Common Nonsense

I was doing some Internet surfing recently when I came upon a post entitled “Evolutionist Fundamentalism.” Normally, I ignore these rants, as they are usually written by people who are so sure they are correct that it is pointless to try to reason with them. (Of course, I am also convinced I am correct, but I have logic and, more importantly, empirical evidence on my side. But more on this later.) However, this time the misconceptions were ones I am sure are on the minds of many non-scientists and are therefore worth addressing.

The post was written by a woman named Nonni. She begins:

I went back to college as an “older woman”. I started taking biology courses, thinking I would like to be a health educator or writer. I immediately ran up against what I saw as absolute dogma regarding the theory of evolution. As a much younger person I had learned evolution was one theory to explain the origin of biological complexity. However when I learned a single cell has over 300 different chemical reactions needed for its metabolism, not to mention its reproduction, I thought to myself–”what a marvelous design”. Design made sense.

This is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. First of all, nothing in science is “received doctrine” or “absolute dogma.” Anyone the least bit familiar with the history of science will realize that scientists can make conclusions only by using the best empirical (meaning observable and/or measurable) evidence available to them – and as new observations are made and new experiments done, it often becomes necessary to revisit previous conclusions and change them. It may take awhile, but nevertheless, it happens. (Furthermore, scientific knowledge is determined by consensus and informally within the scientific community. There is no referendum, plebiscite, or authority that rules on the veracity of a scientific claim.)

As a result, we say that scientific knowledge is “provisional.” Of course, then opponents go to the opposite extreme and say that since nothing in science is certain, scientific knowledge must be “worthless.” Let me point out that, philosophically speaking, nothing in life is certain. (And if you think otherwise, you are fooling yourself.) For example, the verdict of a jury in a criminal trial about a defendant’s guilt is provisional in the same way that a conclusion in science about the truth of a claim is provisional. In both cases, the standard of justification is “empirical evidence that convinces beyond a reasonable doubt.” Just as with conclusions in science, verdicts of juries sometimes have to be revisited when new evidence comes to light, sometimes years later. An 36974131-20120414.jpgexample of this occurred recently when the murder conviction of a 56-year-old man was overturned and he was freed after spending 25 years in prison. Willie Earl Green was convicted in the 1983 execution-style murder of a 25-year-old single mother in South Los Angeles. A judge ordered him released last Thursday, March 20, because the witness whose trial testimony had sent Green away for 33 years to life had recanted, and prosecutors decided not to retry Green. The witness, Willie Finley, explained that he was high on cocaine during the killing and had been “helped” by police to identify Green as a suspect. Likewise, the development of “DNA fingerprinting” has made possible the release of many innocent men who were falsely convicted of rape years ago, before this technology was available. Conclusions have to be made, and can only be made, by using the best evidence available at the time.

Back to Nonni. She continues:

There has been quite a lot of writing lately about evolution, and the possibility of intelligent design co-existing with it. Intelligent design answers questions regarding the unlikelihood that random selection could ever result in the vast complexity we see in biology. For the average person, it meets the standard of common sense. This is not creation science, biblical faith, or anything similar. However Intelligent Design theory is too uncomfortable for the belief system of the majority of evolutionists. Evolutionists resemble fundamentalists, in several ways.

So she says. First of all, the “random selection” she slips in introduces a “straw-man” argument. Natural selection is not “random selection,” but by saying it is, creationists can appeal to the “common sense” of the “average person” to make natural selection seem illogical. Instead, this line of reasoning illustrates the fact that Nonni really didn’t learn anything about evolution in her biology classes. Natural selection is the result of two things: individual variation and competition among members of a population. Individual variation is the result, ultimately, of mutation – and mutation is a random process. However, excess reproduction and limited environmental resources make competition among members of a population inevitable, and only those individuals with advantageous heritable traits (called adaptations) are likely to survive and produce healthy offspring. This is natural selection. Since more and more offspring inherit these advantageous heritable traits in each generation, these traits become more common – but there is nothing random about selection. Only certain, specific traits are preserved because, in the given environment, individuals with them have greater reproductive success.

Secondly, things happen in nature the way they do – whether or not they agree with our notion of “common sense.” For example, does Nonni know about quantum mechanics? It is a set of rules, the most successful of any in the history of science, that describes things that happen at the level of atoms and particles such as electrons, protons, and neutrons. Do a certain experiment with electrons and they behave like particles, but do a different experiment and they behave like waves. In the macroscopic world we live in, we know of nothing that behaves this way – in fact, we can’t even imagine something that behaves this way. The most unnerving idea in quantum mechanics may be the notion that certain particles can affect one another almost instantly across vast reaches of space. In 1935, sil14-e1-07a.jpgAlbert Einstein pointed out that synchronized atoms – “spooky action at a distance,” as he called it – are not only permitted by quantum mechanics but are an example of its absurdity. “No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this,” he, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen confidently wrote in a paper in 1935. However, far from demolishing quantum theory, that paper wound up as the cornerstone for the new field of quantum information – in fact, it is the most cited of Einstein’s papers. Long after Einstein’s death, experiments were finally performed in 1982 by Alain Aspect and his colleagues at the University of Orsay in France, the results of which confirmed quantum mechanics and not reality as Einstein had always presumed it should be. Paradoxically, Einstein had once written to a friend, “The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it seems.”

Next, Nonni writes:

1. Scientific authority is deemed absolute in that the scientific community has determined what is and what is not to be included in the realm of scientific inquiry. If something is deemed to be outside the realm of scientific inquiry, it is to be denied existence entirely. Evolutionists will never say that the theory of Evolution also falls outside the realm of scientific inquiry. As an explanation for the origin of all biological forms, it technically does. The origin of all biological life simply cannot be observed, measured or reproduced. Intelligent Design, however, has been deemed to be outside the realm of scientific inquiry, although as a theory, it fits the facts of complexity better than random selection, which has mathematically impossible odds.

So many misconceptions, so little space. First, Nonni repeats her argument of natural selection as “random,” which, as I have pointed out, is a non-starter.

Secondly, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the modern synthetic theory of evolution, have nothing to do with the origin of life on Earth. The theory does not deal with how life came to be on this planet – it only deals with how living things have changed over time since their first appearance. The evolution of living things has been observed, measured, and reproduced. Even if human beings were not present to see some of these events happen before their very eyes, I would point out that many things are accepted as true even when there are no eyewitnesses. Defendants have been convicted of murder (and executed) even when there were no eyewitnesses, as long as there was circumstantial evidence that convinced a jury of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, if I really didn’t want to believe that, say, George Washington ever existed, I would only have to argue that all the evidence – documents and artifacts alike – could have been forged and concocted by conspirators to make it look like he was a real person. But then, that would be “unreasonable doubt.”

Thirdly, the origin of “all biological life” can be investigated by science because hypotheses can be proposed that can be tested. Scientists can do experiments in the lab that simulate conditions as they may have existed on Earth some four billion years ago. These experiments confirm that life could have chemically evolved from inanimate matter under those conditions without the aid of any “intelligence.” There is no hypothesis that Intelligent Design can propose that can be tested because advocates have no idea (at least, when they are not at Church) who or what this Intelligence might be. This Intelligence, unless it can be empirically verified, is as good an explanation for the origin of “all biological life” as is Santa Claus. [However, this is not the same thing as claiming that an Intelligence (or Santa Claus) does not exist.] In short, an explanation must be testable to be scientific.

Now, Nonni gets nasty:

2. Scientists are the new prophets. They hold the keys of knowledge to which the rest of the world has limited access. One simply can’t argue with a scientist since everyone who is not a scientist is discounted as inferior and ignorant.

Somehow, here I think the pot is calling the kettle black. First, science is not a body of knowledge that has been revealed only to the “chosen” or the “elect” few. It is a basic assumption of science that anyone, in principle, can repeat observations and experiments to confirm the facts of science. Secondly, for someone who claims not to be able to “argue with a scientist,” she seems to be doing quite well. And I don’t think it is fair to say that all scientists consider anyone who argues with them to be “inferior and ignorant” – anymore than it is fair to say that all creationists who argue with scientists consider them to be “inferior and ignorant.” Although, on the issue of science and evolution, I think Nonni is misinformed and has much to learn.

But Nonni has more to say:

3. Evolutionary theory is now taught everywhere as fact, when it is in reality unproven theory. Since it is the only theory allowed under the criteria of scientific inquiry, it is the only theory available, and therefore is a fact.

Boy. I wish evolutionary theory was now taught everywhere as fact. It often is not taught at all in the public schools.

First, evolution is one of the most well-supported theories in science today. Her statement, again, illustrates her lack of knowledge about evolutionary biology. Maybe she is thinking of the “evolution is only a theory” canard promoted by creationists. In everyday usage, “theory” is often used in the sense of a guess or speculation. A hypothesis is an educated guess, but a theory is the goal of science – a set of related hypotheses about some natural phenomenon that has been tested repeatedly and extensively without being disproved. A theory is as close to the truth as science can get.

Secondly, the theory of evolution is not the only possible scientific explanation for the change we see in living things. However, the theory of evolution is the best explanation because the evidence overwhelmingly supports it better than any other. Creationists like to think that there are only two possible explanations for the diversity of the biological world, Intelligent Design or the theory of evolution, because then they mistakenly think it is an either/or situation. If they can show that evolution is false, they illogically think that that proves Intelligent Design is true. [In any case, Intelligent Design isn’t a scientific explanation since it can’t be tested.]

But there’s more from Nonni:

4. Where the theory of Evolution has gaps, inconsistencies or defies the knowledge of another discipline (i.e., mathematics), the truth of the theory must be taken on faith.

5. Universities are the new churches of Evolution. No one is admitted to the priesthood (faculty) unless they subscribe to the statement of faith. Evolution by random selection is an article of faith.

Now Nonni is really getting off the wall. I have heard this criticism from students. Evolution has “gaps.” Well, scientific knowledge has “gaps.” If this were not so, then there would be nothing left for scientists to investigate. We do research because there ARE things left to learn. But none of the so-called gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary biology in any way threatens or undermines the theory of evolution. Once again, Nonni refers to natural selection as “random selection,” preferring to defy the knowledge of biology. Finally, scientists do not rely on “faith” in evaluating the truth of a hypothesis or theory, because they don’t have to – they look at the empirical evidence. Her statement that “universities are the new churches of Evolution” is strident hyperbole, not worth responding to.

6. Whomever questions the doctrine of Evolution is an ignorant outsider, certainly unworthy of a teaching position, and probably also unworthy of a biological science degree.

This is how I see it. I went back to college as an “older woman”. Its very difficult for older people to go back to college. We have to overcome the common sense we’ve acquired through years of experience in living. But thats the subject of a whole new post–or maybe more.

Here, I detect a bit of sour grapes.

In conclusion, if you want to study science, or just become an educated person, you have to learn to critically evaluate what you think as rigorously as you critically evaluate what others think. This is how I see it.

References:

  • A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?” Physical Review 41: 777 (15 May 1935).
  • A. Aspect, Dalibard, and G. Roger, “Experimental test of Bell’s inequalities using time-varying analyzers,” Physical Review Letters 49(25): 1804 (20 Dec 1982).
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