I would be inclined to make much better than I could. The fundamental problem is systemic and social. Rants about the ignorance, stupidity, or perversity of people just don't solve a problem like that. It's time for people actually to solve the problem by dealing with it in a progressive, constructive way. Such a progressive way involves some of the things Burke notes, and many other things. So I highly recommend Burke's letter; go read it. (Burke also has an interesting weblog of his own.)

UPDATE (11/24): The comments to Burke's letter are well worth reading; Myers's comment and Burke's reply is especially worth reading. I do think it is a little disingenuous to describe the situation as a case in which reason (i.e., presenting the data, evidence, and theory) just doesn't work - because it is clear that this simply isn't the problem at all. The problem, I think, is that in addition to reason biologists haven't been able to prevent themselves from putting forward things that countervail the tendency of the reasoning. It doesn't even take a very deep study of the issues to trace most of the talking points of the 'creation-science' movement to unthinking, silly, or even stupid argumentative moves by biologists themselves - absurd and ridiculous things that biologists put forward get repeated for decades after as a sign of just what sort of people, or what sort of reasoning, or what sort of attitude, is involved in evolutionary theory. Mark my words: Dawkins will be quoted religiously by the 'creation-science' movement as evidence for the stupidity, arrogance, and illogicality of evolutionists for the next thirty years.

It is entirely time for non-biologists to begin getting impatient with the way biologists have handled the situation. They are not the only ones who have to pay the piper when they do or say something misguided; and they have had plenty of time to deal with the issue, and have (quite frankly) only made things worse. (Although, to be fair, it isn't biologists alone but also philosophers, popularizers, etc. who deal with biological issues. We philosophers will have to start owning up to our stupidities in this whole affair, too; it's just harder to trace down our failures.)

UPDATE (evening 11/24): As noted in the comments, I hope to give a few examples of what I meant about the things that get repeated for decades. People tend to forget that while the scientific lay of the land is constantly changing, the social lay of the land still feels at least some minor reverberations from side comments and the like that are decades old. At the moment I have my hands full trying to meet a deadline and prepare for the Pageant tomorrow; but I should get to it Saturday or Sunday (probably Saturday).

My first update makes it sound like I think the only issue is this sort of issue; this isn't quite what I want to say. As I note above, I agree with a lot of Burke's suggestion, and that deals with different issues; it's a social problem, which means there are lots of things feeding into it. Burke, I think, has rightly identified a major line; then there's the filtering issue I noted above; and the quotation issue that I'll be clarifying this weekend, and others. I think the quotation issue is more important than is generally recognized, because it actually is sympomatic of deeper problems - which is the reason I'm interested in it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.