Wilkins Demurs

Received your latest letter today, and while it was just shy of coherence, I think I can see where your bewilderment lies. From your enclosed diagram, it has become apparent to me that for the past six weeks we have been playing two completely different chess games–myself according to our correspondence, you more in keeping with the world as you would have it, rather than with any rational system of order.

That’s from Woody Allen’s short story “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers”. It pretty well sums up my reaction to John Wilkins’ lengthy reply to my two previous posts on Ian Hacking’s essay in The Nation.

Wilkins liked Hacking’s essay. I didn’t. He says my criticisms are founded on ignorance and that I don’t know the material. He arrives at this conclusion only by ignoring most of what I actually said, and concocting fantasy arguments I never made in their place. After all, most of my criticisms were unambiguously levelled at Hacking’s writing, not at the merits of his points. Reasonable people can disagree on what constitutes good writing, but when someone says, “This essay makes some good points, but it is poorly written,” it is unusual to reply with “You’re ignorant!” Moreover, Wilkins does not comment at all on the places where I really did challenge Hacking on the merits of his points.

So let’s have a look at some details.

We begin with lighter fare. Wilkins opens by referring to my post as snarky. A few sentences later he produces this:

Jason thinks that Hacking was pretentious, that he was not careful in his use of language, and that he was wordy. The essay was 4600 words long. Jason’s response is 1520 words of part one of a two parter. Hmm…

Snarky indeed. I accused Hacking of being wordy not because he used a lot of words, but because he used far more words than were necessary to make his point. That seems to be an occupational hazard among philosophers.

Now on to more important things. After a few paragraphs discussing some perceived differences in atittude between philosophers and scientists, Wilkins comes up with this:

Hacking knows this, better than most, if not better than anyone else. He was written a lot about the history of science, and his colleague Gordon McOuat has done an enormous amount of historical research on the metaphor of the tree of life, which is a recurring theme in Hacking’s article.

So why shouldn’t Hacking make the points he made? History is something that happened, however much we might want a TV serialisation instead. And what is more, it greatly illuminates the concerns that people have today, on either side (or on any side, for there are rarely just two sides to a story in history). The progress of science is something that has multiple programs, multiple concerns and multiple sides. (Emphasis Added)

This is where I got a sinking feeling that Wilkins was living in the world as he would have it, rather than with any rational system of order. There were a handful of places where I argued that specific points made by Hacking were not good. As I mentioned, Wilkins fails to address a single one of them. But through most of my essay I said over and over again that my objection was to the writing, not the points. Permit me the following montage of excerpts regarding what I said about the points Hacking made:

Hacking’s point here is a good and important one … Hacking’s points are good … So far my main criticisms have been with the style, not the substance, of Hacking’s essay. His points are good … Once again, there is a decent point … this clear and worthy statement … Once again, a basically sound point … Most (though certainly not all) of Hacking’s points are sensible and accurate.

You see, I included those phrases in the hopes of making it clear that for the most part I had no objection to the substance of what Hacking was saying. I objected primarily to the way the essay was written. So my answer to Wilkins’ bold-face question is that it was fine for him to make the points he did (with the handful of exceptions previously alluded to). I never said otherwise.

Next comes this:

Hacking notes that anti-Darwinism is a degenerating research programme. The notion of a research programme (the British spelling is usually used because Imre Lakatos, who coined it, worked in the UK at the time) is pretty crucial to understanding why sciences are able to progress. Lakatos held that a programme that is not generating novel insights, techniques, theories and research goals is moribund, while fruitful programmes do all these things. Since Lakatos developed his views in opposition to Popper’s (and Feyerabend’s) view of science, which is something that ID proponents appeal to a lot, it is not pretentious to mention him – it is crucial. Jason’s criticism is founded on ignorance.

Looks like the gloves are off. But Wilkins is simply wrong here. Hacking said nothing about the role of Popper’s and Feyerabend’s view of science in ID argumentation. In fact, Hacking could not have been clearer about his intentions in invoking Lakatos:

Anti-Darwinism is, he says, dead science, recapitulating old stuff long abandoned. I prefer to call it degenerating.

I take the word from Imre Lakatos, a philosopher of science who liked to flaunt the aphorisms “Every theory is born refuted” and “Every theory wallows in a sea of anomalies.” Both exaggerations have been true of evolutionary theories from the word go, but evolution has gone from strength to strength. Lakatos was a great rationalist, but following his hero Karl Popper, he did not think that theories are good when they are established as true. His unit of evaluation was the research program rather than the theory. A rational program is, he said, “progressive” in that it constantly reacts to counterexamples and difficulties by producing new theories that overcome old hurdles. When challenged it does not withdraw into some safe corner but explains new difficulties with an even riskier, richer and bolder story about nature. Degenerate programs paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners, skirting problems they’d prefer not to face. They seldom or never have a new, positive explanation of anything. In short, they teach us nothing.

Lakatos is invoked solely to explain the origin of the term “degenerate” in relation to scientific research programs, not as part of any broader philosophical argument. Hacking is setting up an argument, developed at length through the remainder of his essay, that evolution is a fruitful research program while ID is not. That’s certainly correct, of course, but it is not a philosophical argument and it is not an argument that is enriched by knowing that Lakatos was the one who formulated the idea that a fruitful research program was the hallmark of science. That scientists value research programs that consistently lead to new insights and do not value programs that fail to do so is not something you consult a philosopher to understand.

Let me make it even simpler. Suppose this whole paragraph were simply deleted from the essay (with suitable modifications made to nearby paragraphs of course). I fail to see how Hacking’s argument would have been hurt.

So why did Hacking include this paragraph? I believe it is because he succumbed to a tendency all too common among academics. He was indulging himself. He couldn’t resist dropping in a bit of irrelevant historical trivia simply because it amused him to do so, not because it furthered his argument. That is why I said his essay was wordy and unfocused.

From here Wilkins provides several paragraphs of further commentary on Hacking’s essay. None of this relates to anything I said, so I will not discuss them here. I would point out, however, that I wish The Nation would have asked Wilkins, instead of Hacking, to write this essay. Though I am presently annoyed with Wilkins for saying my criticism was based on ignorance, I do think his writing is a considerable improvement over what Hacking provided.

Alas, when Wilkins finally does get back to what I said, it is only to once again distort my clear intention.

It is something of a sin to mention this. The point has been made repeatedly in the history of biology since Darwin, but often those who mention it are regarded as, as Hacking puts it, giving aid a succour to the foe. But here I part company with Jason, and with Kitcher, whose book Hacking is discussing (and which I am in the process of reviewing myself; see the reading list to the left), and side unashamedly with Hacking – why should we “frame” the debate by ignoring very real difficulties and facts about research? How does that strengthen our case.

The sin mentioned in the first sentence above is acknowledging the fact that there is a lot of fuzziness involved in the phylogenies worked out by professional biologists. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to say with much confidence that we have finally established the one true tree of life.

I can’t speak for Kitcher, but I never said, or even suggested, that scientists should refrain from discussing the practical difficulties of their subject for fear of providing succor to the ID folks. Wilkins didn’t get that idea from anything I actually wrote. Given my recent dust-ups with Matt Nisbet, it’s especially rich for Wilkins to suggest that I am endorsing framing over blunt assertions as to the way things actually are.

For the umpteenth time, I did not say that Hacking is providing succor to the enemy by discussing current open problems and practical difficulties with evolution. Instead, I pointed to specific things he actually said and argued that because of Hacking’s poor choice of words, readers of his essay could easily get the wrong impression of what he is arguing. For example, Hacking writes this:

Anti-Darwinists love to repeat news of difficulties. They say, “We told you so; it is just a bunch of guesswork.” Hence defenders of the faith, like Kitcher, do not like to dwell on present problems, for fear of giving succor to the foe.

I wonder if they should not instead celebrate the difficulties, making plain that evolutionary theory is a living, growing, vital organism, while anti-Darwinism is lifeless, if not, in Kitcher’s word, dead.

and this:

If you like, Behe has raised the number of open questions about evolution from a million to a million and one.

and this:

There is no give and take of explanation and counterexample, no new methodology, no new anything–just the same old question dressed up in slightly new clothes.

and this:

Once again, we get a recycled objection in slightly new packaging, and no new ideas. It reminds us of the degeneracy of anti-Darwins. Can’t they do better than that? Apparently not.

How could any reader not already steeped in this subject fail to conclude from these statements that the Anti-Darwinians have pointed to legitimate difficulties for evolutionary theory, and that the problem with Behe is merely that his arguments are old and do not suggest any novel methods? The reality, of course, is that Behe’s arguments are flatly wrong, as are all of the scientific assertions made by the Anti-Darwinians. But that is not the impression you get from reading Hacking.

Hacking reminds me of all those scientists who make “It’s not science!” their first retort when asked about ID. Indeed it isn’t, but that is far different from saying that ID is wrong, which is the more important point. It is Hacking’s vagueness on the fallacies of ID and his poor way of expressing his points that I credit with comforting the enemy. Not for the public airing of pracitical difficulties in scientific practice, which for the record I am completely in favor of.

Wilkins now goes on for several more paragraphs, all of it interesting but all of it irrelevant to anything I said. I am only mentioned twice more, both times for silly reasons. Here’s the first:

Jason (and no doubt some other usual suspects) will attack Hacking for not dismissing religious opinion out of hand.

This after Wilkins had devoted some space to describing Hacking’s views on the persistence of religion and his disagreements with Kitcher on this score.

A rather bizarre statement, don’t you think? I haven’t shown any reticence in criticizing Hacking’s essay. If I had wanted to attack Hacking for not dismissing religious opinion out of hand I would have done so. The reason I did not make this attack is very simple: I don’t think religious opinion should be dismissed.

I do post after post at this blog taking seriously the arguments made by religious folks and explaining, as best I can, why I think they are wrong. I would not do that if I thought religious opinon should be dismissed out of hand. In light of this, I will simply ask Wilkins not to put words in my mouth.

FInally, Wilkins says this:

Hacking has chosen his words pretty carefully (apart from the egregious reference to Genesis, as if that were either here or there), and nothing in his article strikes me, who reads the same source material as Hacking, and who has studied the actual philosophy of science, some of which Hacking wrote the best parts of, as pretentious. If anything, I think it is pretentious of Jason, who obviously doesn’t know the material, to try to critique Hacking.

Of course, this is just more of Wilkins living in the world as he would have it, as opposed to how it actually is. I did not fault Hacking’s understanding of the philosophy of science, and I did not critique Hacking on the merits of his philosophical assertions. Even taking Wilkins essay at face value, he provides precisely one instance where he claims that I showed ignorance of the philsophy of science. That would hardly justify a claim that I “obviously don’t know the material” And, at any rate, Wilkins’ criticism is totally wrong, as I have shown. The importance of fruitful research programs is something you learn from hanging around scientists for five minutes. It’s not something you learn from reading Lakatos, and Hacking’s digression on Lakatos added nothing to his argument.

Meanwhile, Wilkins says that Hacking chose his words carefully, but he ignores all of the specific instances of poor phrasing that I discussed. I would ask simply that if he chooses to reply to this essay, he should at least attempt to reply to what I actually said. He failed to do that the first time around.

Comments

  1. #1 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    September 22, 2007

    I didn’t think of that perspective before, but you make it obvious that Wilkins answer to your observations, circling around the fact among others that Hacking was indulging himself, is to indulge himself.

    Indulging lots, those historians and philosophers of science.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    September 22, 2007

    Actually, I think Wilkins’ essay was a response only to your “Part One”, which to my mind “jumped the gun”, particularly since the second half of your commentary brought up the points where Hacking is actually, factually wrong.

    To an extent, this exchange reminds me of the time when D. S. Wilson criticized Dawkins for, essentially, writing the book that Dawkins did (The God Delusion) instead of the book which Wilson would have written. I can only include one link per comment here, so I’ll link to Dawkins’ response, in the hope that readers will follow the links therein to earlier portions of the discussion. To my mind, Wilson was rather off the mark: Dawkins chose to base his critique, naturally enough, upon the soundest possible science. The sciences which together indicate why there’s no reason to believe in a traditional Magic Man-type deity are astonishingly well-established; however, our explanations for the origin of religion are still rather up-in-the-air. We have several plausible hypotheses, many of which are not mutually exclusive, as they might account for different aspects of what is, indeed, a complicated phenomenon.

    And, of course, most people would see no reason to entertain an evolutionary hypothesis for the rise of religion if they still accept the standard story, which I shall curtly describe as, “Magic Man is real.”

    It’s a slightly different kind of “keeping with the world as you would have it”, I suppose, but I doubt that kind of behavior is too hard to find.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    September 22, 2007

    Perhaps the primary disagreement here is emphasis on the concrete versus the abstract. I agree with Jason, you don’t need a long cascade of abstruse philosophical jargon to analyze the problems with ID. The problems with are and have always been primarily empirical in nature, i.e., they don’t align with reality.

    One could look to Dembski’s treatment of NFL and his abuse of optimization, probability, etc. If Dembski could, in fact, demonstrate that observed evolutionary outcomes were prohibitively improbable and that a highly specialized search algorithm needed to be invoked to explain it, he would have something. But the problem here is that the claim is laughably false, and recognizably so to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the relevant subject matter. I’ve always found the attempt to find deeper conceptual problems beyond that to be unsatisfying. The falsity of the claims has nothing to do with “paradigms”, “research programs”, tree metaphors or any broader social/political dynamic than mere failure to be veritable.

    Philosophers seem to have a habit of assuming the role of the analytical angel on the shoulder of science, abstracting the scientific enterprise in an attempt to model it. At its best, this approach can lead to insights that are important and useful. At its worst it amounts to very non-useful, self-important bunk.

  4. #4 Scott Hatfield, OM
    September 22, 2007

    I enjoyed reading both of these. Now I have a question for you! How can somebody be a best-selling author of college math texts, and yet (ahem) also think that the evidence from mathematics points to God’s existence?

    Still puzzled? Me also. But, if intrigued, you might want to check out this post on my blog. I should would love to hear your thoughts on this there or on your own blog….Scott

  5. #5 Dale Husband
    September 23, 2007

    OK, you two (Jason Rosenhouse and John Wilkins), this is starting to look like a tennis match, with the ball being hit back and forth, back and forth. So could you please put your tennis rackets away and MOVE ON?!

  6. #6 Kevin
    September 24, 2007

    err Dale?

    are you looking for peace and harmony? who do you thin should give in and agree to leave his disputer’s words unanswered?

    Oh yeah I agree … Wilkens you’ve been ripped so give it up! Is that what you had in mind Dale?

    Your comment is like politicians complaining about “partisanship”. What they really mean is roll over and give me everything I want. I wish more politicians would write like Jason, and show up the lies and framing that are used to push the propaganda.

    Oh Oh that Moveon ad was so mean! wah wah wah! And so the right wing has bashed it for two weeks. Should Moveon just shut up?

    or smack the ball back over the net?

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