Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design
An Outright Lie: Given how little truth there can be in the arguments of creationists, including proponents of Intelligent Design, this seems like a good way to start things off. You may have read about the claims advanced by Utah state senator D. Chris Buttars. Lord Runolfr certainly did and really lays into him and the article he wrote for USA Today.
On a related note, since the last Skeptics’ Circle, the Kansas Board of Education voted to change its science standards yet again in a way that undermines evolution. I have a run-down of some reactions and commentary. If you don't feel like reading even more on the subject, PZ Myers and Phil Plait did an interview with BBC radio on Intelligent Design and creationism which you can listen to.
Where's the Missing Link? Creationists often try to use the idea of a “missing link” to discredit evolution, but Secular Blasphemy explains why it’s a semantic trick: as soon as you produce an “intermediate” species between A and B, there are now two more gaps between the three species.
Of course, there are lots of fossils of intermediate species; every time one pops up, though, creationists typically deny that it’s intermediate. I think that the next time a creationist brings up the “missing link” argument, they should be required to define exactly what such a “link” should look like and what standards they would use in judging one to be authentic.
Ghosts in the E. Coli Machine: Perhaps just as common as the “missing link” argument is the “life is too complex” argument. Creationists insist that life is too complex to understand or reproduce by human hands. Carl Zimmer describes how scientists are actively working on decoding the genome of E. coli in order to eventually create a virtual version of it “down to every molecular detail.”
Have scientists succeeded yet? No. Have they concluded that it’s therefore impossible because the nature of life is somehow mysterious and supernatural? Of course not. In theory, it’s possible that they will never succeed, but that’s not a conclusion that can be justified based upon current data. Creationists would say that we should give up; real scientists insist that we keep trying because the record of science is one of continual progress and discovery. Scientists are confident that this will continue and that they’ll unlock more and more knowledge about life — without resorting to supernatural excuses.
Intelligent Design & Miracles: At The Panda’s Thumb, Henry Neufeld has a critique of Intelligent Design on theological rather than scientific grounds. Skeptics’ Circle isn’t intended for religion or religious critiques, but while this may stray close to that line, it does present a different line of criticism from what one normally sees by comparing and contrasting Intelligent Design with miracles.
Distributed Intelligent Design: Ricard Azevedo at Newton’s Binomium discusses a very old, but very interesting, response to standard arguments to design. A short quote from JBS Haldane:
If, then, animals were designed, they were designed for mutual destruction. If there was one designer, he is or was a being with a passion for slaughter, like that of the ancient Romans, and the world is his Colosseum. A much more reasonable consequence of the hypothesis of design is Polytheism. If each one of the million or so animal species were the product of a different god, their mutual struggle would be intelligible. [...]
Wherever Paley’s argument leads, it does not lead to Christianity. If pushed to its logical conclusion it forces us to believe in a malignant creator or, more probably, in a number of malignant creators. Certainly this creator or these creators are not wholly malignant. The world of life contains a great deal of beauty and pleasure, but one can admire the beauty only by closing one’s consciousness to the pain and injustice which are bound up with it.
You’ll need to read the full post to see how Haldane leads up to this, but I just had to quote the above because it’s so good. Haldane offered it as a response to earlier design arguments, when people were openly arguing for Christianity. It’s an even better response to Intelligent Design today, I think, because its supporters act like they rely solely on the raw scientific data, not drawing on any assumptions about religion, gods, or Christianity.
Thus, it’s not possible for Intelligent Design supporters to object to this analysis by arguing that the Creator must have some grander purpose for all of this death and suffering. Such theodicies may have a place in Christian theology, but they are decidedly out of place in the Intelligent Design arguments advanced today. If ID proponents claim to be relying on science, then hold them to the facts about the world — and hold their feet to the fire of death, suffering, and destruction that characterizes the natural world.
Ryan Michael Whitmore also discusses some of the problems with an idea of a designer, specifically how convergent evolution in frogs makes a “designer” look rather stupid: some frogs, instead of producing their own poison, eat alkaloid-rich ants in order to get poison into their skins. Why not make them poisonous to start with? Why even need frogs to be poisonous at all?
Evolution, History, and Religion: Carl Zimmer discusses how creationists who get evolution and science all wrong also typically get history all wrong as well:
Creationists try whenever they can to claim that Darwin was directly responsible for Hitler. The reality is that Hitler and some other like-minded thinkers in the early twentieth century had a warped view of evolution that bore little resemblance to what Darwin wrote, and even less to what biologists today understand about evolution. The fact that someone claims that a scientific theory justifies a political ideology does not support or weaken the scientific theory. It’s irrelevant. Nazis also embraced Newton’s theory of gravity, which they used to rain V-2 rockets on England. Does that mean Newton was a Nazi, or that his theory is therefore wrong?
Zimmer then proceeds to discuss Darwin’s life and views on religion, subjects often addressed by critics but rarely with sufficient accuracy.
In private Darwin complained about social Darwinism, which was being used to justify laissez-faire capitalism. In a letter to the geologist Charles Lyell, he wrote sarcastically, “I have received in a Manchester newspaper rather a good quib, showing that I have proved ‘might is right’ and therefore that Napoleon is right, and every cheating tradesman is also right.” But Darwin decided not to write his own spiritual manifesto. He was too private a man for that.
As Zimmer explains, Darwin’s views on religion and life were very complex, too complex for the simplified slogans so often bandied about today by people who really don’t know anything about the man or his scientific work.
Turning to Stephen Jay Gould: One error people make regarding Darwin is that his status for evolutionary biologists and atheists is something akin to a “prophet” in religion — thus the status of evolution is bound up with the status of Darwin himself. This isn’t true, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t turn to the insights of scientists when troubled. Chris Clarke discusses a degenerative disease his dog has, and while some people might find solace in prayer or scripture, he found solace in an essay written by Stephen Jay Gould:
Averages are tricky things, as Gould pointed out in the essay linked above. This is especially so when you’re reading medical information that hasn’t been (ahem) vetted through peer review. The “average dog” with DM lives for a year after the onset of muscle weakness, but what kind of average are we talking about here? More than likely, we’re talking a median, in which half the dogs studied died before a year had passed, and half after.
There aren’t any quotes that really do justice to the entire post. Gould’s essay helps reveal that when we hear something like the “average” person dies from a disease after a certain (and short) amount of time, it’s probably not a reason to worry. Instead of seeking comfort in prayer, try seeking comfort in reality — the reality of statistics, mathematics, and science.
How Many Angels Can Dance Under a Continent? For some people, the implications of evolution appear to be more important than the evidence — but they don’t usually say so. Instead, they seem to recognize that if they are going to debate science, they should do so based upon evidence. Some, however, do admit that the implications matter more to them than evidence. Brent Rasmussen takes one such person to task, pointing out that if you’re going to dispute evolutionary theory, then why not dispute plate tectonics as well.
I’ve often brought up the example of plate tectonics myself. No one has gone down under the crust of the Earth to observe how the continents move, just as no one has observed some of the major evolutionary changes that have occurred. The “evidence” for how the continents have moved is contained in ancient rocks, just like some of the evidence for evolution. Plate tectonics is a theory, just like evolution. If one is questionable, so is the other.
On related notes, Jokeblog has a short post called “The Flat-Earth Inference“ which explains how “when I look at the ground I walk on, I notice that it’s flat. So then the world, which is covered with people walking all over it, has gotta be flat, right?” It certainly makes about as much sense as the common creationist argument that nothing so complex as a living organism could have arisen naturally. Be Lambic or Green has a number of suggested lesson updates to go with the introduction of Intelligent Design in schools, for example:
The big bang, aerodynamics, and gravity are all “just theories”, so biblical alternatives must be provided. Seven day creation, the marionette theory of flight, and intelligent falling will be offered as alternatives.
Pseudohistory & Pseudoscience: Have you ever noticed that some of the basic arguing tactics, fallacies, and silliness used by creationists are also used by Holocaust Deniers? Quite a few critics of creationism have brought it up, but Orac notes that it’s a dangerous comparison to make:
While it is quite true that cranks often use the same sorts of fallacious reasoning and conspiracy-mongering to win adherents, the main reason I’ve been very reluctant to use the exact comparison DarkSyd has made, to compare the logical and scientific fallacies used by the ID crowd with those used by Holocaust deniers, is that the comparison is so toxic that it carries a grave risk of drowning out the reasonable point. Creationists will whine that they are being called “Nazis” or “anti-Semites” when in reality what DarkSyde is doing is simply showing that they are using the same sorts of fallacies of logic, evidence, and science as Holocaust deniers do.
As Orac explains, every Holocaust Denier that you come across is either a neo-Nazi or an anti-Semite, bar none. Thus, any comparison between Holocaust Denial and Evolution Denial will be perceived as an attempt to smear creationists as Nazis — no matter how many qualification and explanations you put in there. A good example of exactly that is Eugene Volokh's post on the issue where he claimed that the reason we “dislike Holocaust deniers” is because of their presumed anti-Semitism rather than their errors.
I liked Eric Muller’s reply to this:
I can’t speak for what “people” think or what “we” suspect, but the main reason I dislike Holocaust deniers is that they are factually and methodologically wrong (and therefore, incidentally, much more than just “foolish”). They deny a truth that I know and feel at the very core of my being. I don’t care what leads them to deny the Holocaust (anti-semitism, for example) or what agenda they wish to serve with their denial (neo-Nazism, for example). It is the simple fact of the denial that I detest.
I think that this is something we skeptics should keep in mind: it doesn’t matter so much whether a person is a Christian or an atheist, an anti-Semite or a creationist. What matters are the nature of their claims and the quality of their arguments.
Science and Our Environment
Superbug Crisis — Should You Be Afraid? Alun at Archaeastronomy discusses a “crisis” in Britain over MRSA, a “superbug” that is immune to antibiotics and which is supposedly becoming more prevalent in hospitals. Or is it? Independent evidence appears to be scanty, and according to Alun, the person who is leading the activism has something to gain from the hype. After a little more digging, Alun also failed to come up with background information on Dr. Chris Malyszewicz himself — no work of his in Pubmed, for example. It’s a very curious situation.
I’m not aware of any similar efforts going on in America. Occasionally there are stories about what “superbugs” can do, but no public health scares like this. Somehow, I doubt that it’s because Americas are so much more clean and hygienic than the British. Maybe cold beer kills MRSA?
SuperWeeds and SuperHyperbole: If “super bugs” aren’t such a big worry, what about “superweeds,” plants that have cross-pollinated with genetically modified crops and thereby acquire their genetically engineered (not to mention patented) resistance to certain herbicides and pesticides? Richard Rockley looks at some recent research and finds it wanting:
First, it is not totally clear even from the full study whether the herbicide resistance had transferred from the GM crop or if it had evolved independently due to selective pressure. They did perform a PCR to check if the resistance was due to the same gene as in the rapeseed, but it isn’t clear if the gene could be distinguished from a naturally evolved resistance gene. In any case, it is known that selective pressure can cause resistant plants to evolve naturally, so this is not necessarily a problem confined to GM crops....
Let’s suppose the resistance did transfer from the GM crop. We know from the full study that out of over 95,000 seedlings of wild relatives collected and grown by the researchers, only two grew into plants with the herbicide resistance: that’s only 0.002%.
As Rockley notes, none of this is enough to declare GM crops completely safe, but it's certainly not enough to declare them an ecological disaster and cease all testing or use of them. Personally, I think I might feel a bit more at ease with the future prospects of GM crops if there were some way to regain control if the genes “got out in the wild.” Granted, the chances don’t appear to be very high that this will happen, and if they do, they may not become widespread enough to do real damage; but some sort of fail-safe tactic would go a long way to easing people’s concerns.
Personally, though, I think that I get more annoyed at the patent issues involved with these GM crops. People can get in trouble if GM plants are found growing in their fields, despite the fact that you don’t actually have to do anything to make that happen — seeds do spread, after all.
Joys of the Flesh: Older and more common to opposition to GM farming is opposition to eating meat. According to many vegans and vegetarians, killing animals for the meat and/or using animals for their products is unethical. Instead, we should live on an entirely plant-based diet — and not GM plants, either. Matt at Pofflingers wonders what the world would be like if this happened and makes some interesting points.
The Autism “Epidemic”: In the forum, Rillion discusses the supposed increase in autism and the alleged links between autism and vaccines. Is there any basis for the claims that childhood vaccines contribute to or cause autism? There is a lot of fodder for skeptical inquiry here:
The vast majority of the time, autism takes place in men. This has been the subject of much heated discussion, as you can imagine, particularly the issue of whether perhaps autism accentuates characteristics already present in the male brain, however intensifying them so much that they obscure the ability to conduct oneself socially in the manner that the rest of us take for granted-- knowing when another person is using a metaphor rather than being literal, for example, or isn’t really interested in the discussion they are having with another person at a party.
If vaccines contributed to autism, why wouldn’t we see equivalent rates of autism in men and women — don’t little girls get vaccines at the same rates as little boys? Perhaps people get around this troublesome fact by citing what Rillion describes above: the vaccines are creating a condition which exacerbates men’s natural tendencies. Somehow, that sounds awfully dubious.
More interesting, though, is that Rillion explains how this issue forces us to reconsider skepticism itself. This is a situation where each side may claim to be the skeptical one: vaccine opponents are being “skeptical” of the medical establishment and traditional practices which may be harmful; vaccine supporters are being “skeptical” of claims which appear to have little support. It’s not enough to simply say that we should exercise more skepticism; instead we also need to know how to exercise it.
Orac also has something up about the alleged links between autism and childhood vaccinations and Richard Rockley has a post criticizing Robert Kennedy’s call to do an epidemiological study of the Amish on this matter.
DDT, Science, and Accurate Reporting: Tim Lambert at Deltoid discusses a topic that has been gaining attention recently: is DDT really as harmful as critics claim? Once again, we are faced with two sides claiming to be skeptical. Some are claiming to be skeptical of the prevailing notion that DDT causes too much harm to be used; others claim to be skeptical of this new “skepticism,” arguing that the case being presented is far too weak. Lambert takes on a New York Times piece written by Tina Rosenberg and you should read the full post for a detailed, point-by-point criticism of Rosenberg’s article. I’ve been reading more about how DDT would do so much good if it were only used more, but I've seen little in the way of rebuttals, so this is definitely something to keep a link to.
Paranormal and the Supernatural
Kibbles and Biiiiitttsss....: What happens when you create Zombie Dogs? That’s the question Aaron Kinney discusses in the context of scientists who killed dogs but then revived them after three hours because their blood had been replaced with an ice-cold salt solution (rising again after three hours? Hmmm.....). There are serious implications here for traditional notions about death and an afterlife — and it will get more serious once human experiments are performed, which is likely at some point.
Natural Explanations for Out-of-Body Experiences: People who believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena will often cite odd events and insist that the absence of any “natural” explanations justifies paranormal “explanations.” The truth, however, is that people are often simply unaware of possible natural explanations. As one of my contributions, I quote from and discuss a passage from an article in the July 2003 issue of Skeptical Inquirer which explains what some of the known natural causes of so-called “out-of-body experiences” are.
Given the fact that there are completely natural explanations for at least some OBEs, the burden of proof lies squarely with believers in the supernatural and paranormal to demonstrate that any particular OBE has anything other than a natural explanation — not on scientists to demonstrate that every individual OBE has a natural explanation.
General & Miscellaneous
Need More Targets? Most of the subjects addressed here have been addressed before, and multiple times. PZ Myers brings up some subjects that are well worth skeptical attention but don’t receive quite as much attention: acupuncture, feng shui, and Velikovsky to name a couple. Judging by the number of comments he received, he seems to have tapped into something. What subjects would you like to see more skepticism about?
The Church of Altieism: Do you have Candida? Judging by an online list of symptoms, you probably do. In fact, everyone probably does. Galen’s Log notes that “Instead of trying to detect disease, the list is instead a construct to trap the gullible and frustrated into providing business for the alties.” The “alties” are those who are committed to “alternative medicine.” This is a field lacking in empirical evidence — and to be quite frank, lacking a valid subject matter. We shouldn’t really speak about “alternative” medicine: there is medicine that has been or can be tested scientifically, and then there is...faith, really, or just snake oil.
Secularism vs. Superstition: Since we are on the subject of religion and science, what connections are there between the growth of science and the growth of secularization? According to Jim Herrick in a recent book of his, widespread secularization is at least partially the product of widespread acceptance of secular (read: scientific) explanations for what happens around us. I don’t know if superstition has really dropped to the degree that Herrick seems to think, but I do accept it as plausible that as people’s reliance on religion and the supernatural to explain daily occurrences drops, so will their reliance on religion and the supernatural generally. This, in turn, can help make reliance on secular institutions much easier and orient people’s lives towards the “here and now” rather than the “hereafter.”
Symbols, Symbolism, and Belief Generation: Thomas at Mile Zero puts his degree to work and discusses how humans develop an ability to master the use of symbols, distinguishing symbols from what they are supposed to symbolize:
[I]t looks to me like children develop facility with symbols at roughly the same rate as the same abstractions occur in language. For example, children at 18 months (the age when the studies show correct interpretation of photographs) have also mastered about 50 words that symbolically represent objects and actions. At three years, when the experiments begin to show use of models and a lower rate of scale errors, children are also learning to use complete sentences and tell stories (a linguistic “model” of a period of time).
This may relate to the formation of beliefs in that people learn to generalize just like they learn to use symbols — both may seem natural and automatic to us adults, but we must remember that we had to acquire these skills as children. Generalization is arguably a type of symbol formation and perhaps some of those who rely heavily on superstitious beliefs have taken the symbol creation process too far.
I don’t know, though, that superstition is the domain of older, more adult minds. A study on superstitions in children would be interesting. How early do superstitions form? At what point are superstitions replaced with more realistic understandings of the world? Do these changes track with any other linguistic or reasoning developments?
Homosexuality and Gender Confusion: RangelMD takes on the attempts by Focus on the Family to convince parents to be worried about their kids’ sexuality. According to James C. Dobson’s organization, parents should watch for signs of “gender confusion” in pre-pubescent children — if they show too many of these signs, professional help is needed.
The insinuation of this web site that homosexual tendencies and behaviors emerge in preadolescence in the form of gender confusion behavior (i.e. sissy boys and tomboy girls) does not have a shred of proof to back it up and is in fact something so stupid and ludicrous it has already been spoofed by Saturday Night Live! There is no proof to correlate homosexuality with childhood behavior . . either way!
Ironically it is entirely likely that the vast majority of effeminate boys eventually grow up to be perfectly normal heterosexual adults! So if this web site uses such weakly correlative criteria to define “prehomosexual tendencies” what it is basically advocating for is the false accusation and forced inappropriate treatment of a significant number of false positives, i.e. heterosexual boys who don’t act perfectly in accordance with “manly” expectations during their upbringing!
There is no evidence for the claim which Focus on the Family is making. There is no evidence that the advice offered will do any good. There are, in fact, very good reasons to think that the advice offered would do a lot of harm and make conditions for gay teens even worse than it already is — and it’s pretty bad anyway.
I wrote about this Dobson piece myself the other day...
Thanks everyone for reading this far — I hope you enjoyed and learned from this week's selections as much as I did. The next Skeptics’ Circle will be held on September 1st, at Red State Rabble. For the full schedule, see the main Skeptics’ Circle site.