Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Response to Saccharomyces

Via another blog I found this post by someone named dlamming responding to my post about the DI’s infamous list of “dissenting” scientists. Unfortunately, dlamming spends most of his time attacking a straw man version of what I said and presuming that I meant something far stronger than I meant (or said, for that matter). He quotes my statement that most of the scientists on the DI’s list are not trained in evolutionary fields and then says:

In my opinion, this smacks of the absolute worst form of elitism. Taking this conclusion to its logical extreme, only evolutionary and developmental biologists should be able to talk about evolution, and only nuclear engineers would be able to discuss the pros and cons of building new nuclear power plants.

I think that most chemists and engineers are perfectly capable of discussing the validity of evolutionary theory – just like I think that evolutionary biologists are entitled to discuss both Iraq and wiretapping, while a computer scientist can talk about DDT, and a “freelance writer and businessman” such as Tim Lambert should be able to talk about both evolution and DUI tests. For anyone who blogs outside the narrow field of their supposed expertise to say otherwise smacks just a little bit of hypocrisy.

First of all, the notion that this is the “absolute worst form of elitism” is just so much empty and hyperbolic rhetoric. It doesn’t take much effort to conceive of far worse forms of elitism than noting that those who are trained in a given field are probably more likely to make a credible argument about that field than those who are not. An ideology of, for instance, forced sterilization of those one believes to be inferior would obviously be an infinitely worse form of elitism and the two are hardly comparable. My argument is, at worst, an extraordinarily mild form of elitism. It also has the great virtue of being true.

Second, his “logical extreme” version of my argument has nothing to do with my argument. I neither said nor implied that those without training in a given field should be “able to discuss” the issue. For crying out loud, I am not a trained scientist myself, why on earth would anyone believe I’m taking such an absurd position? What dlamming misses is the context of my post. The DI’s list of “dissenting” scientists is a very simple appeal to authority, but if one is going to make such an appeal the authority should at least be legitimate.

Of course an engineer or a physicist (or an educated amateur like myself who has taken the time to educate himself on the subject) may be capable of discussing evolutionary biology quite competently. I think that I discuss the issue quite knowledgably and I’m more than happy to let my arguments defend themselves in this regard. I’m certainly not going to put my name on any list to suggest that I have any legitimate authority in the field. But the DI’s list doesn’t cite any arguments it merely appeals to the authority of those on the list and it is an entirely valid criticism to point out that most of the people on the list simply don’t have that kind of legitimate authority. It’s roughly equivalent to claiming that 4 out of 5 mechanics agree that chewing Trident gum will reduce tooth decay – yes, it’s possible that those 5 mechanics have taken the time to study the question and have made a rational conclusion based upon that study, but it’s hardly something one should accept blindly. And by the way, I am the freelance writer and businessman, not Tim Lambert.

Comments

  1. #1 dlamming
    February 27, 2006

    My apologies for confusing yourself and Tim – I’ve posted a correction.

    There are no straw men here – you have decided that the list of dissenters is illegitimate, based on the fact that many of the signers were chemists and engineers. You even said “how many biologists are on that list? Very few.”

    In truth, as you should know from the NY Times article and my post, there are 128 biologists, 76 chemists, 75 engineers, 63 physicists and 24 professors of medicine. There are slightly more biologists and doctors on the list than there are chemists and engineers. If anyone is poking at straw men here, it’s yourself.

    Furthermore, as you admit, you don’t know that the chemists (many/most of whom have taken quite a bit of biology) and the engineers haven’t studied evolution. In fact, by signing the statement, they are putting their professional reputation behind their thoughts, and are in effect stating that they have given the issue at least some thought. I’m sure many they approached many people who refused to sign for a variety of reasons, including insufficent knowledge of the material.

    Finally, you make an argument about relevant fields. It should be apparent that academic evolutionary biologists are a self-selected group who choose to study evolution, and recieve grants to do. Very few of these people are likely to have doubts about the validity of Darwinian evolution, and even fewer would be willing to admit it. The scientific community as a whole does (as this list demonstrates) have at least some members who question evolution, and you should be willing to admit that.

  2. #2 Roger Tang
    February 27, 2006

    There are no straw men here –

    I’m afraid there is.

    For starters, many of the signees do NOT agree with the way the Discovery Institute has used their names. Several of them have publically come out and said this.

    And do not lump physicians in with biologists; the difference between them is the same as engineers and biologists. The primary purpose of physicians is not research; it is quite possible to know medicine and not know the research that underlies it.

    And finally….the Steve list.

    should be apparent that academic evolutionary biologists are a self-selected group who choose to study evolution, and recieve grants to do. Very few of these people are likely to have doubts about the validity of Darwinian evolution, and even fewer would be willing to admit it.

    This is, of course, totally wrong.

    Science stems from the evidence. If there was evidence that could POSSIBLY overthrow Darwinian theory, there would DEFINITELY be grant money available—not to mention publication. Ya think the ulcer-causing bacteria was suppressed?

    Sorry, but you know NOTHING about science. And you should admit it.

  3. #3 Raging Bee
    February 27, 2006

    Wow — 128 biologists, 76 chemists, 75 engineers, 63 physicists and 24 professors of medicine, all “questioninig evolution?” What were their questions, exactly? And how many peer-reviewed papers have this formidable crowd published offering an alternative to biological evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth? How many useful inventions have this crowd brought to light using ID “theory,” that could not have been developed using evolution?

    And a question for Ed: have you heard anything from Mr. Gibbons, or is he still looking for live sauropods in the Middle East, or whatever unspecified astounding breakthrough he was looking for?

  4. #4 Gretchen
    February 27, 2006

    In fact, by signing the statement, they are putting their professional reputation behind their thoughts, and are in effect stating that they have given the issue at least some thought. I’m sure many they approached many people who refused to sign for a variety of reasons, including insufficent knowledge of the material.

    Basically, you’re saying here that the fact that people have thought about the issue and have something to lose means that their opinion is worth something. I hope you can see the problem with that. People have thought seriously about, and even died for, some very ridiculous things in human history.

    Finally, you make an argument about relevant fields. It should be apparent that academic evolutionary biologists are a self-selected group who choose to study evolution, and recieve grants to do. Very few of these people are likely to have doubts about the validity of Darwinian evolution, and even fewer would be willing to admit it.

    Well that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Evolutionary biologists are people who know a lot about evolution and therefore are not likely to doubt it!

    The scientific community as a whole does (as this list demonstrates) have at least some members who question evolution, and you should be willing to admit that.

    I haven’t seen anybody deny it. Ed just points out that a lot of those scientists shouldn’t necessarily be considered experts on the matter just because they were willing to have their name on a list.

  5. #5 RBH
    February 27, 2006

    dlamming wrote

    The scientific community as a whole does (as this list demonstrates) have at least some members who question evolution, and you should be willing to admit that.

    But that list demonstrates nothing of the sort. The wishy washy statement that they signed is this:

    We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

    Were it not for the fact that this is a misrepresented propaganda piece for an anti-science movement, I could sign that in good conscience, because (apparently contrary to the DI’s publicity flacks) I know that evolutionary theory cannot be boiled down to that insipid summary. To claim that signing that statement is to “question evolution” displays breathtaking ignorance in the part of the DI and the signers, as well as on dlamming’s part. It tells me that contrary to dlamming’s claim, they have not “… in effect stat[ed] that they have given the issue at least some thought”. They are merely publicly demonstrating their ignorance. Their alleged “thought” is clearly uncontaminated by knowledge.

  6. #6 paleotn
    February 27, 2006

    dlamming wrote….

    “In fact, by signing the statement, they are putting their professional reputation behind their thoughts, and are in effect stating that they have given the issue at least some thought.”

    Richard Dawkins could sign the following statement……

    “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

    …and keep his professional reputation fully intact. His public reputation to boot. Sure, we should all be skeptical of “claims” of any kind, in any area. It is the overwhelming amount of DATA that really matters.

    Typical of DI and IDers in general, the statement on face value says one thing. Anyone remotely familiar with the context of this issue knows precisely what they really mean. The statement gives signers all the cover one could ever need to spout uninformed, uneducated personal opinions. It simply states be skeptical of mere “claims” and carefully examination of the evidence is important. It in no way, shape or form states the the signers have indeed examined any of the evidence for themselves.

    To me a signer’s credentials are of no real issue considering the statement in question….but when it comes to the most important theory in modern biology (the DIer’s real target) I’ll take the biologist’s collective word for it before that of chemists and proctologists.

    dlamming wrote….

    “The scientific community as a whole does (as this list demonstrates) have at least some members who question evolution, and you should be willing to admit that.”

    There are those in the scientific community who believe a whole host of unusual things that cannot be supported rationally or empirically, but their simple belief coupled with the fact they are within the “scientific community” doesn’t make those “claims” true.

  7. #7 dlamming
    February 27, 2006

    To respond to a number of comments:

    -Gretchen, people do disagree my statement about the scientific community. See the comment by RBH immediately after yours.

    -Roging Bee: Do you know how phd’s (or at least, the 128 biologists) are trained? In grad school, they sit around in a group with some professors, reading papers and pointing out flaws or possible problems. The same thing continues in later training, with many participating in weekly journal clubs where papers are analyzed for errors. Being able to point out problems with a paper or theory is easy – and is quite different from coming up with new theories.

    Roger Tang: You have, I’m afraid, an idealized view of science. It’s irrelevant though, because to my knowledge, no one is proposing an experiment – that (like the ulcer work) would get funded. They are simply pointing out that they believe that Darwin’s theory may have holes in it. Since the theory is basically untestable on a macroscopic scale in a human lifetime, I suspect evolution will have skeptics for a long time.

    paleotn: Ok, look: anyone who’s a biology or biochemist phd (30% of the list) has a pretty good idea of the evidence for evolution. Others may or may not, but they’ve put their reputation behind the idea that they are skeptical. So – true or not- just admit that the scientific community _does_ have people who question evolution.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    February 27, 2006

    dlamming wrote:

    There are no straw men here – you have decided that the list of dissenters is illegitimate, based on the fact that many of the signers were chemists and engineers. You even said “how many biologists are on that list? Very few.”

    No, I didn’t say that the list was “illegitimate”, I said that the use of many of the signees as authorities on the subject is illegitimate because most of the people on the list do not have the legitimate credentials to be considered authorities. Since the list itself makes no actual arguments that can be evaluated, it is solely an attempt to assert authority and the only means of evaluating the list is by the credentials, i.e. the weight of legitimate authority one would naturally assign to those who signed it. If the folks who don’t have any legitimate training in the field, as I do not myself, want to make an actual argument, then and only then can we evaluate their position on something other than their credentials. They may know what they’re talking about and they may not, but what they cannot reasonably claim is to have any training or knowledge of the field that would give them any legitimate authority (as, again, opposed to legitimate arguments).

    In truth, as you should know from the NY Times article and my post, there are 128 biologists, 76 chemists, 75 engineers, 63 physicists and 24 professors of medicine. There are slightly more biologists and doctors on the list than there are chemists and engineers. If anyone is poking at straw men here, it’s yourself.

    The only ones on your list who have the training and specialized knowledge about this particular issue are biologists. Chemists, engineers, physicists and physicians do not. Their training in those fields may well help them in understanding the work done in biology if they have taken the time to research it, but the fact that they signed that statement is, in and of itself, an indication that they probably haven’t done such research. If they had, they would know that the statement they are signing is virtually meaningless – any evolutionary biologist in the world could sign that statement with absolute sincerity without it saying anything at all about whether they “dissent” from “Darwinism”.

    Furthermore, as you admit, you don’t know that the chemists (many/most of whom have taken quite a bit of biology) and the engineers haven’t studied evolution. In fact, by signing the statement, they are putting their professional reputation behind their thoughts, and are in effect stating that they have given the issue at least some thought. I’m sure many they approached many people who refused to sign for a variety of reasons, including insufficent knowledge of the material.

    Again, we don’t measure one’s authority by whether they’ve “given some thought” to the validity of evolution. The most idiotic and deluded young earther in the pews at your local Baptist church has “given some thought” to the validity of evolution. And again, the very fact that they would sign such a statement thinking it to be meaningful is pretty good evidence of one of two things: A) that they don’t know what evolutionary theory really says (because they think that statement is a good summary of evolution); or B) they realize that, but sign it anyway because they realize it has good propaganda value for the position they advocate.

    Finally, you make an argument about relevant fields. It should be apparent that academic evolutionary biologists are a self-selected group who choose to study evolution, and recieve grants to do. Very few of these people are likely to have doubts about the validity of Darwinian evolution, and even fewer would be willing to admit it.

    No kidding. And therefore…what? Those who study cosmology will also overwhelmingly accept the big bang theory as accurate. Those who study medicine will overwhelmingly accept the germ theory of disease. Those who study geology will overwhelmingly accept radiometric dating. Is this due to self-selection or is it due to the fact that those theories explain the data extremely well and no competing theory even comes close? And of course, in all of those fields you can find a few people who reject those dominant theories as well. If they want to be taken seriously, however, they need to actually do the hard work necessary to establish their alternative theories as true. Publishing lists of anyone with any scientific training at all who agree with them and pretending that their training in entirely different fields of science amounts to legitimate authority that one is bound to respect without bothering to see any actual claim they might make is hardly credible.

    The scientific community as a whole does (as this list demonstrates) have at least some members who question evolution, and you should be willing to admit that.

    I’ve never denied that. The fact that you think I did demonstrates the straw man nature of your argument. Of course there are people in the scientific community who reject evolution. There are even people with training in relevant fields who reject evolution. When did I ever deny or even imply that this was not the case? All I did, again, was point out that those without any actual training in the field cannot claim legitimate authority (which is entirely different from “cannot make any logical or valid argument on the subject”).

  9. #9 coturnix
    February 27, 2006

    A mid-sized University is likely to have more than “128 biologists, 76 chemists, 75 engineers, 63 physicists and 24 professors of medicine”

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    February 27, 2006

    raging bee wrote:

    And a question for Ed: have you heard anything from Mr. Gibbons, or is he still looking for live sauropods in the Middle East, or whatever unspecified astounding breakthrough he was looking for?

    Gibbons’ pattern is to show up about once ever 4 or 5 months, so we’ve got a couple months to go before he makes his next appearance.

  11. #11 dlamming
    February 27, 2006

    Ed, do you know what kind of training doctors and chemists go through? Every doctor has gone through enough pre-med classes (plus some graduate biology classes) to be fully conversant with the theory of evolution. It’s less true with chemists, but chemists almost always take some biology, and every chemistry course of study I’ve heard of has at least a few lessons on the “Origins of Life”, because it’s a good lesson in both chemistry and evolution.

    As I commented above, being skeptical of a theory and being able to come up with an entirely new theory are different things. Generally speaking, there can be problems with a given theory for a long time before someone is able to solve them. The signers of this list are _not_ supporting ID – that’s DI’s claim, and your strawman. The signers of this list are saying they are skeptical of Darwinian evolution, which as you have kindly pointed out, is an entirely different thing.

  12. #12 Reed A. Cartwright
    February 27, 2006

    dlamming,

    Roging Bee: Do you know how phd’s (or at least, the 128 biologists) are trained? In grad school, they sit around in a group with some professors, reading papers and pointing out flaws or possible problems. The same thing continues in later training, with many participating in weekly journal clubs where papers are analyzed for errors. Being able to point out problems with a paper or theory is easy – and is quite different from coming up with new theories.

    I don’t know what your experience with grad school has been, but my experience has quite the opposite. We were expected to design and do our own publishible research starting in our first semester. But maybe evolutionary biology programs like mine have higher standards.

    Ok, look: anyone who’s a biology or biochemist phd (30% of the list) has a pretty good idea of the evidence for evolution. Others may or may not, but they’ve put their reputation behind the idea that they are skeptical.

    This cannot be further from the truth. Biology is a diverse and compartmentalized field and it is not that hard to get a PhD without taking a single class dealing with evolutionary biology. (It is especially easy if that is your intention.) This is especially true for biolgists who did their dissertation work decades ago. (Ever notice how many emeriti are on anti-evolution lists?) In fact, probably only students working directly with evolution actually take time to expolore evidence for evolution.

    Dlamming, your comments here remind me of some very interesting physchology research:

    Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

    People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

  13. #13 Reed A. Cartwright
    February 27, 2006

    The signers of this list are saying they are skeptical of Darwinian evolution, which as you have kindly pointed out, is an entirely different thing.

    Well they should get with the program, evolutionary biologists have been skeptical of “Darwinian evolution” sensu DI for over a century. Look up the modern synthesis and see if any forces other than mutation and selection are mentioned.

  14. #14 Ed Brayton
    February 27, 2006

    dlamming wrote:

    Ed, do you know what kind of training doctors and chemists go through? Every doctor has gone through enough pre-med classes (plus some graduate biology classes) to be fully conversant with the theory of evolution. It’s less true with chemists, but chemists almost always take some biology, and every chemistry course of study I’ve heard of has at least a few lessons on the “Origins of Life”, because it’s a good lesson in both chemistry and evolution.

    None of which gives them a legitimate right to claim to be authorities on the subject of evolution, which was my only point.

    As I commented above, being skeptical of a theory and being able to come up with an entirely new theory are different things. Generally speaking, there can be problems with a given theory for a long time before someone is able to solve them.

    But here again, without having actual arguments to examine, it is irrelevent even if someone who does have training in the field says “I’m skeptical”. It’s even more irrelevant when someone with training in an entirely different field says they’re skeptical. Let’s hear the arguments rather than appeals to often illegitimate authority.

    The signers of this list are _not_ supporting ID – that’s DI’s claim, and your strawman. The signers of this list are saying they are skeptical of Darwinian evolution, which as you have kindly pointed out, is an entirely different thing.

    No, the signers of this list are saying they are skeptical of a crude and simplistic caricature of Darwinian evolution (more accurately, of modern evolutionary theory). The statement they agree to certainly is not an accurate representation of evolutionary theory. The fact that they would agree to that statement thinking that they are expressing skepticism or dissent from evolutionary theory is evidence, all by itself, that their skepticism is not well informed.

  15. #15 Ocellated
    February 27, 2006

    Ah yes, dlamming, nice to see the goal posts shifting after you’ve lost the game.

    Since we’re on the subject of “straw men,” surely there’s no better example than bringing up the “origins of life” in a dicussion about biological evolutionary theory. Whatever one thinks of OOL, it has nothing to do with what Darwin purposed, or biological evolution in general.

    If I were you, I’d just say sorry and head on my merry way, instead of further trying to move the conversation away from it’s starting point, where Ed’s already pointed out your poor reasoning.

    All of your arguments are basically distortions of what other people have said…

  16. #16 dlamming
    February 27, 2006

    Oh please, ocellated. The origin of life is definitely biological evolution (tho admittedly, we have progressed beyond darwin). Simple chemicals coming together to form nucleotides, joining together to form RNA, and finally random mutation, selecting for those RNA molecules that could replicate themselves at a faster rate and carry out simple enzymatic activities. Finally, these RNA evolved the capability of making proteins, which were then able to assist in the replication of RNA, resulting in life. That’s obviously a sketch outline – but it’s evolution at the most basic level.

    As for the scientific community issue – that I guess was a bit of a threadjack from a commenter on my blog. Still, a lot of people seemed to disagree with me on the issue, both here and there. Ed apparently doesn’t, so I’m glad he and I are on the same page for once. :)

  17. #17 dlamming
    February 27, 2006

    Ok Ed – you say that doctors and chemists can’t claim to be authorities on evolution. I think you’re drawing “authority” too narrowly (for a petition of this sort, I don’t take it to mean that someone has to teach/publish/work in the field) -but who do _you_ accept as an authority on evolution? From your first post, it seems to include anthropologists (which is baffling to me) but please, I’d love to know.

  18. #18 Ed Brayton
    February 27, 2006

    dlamming wrote:

    Ok Ed – you say that doctors and chemists can’t claim to be authorities on evolution. I think you’re drawing “authority” too narrowly (for a petition of this sort, I don’t take it to mean that someone has to teach/publish/work in the field) -but who do _you_ accept as an authority on evolution? From your first post, it seems to include anthropologists (which is baffling to me) but please, I’d love to know.

    The real answer is that I would consider those who have actually studied or worked with evolutionary theory itself to be authorities. Evolution is not merely one theory but a collection of theories that encompass different fields of study. One could certainly be an expert in one facet of evolutionary theory while knowing very little about other aspects of the field. A paleoanthropologist, for example, might well understand human evolution very well from the perspective of the fossil evidence and know virtually nothing about how DNA operates except on a very general level. It’s even possible to be a biologist of one type or another and know very little about evolutionary theory. A wildlife biologist, for example, may have an encyclopedic knowledge of particular types of animals but know next to nothing about the history of their evolutionary development. But if you want just a general list of those who would be likely to have some reasonable understanding of the subject, I would include paleoanthropologists (but not cultural anthropologists), biologists (molecular and otherwise), paleontologists, biochemists and geneticists. And just to avoid the easy and obvious straw man, that does NOT mean that no one outside those fields understands evolution, nor does it mean that anyone inside those fields should be treated as having received wisdom on the subject. It means only that they can legitimately claim to have some authority when speaking on the subject.

  19. #19 Reed A. Cartwright
    February 27, 2006

    Oh please, ocellated. The origin of life is definitely biological evolution

    Actually, dlamming, it depends on where one decides to draw the line between non-life and life. Such a line is obviously fuzzy and instead many biologists recognize the difference between non-replicators and replicators. Evolutionary biology, the study of descent with modification, can deal with the later one but not with the earlier one. Since abiogensis is often refers to the chemical origin of the first replicators, evolution is not equiped to address such issues. (The RNA world is usually considered to be post-abiogensis.)

  20. #20 Roger Tang
    February 27, 2006

    Roger Tang: You have, I’m afraid, an idealized view of science. It’s irrelevant though, because to my knowledge, no one is proposing an experiment – that (like the ulcer work) would get funded. They are simply pointing out that they believe that Darwin’s theory may have holes in it.

    Talk about NAIVE.

    EVERY theory has holes in it–that’s what makes interesting research. “Pointing out holes” is NOT science—unless you do some research to fill those holes.

    And you are sadly misinformed. Trying doing some basic research on the field. You’ll find a) intelligent design does no research and b) there is considerable research backing evolution–up, and including, speciation–laboratory environment, replicated, tested and observed.

    You’re just an schmuck with delusions of grandeur yammering on his own ignorance, with no idea on what makes up science, how to do it or how one makes a contribution to science–let alone how you could challenge the orthodoxy.

    Just because YOU can’t figure out how to test evolution doesn’t mean people with a smidgen more cleverness can’t either.

  21. #21 Raging Bee
    February 28, 2006

    dlamming wrote:

    Do you know how phd’s (or at least, the 128 biologists) are trained? In grad school, they sit around in a group with some professors, reading papers and pointing out flaws or possible problems. The same thing continues in later training, with many participating in weekly journal clubs where papers are analyzed for errors.

    Actually, you can’t get a PhD without writing a paper of your own (called a “dissertation”) and having it reviewed and approved by a group of professors. That’s how my mother got her PhD in economics. Which brings us to the question: how many PhDs have been granted to candidates who wrote dissertations explaining or defending intelligent-design hypotheses and had them approved by professors?

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