Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic, has long been locked in a pissing contest with PZ Myers over his nonsensical statements about evolution. I’ve stayed out of that for the most part, but when I saw this post I had to speak up. Here Adams displays why no one should take his views on the subject the least bit seriously. The post is titled Fossils are Bullshit. I’ll post a long excerpt below the fold that demonstrates Adams’ ignorance and intellectual dishonesty:

Yesterday I read this article in Newsweek about how DNA testing is being used to show that, well, fossils are bullshit.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17542627/site/newsweek/

The bottom line is that DNA tests (which do not set off my bullshit detector) have shown that you can’t really tell what set of bones begat other sets of bones just by looking at how they differed and how old they are. Apparently evolution is more complex than imagined, and there were lots of ape-people varieties wandering around at the same time. Some had modern features that they weren’t supposed to have. The so-called modern features apparently popped up and disappeared more than once, and in more than one species.

My bullshit filter accepts this new information. I was having a hard time with the idea that some goober in tan pants would dig up a bone fragment in Africa and know it was his own (great X 1,000) grandmother. It just didn’t feel right. And now we know, assuming the DNA evidence is solid, that the guy in the tan pants was full of shit. All that the fossils show is that there used to be ape-people who are not us.

Now, go read that article and tell me if it demonstrates that “fossils are bullshit.” This is a pure straw man, this notion that anthropologists dig up a bone fragment and claim to know direct ancestry. They may speculate about possible ancestral relationships, and they may make arguments for why this particular species is more likely to be in a direct ancestral line rather than another species, but they do not claim with certainty that species A gave rise to species B. It didn’t “feel right” because it simply doesn’t exist; Adams is inventing a straw man that makes far bolder statements than real scientists actually do.

The article he cites discusses how DNA evidence allows us to settle some of those debates and determine which of those speculations is more likely to be true. It discusses how fossil evidence only gets us so far and can only provide us information to a certain level of detail. It does not, to any sane person interested in portraying reality in an accurate manner, demonstrate that “fossils are bullshit.” Adams makes much of how evolution sets off his bullshit meter; I would suggest that if that meter doesn’t go off when he speaks about evolution, it is in serious need of repair.

Comments

  1. #1 stogoe
    March 21, 2007

    Adams’ bullshit detector has been worn into uselessness because it has been sitting next to a huge localized pocket of bullshit for decades – his brain.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    March 21, 2007

    I say that Adams Is Bullshit, and Adams *is* The Pointy-Haired Guy. What a maroon! He needs to stick to the office environment.

  3. #3 Jeff Hebert
    March 21, 2007

    In Adams’ defense, his whole schtick lies in poking the establishment, whether that establishment is the management of a company or major scientific industries. I laugh when I read his screeds on evolution and ID just like I do when I read his takes on religion or corporate policy. What I don’t do is take it seriously.

    I don’t get worked up over his ribbing the same way I do over, say, the DI’s made-up press releases because Adams isn’t attempting to make a serious argument. He’s just riffing. I think he like it when people like PZ get all worked up over what is, basically, just silly nonsense from someone who likes being a cranky contrarian.

  4. #4 Robert
    March 21, 2007

    I don’t think thats accurate Jeff. His rants on evolution are taken from a point of true ignorance and he is attempting to make a persuasive argument that anthropologists are full of bullshit, thereby undermining peoples view of anthropology and science in general; all in favor of the view that if it doesn’t seem intuitive to people it must be wrong. I think its only fair for someone who’s entire job is pointing out stupidity in general to called out when they make remarkably stupid claims.

  5. #5 Mark
    March 21, 2007

    One of the truisms of humor is that there needs to be an element of truth for it to work. For Adams, there is no element of truth because he is so ignorant he does not understand anything of what he’s writing about.

  6. #6 Whatever
    March 21, 2007

    Has anyone else ever seen the Dilbert cartoon? I think they only made like 10 episodes, but the intro sequence to every episode showed a single cell organism basically evolve into Dilbert. I thought it was strange that the “fossils are bullshit” Scott Adams would allow this. Maybe Jeff is right and he just likes to push peoples buttons, or maybe he changed his mind from then to now. I don’t know, I just thought it was interesting. I’m trying to find a clip of the intro sequence, but so far have only gotten clips from the episode. I’ll post a link if I find one.

  7. #7 John-Michael Caldaro
    March 21, 2007

    The last post by Robert is very accurate as far as I am concerned. …”if it doesn’t seem intuitive to people it must be wrong…” If you apply this logic to the simplest of science concepts in physics, projectile motion, then you would not believe that the horizontal and vertical components of a baseball’s flight could not be independent. This is NOT intuitive and with my high school students I go to great lengths to show their independence. Still I have students who will not believe it. Science takes a detailed analysis of small facts to build a model of how the world works. It is so much easier to give the knowledge to some supreme being and just acceept those words!

  8. #8 Matt
    March 21, 2007

    PZ, what you have to understand it that Scott Adams is trolling you. He is consciously crafting blog posts that will get the most attention. Right now, by you and the science community. He is not serious in his anti-science rants. He is trying to get a rise out of you to get you to blog about what an idiot he is so that he gets more hits to his blog. He even tells you what he is doing in his post, ‘And if this isn’t enough to spike my blog hit count…’ Indeed, a couple of posts after that he predicts that world will be taken over by robots.

    Get a clue PZ! Scott is playing you! The best thing you can do to a troll is to ignore them.

    -Matt

  9. #9 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    March 21, 2007

    I only refer to him as ScotAdams now.

  10. #10 SLC
    March 21, 2007

    Re John-Michael Caldaro

    If Mr. Caldaro really wants to get a rise out of his students, I suggest the following.

    Imaging you are a passenger in a car traveling 70 miles/hour on the freeway and are holding a common aluminum yardstick. Orient the yardstick parallel to the direction of motion and then rotate it 90 degrees so that it is transverse to the direction of motion. Then inform them that the yardstick is shorter when it is in the first position then when it is in the second position (result of Einsteins’ Special Theory of Relativity).

  11. #11 pough
    March 21, 2007

    The last post by Robert is very accurate as far as I am concerned. …”if it doesn’t seem intuitive to people it must be wrong…” If you apply this logic to the simplest of science concepts…

    I would imagine that it applies to the bulk of science. I’ve heard anti-evolutionists go on about Common Sense, as though it’s the One True Science that trumps all Evilutionist nonsense. It might be worthwhile to make a list of all the things that fly in the face of common sense; the things that scientists have shown to be accurate in spite of how counterintuitive they are.

  12. #12 Will
    March 21, 2007

    Get ready for an influx of Adams apologists, all saying he is just joking and you’re not intellectual enough to see it.

    *See’s Jeff’s post above*

    Oh, too late.

  13. #13 Ric
    March 21, 2007

    I hate reading things that actors, musicians, or cartoonists write, because it colors my views of their works. Tom Cruise? Can never watch another movie of his, because the guy’s a wack-job. Scott Adams? I can never read another Dilbert cartoon without thinking, “this was created by a dumb-ass.”

  14. #14 plunge
    March 21, 2007

    “I only refer to him as ScotAdams now.”

    I like it better as DaveScotAdams

  15. #15 Jeff Hebert
    March 21, 2007

    Will said:

    Get ready for an influx of Adams apologists, all saying he is just joking and you’re not intellectual enough to see it.

    *See’s Jeff’s post above*

    Oh, too late.

    I don’t believe I said anyone was “not intellectual enough to see it”. What I actually said was that it’s so silly it’s not worth getting worked up about. He’s just riffing, I don’t give it the same weight I give a DI press release because it’s not meant to be a serious criticism of evolution. He obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about on the subject, but (unlike the DI) he’s not claiming to be an expert. He’s just sort of poking fun and writing about one (of his many) crackpot ideas. I don’t get all worked up about it when he goes on about being able to visualize yourself into power, either. It’s just kind of silly, and frankly not worth the time of serious people to sit around debating and pontificating on.

    That’s pretty much the opposite of “you’re not intellectual enough to see it”.

  16. #16 Sergei Shilov
    March 21, 2007

    Scott Adams is a humorist, but Scott Adams happens to write blog entries for self-promotion that touch upon subjects that signal Red Alert because there’s a War On against the Crazy Religious People, so we must intentionally ignore that Scott Adams’ blog is full of copious volumes of intentionally provoking nonsense lest the Crazy Religious People cling to his scientific credentials of a BS in Economics and an MBA to prove that Zeus forged humans from clay. Surely this is because he is an idiot, and is as clear a sign as any that any and all that don’t eat lead paint chips are his intellectual superiors. He must be on par Tom Cruise, who I also imagine to be a member of Mensa, and an Enemy of the Science.

    In any event now I have reason to look at Scott Adams’ blog, so I can see the screeds accumulate from the defenders of Intellectual Rigor.

  17. #17 John-Michael Caldaro
    March 21, 2007

    Re:SLC
    I do not want to get a “rise” out of my students I want to show them how science analysis works to determine the workings of nature. I have no time in my curriculum and they do not have the math skills and the more advanced physics skills to analyze relativity. It would be “magic” to them and that is not the purpose of my class.

  18. #18 doctorgoo
    March 21, 2007

    Many years ago I was into Adams’ Dilbert character for some strange reason. Well, let’s face it… when he’s talking about the absurdities of corporate life, he’s pretty damn funny!

    But the second book of his that I bought, called The Dilbert Future really put me off of him forever. In it, there’s a chapter (and also an appendix) that basically implies (or states outright) that most (or all) of our scientific knowledge is crap.

    In this book, he not only makes the prediction that the theory of evolution will be scientifically debunked in our time, but he also expands greatly on his ‘theory’ that gravity isn’t pulling objects closer, but that every object is expanding at the same rate… and therefore objects that have equidistant centers from each other only appear to be attracted towards each other (i.e. as they increase in size, the distance between the edges of the stationary objects appear to get closer, thus mimicking gravity).

    Anyway, read the Appendix of The Dilbert Future for a full explanation of what he’s talking about. Also, this website talks about his crackpot views on science… including his alternate theory of gravity: http://www.insolitology.com/rloddities/dilbert.htm

    When discussing science with people, I often refer to this appendix plenty of times to show people how the scientific method works, and how idiots like Adams can misuse it. Now the way I see it, it is true that Adams’ alternative theory of gravity starts off as being scientific, in that he makes an observation (that objects appear to be attracted to each other) and proposes an alternative reason that appears to explain the observation just as well as any. And based only on this single line of evidence, this is perfectly within the realm of the scientific method. But then, he never applies his alternative theory to other lines of evidence that supports the standard theories of gravity (which also, not by coincidence, fully debunk his alternative theory).

    Since he never takes this next step in applying the scientific method, his alternative theory of gravity doesn’t stand up to scrutiny at all. Or at least not to people with basic knowledge of the scientific method. Others might get confused by his engaging writing style and think he’s actually on to something.

    —–

    But anyway… in both cases (of evolution eventually being debunked and of the theory of gravity being wrong), he basically doesn’t understand how the science works, and then leaps to the conclusion that if he doesn’t understand it fully, then it probably isn’t correct. And mind you, he never bothers to really educate himself on these subjects either. To me, he seems to be overly impressed with his own feeling of being mystified over how complicated things are, so therefore he (and anybody else, either) can never really understand anything at all.

    The good news is that he really isn’t pushing creationism or any religious agenda when he tries to trash evolution or anything else. He’s just taking an uneducated pot-shot at the scientific establishment when he argues against evolution or the theory of gravity.

    But what really irks me is that he should be smart enough to realize that he isn’t an expert on these things, so he shouldn’t be pretending to be one. I’m sure that many non-scientists who read his book for the cartoons actually believed his crackpot scientific views might be credible… and that really pisses me off about him. Why is he trying to influence people to mistrust all things scientific? Just to make some noise and sell more books?? What a asshole!

  19. #19 Jim Anderson
    March 21, 2007

    Adams also wrote a book about how the universe is the exploded body of God–”God’s debris”–as a self-styled “thought experiment.” He’s a thinker, that one.

  20. #20 Jeff Hebert
    March 21, 2007

    DoctorGood said:

    Why is he trying to influence people to mistrust all things scientific?

    I suspect it is for the same reason he trashes corporate management, even though he is not an expert in corporate management and most of his premises about the subject are objectively wrong — he thinks it’s funny.

    Seriously, he’s a cartoonist. You don’t read articles in “The Economist” or “The Wall Street Journal” decrying his management theories, because they understand that he’s just a silly person writing silly things who doesn’t really know anything about running a company. Just like he doesn’t really know anything about science.

  21. #21 Jeff Hebert
    March 21, 2007

    Jim Anderson said:

    Adams also wrote a book about how the universe is the exploded body of God–”God’s debris”–as a self-styled “thought experiment.” He’s a thinker, that one.

    And yet he’s an avowed atheist. How strange! It’s almost like he can write something provocative or funny without actually believing what he’s writing! When will the horror end?! The next thing you know someone’s going to tell me that Dogbert can’t really talk.

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    March 21, 2007

    I frankly don’t buy the “he’s just being funny” argument. It may be true, I suppose, but I don’t see why one can’t be funny without making false claims about reality. And whatever his intent, how many people reading his post are likely to accept what he said and dismiss the findings of paleontology without ever bothering to actually read the article he linked to? It’s certainly worth the time to debunk his absurd caricature of the article, especially when it is stated in a blog posting with no hint of him just joking around. He certainly presents the claim as a serious one, and I think it’s worth taking it seriously as a result.

  23. #23 Robert
    March 21, 2007

    I agree with Ed, ScotAdams is writing from a position of Authority (we know the problems with that, especially when the authority one is claiming has nothing to do with the topic at hand). Even if he is just joking (which I find hard to believe) he still is perpetuating bullshit. He needs to be called on it and debunked because it is wrong, and there are people who will believe him (and I think he believes himself).

    As someone who writes a comic on basically exposing stupid bullshit, it is hypocracy of the highest order that he is pushing another flavor of bullshit, and its in extremely poor taste given the topics he chooses to cover in his comic if this is all one big joke.

    Its like a comic making fun of racists, and then talking about how their race is actually superior to the others. Even if its not serious, its still really stupid and highly confusing, and ScotAdams deserves to be mocked for it.

  24. #24 Jeff Hebert
    March 21, 2007

    Ed said:

    It may be true, I suppose, but I don’t see why one can’t be funny without making false claims about reality.

    I just put it in the same league as I put his “business advice”, which is what his whole fortune is built on. He doesn’t really know anything about business either, but he still pontificates on it. He’s even written about it in books. But his business theories are just as loony and make just as many false claims about reality as his scientific theories.

    I think getting people like you and PZ to write actual, serious articles about the buffonery gives it all some sort of weird legitimacy that it frankly doesn’t deserve. I suspect it’s going to have the opposite effect from what you intend, and that the fence sitters who read his blog are going to say “Aha! Look how defensive and reactionary those scientists are, those fools, Scott must be right! Personally, I think it’s better just to laugh at it as silliness unworthy of serious consideration, much like his theories on corporate governance.

    But that’s just my way of looking at it, I’ve certainly been wrong before and could be here — maybe it’s vital to defend the facts in this case. And I don’t for a moment want to come off like I’m trying to tell you what you should and shouldn’t write about, it’s your blog and I love reading whatever you choose to write about.

  25. #25 Robert
    March 21, 2007

    For every person who is convinced that ScotAdams is right because of these kind of posts there is probably one person who would have been convinced by ScotAdams arguments but wasn’t because of the debunking here. And someone is actually addressing the real issue and not letting ignorance sit and fester without trying to correct it.

  26. #26 Jeff Hebert
    March 21, 2007

    Yes Robert, I understand the righteous indignation thing, I really do. I’m on your side in all this — I like science, I like rationality, and I think Adams is a nutbag on this issue. I just think the Eds and PZs of the world can’t really win this particular engagement. When you try to debate with a fool, you either come out at best looking like a humorless windbag, or at worst like someone with something to hide. It’s a very delicate kind of thing, much different from deflating the pompous buffoonery of a deliberately deceitful Discovery Institute.

    That’s all I’m saying — be careful, this particular fight is a tricky one that’s not won or lost on merits, but on style points.

    I’m all for defending good science and pointing out idiotic (and as Ed says, in this case factually untrue) characterizations. I personally fear it’s counterproductive in this case, but far be it from me to cast aspersions on those who feel strongly enough about it to put themselves out there. Knock yourselves out.

  27. #27 doctorgoo
    March 22, 2007

    Jeff said:

    I just put it in the same league as I put his “business advice”, which is what his whole fortune is built on. He doesn’t really know anything about business either, but he still pontificates on it. He’s even written about it in books. But his business theories are just as loony and make just as many false claims about reality as his scientific theories.

    I disagree with this entirely. After working for a big company for a long time, he does know plenty about the absurdities of corporate life. That’s why he’s so funny when he points them out in his cartoon strips. If he was just pulling these ideas out of his butt, no one would care.

    You also talk about his “business theories”. I’m no longer a fan of Dilbert, so I can’t say for sure, but are you sure that he has actual theories on business?? Or does he just mock those that are already out there?

    There’s a huge difference between mocking the norm in business life and making stuff up and trying to pass yourself off as an expert on science. He isn’t mocking evolution, he’s saying it’s wrong, without apology, and without joking.

    And this is why his views need to be countered with facts… because while you and I might realize he’s a fool when he’s talking about science, he does present himself as a credible expert, not as a jokester. And for those who know little of evolution might actually think his ideas are worth listening to.

  28. #28 Ted
    March 22, 2007

    Here’s a suggestion: If you believe that Adams is obfuscating issues to the point of detriment or some agenda how about modifying or adding the entry on sourcewatch.

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Confusopoly

  29. #29 Nebogipfel
    March 23, 2007

    I’ve read Scott Adams comment a number of times that the only “expert” he will trust to give him unbiassed information on a subject that Adams is unfamiliar with, is one who has no financial or professional stake in that subject. i.e. he does not trust Richard Dawkins to give “unbiassed” information on evolutionary biology because Dawkins has, uh, spent his career studying evolutionary biology and, er, supposedly doesn’t want to look stupid if it turns out that evolution is “wrong”.

    The logical conclusion is that only people Adams trusts to give him unbiassed information on a subject are those who know nothing about it. This explains much that I read on the Dilbert blog, apart from how he ever manages to leave his house. Although I do also observe that Adams apparently trusts professional surgeons enough to let them operate on him.

    It is sad to see him engaging in exactly the kind of pointy-haired behaviour he mocks so mercilessly in Dilbert

  30. #30 Mez
    March 24, 2007

    A quick suggestion for a counter-intuitive and anti-common sense scientific ‘fact’.

    The Earth goes around the Sun.

    There’s probably a substantial minority (if not majority) of living humans who don’t agree with that. It’s perfectly obvious that the Earth is a solid, stable object and the Sun, Moon and stars swing around it.

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