One thing I noticed during the years I spent attending YEC conferences was the extent to which pseudointellectualism was an integral part of their culture. The leaders of the movement frequently behaved in ways reminiscent of how non-scientists imagine that scientists behave.

This is definitely a point of commonality between YEC and ID. A recent case in point is this post from Cornelius Hunter, a frequent contributor to Uncommon Descent. If you are unfamiliar with Hunter’s writing, his big theme, repeated in almost every one of his posts, is that evolution is purely a religious belief, not at all justified by the available scientific evidence.

The post is titled, “If You Understand Nothing Else About Evolution, Understand IFF.” The conceit that Hunter is the clear-thinking sage with a deep understanding of evolution, graciously coming down from on high to explain things to the rabble, is rather pompous, to put it kindly.

By “IFF” Hunter is referring to the logical connective “if and only if.” To make a statement of the form “P if and only if Q” is to say that the two statements are logically equivalent. That is, if one of them is known to be true then the other must be true as well, and if one of them is known to be false then the other must be false.

Hunter explains the significance of this for evolution:

Evolution does not necessarily exclude Adam and Eve and the Fall, and evolution is not a scientific conclusion, obvious or otherwise. For Christians to reckon with evolution they must understand evolution. And to understand evolution, they must understand IFF. Understanding IFF does not force one’s position on evolution, but it does force one’s understanding of evolution…

And while this is a perfectly good use of IFF, IFF has no place in scientific hypotheses. A scientist would never say “if and only if my hypothesis is true, then we will observe a certain observation.”

Scientists use hypotheses to make predictions, but they cannot know that a particular hypothesis is the only explanation for a observation. So scientists say “If hypothesis H, then observation O,” but they never say “if and only if H, then O.”

IFF is a religious truth claim, and not scientific statement, because it entails knowledge of all possible explanations. And science affords no such knowledge.

But while IFF is not scientific, it lies at the very heart of evolutionary thought. For example, the practically official motto of evolution is that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” This phrase shows up repeatedly in evolutionary papers and every evolutionist believes it. Yet it is an IFF statement (you can see why here).

The link is to another of Hunter’s posts. Follow it at your peril.

Now, the expression that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution comes from Theodosius Dobzhansky. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Dobzhansky did not need to be schooled in elementary logic.

Dobzhansky’s statement is obviously not an iff statement. If he had meant, “As a matter of logic, evolution and only evolution can explain the data biologists have collected,” then he would have said that. Instead he referred to what makes sense, which is far different from discussing what is logically necessary. It is trivial to come up with logically possible scenarios that would account for the biological data without reference to evolution. It is far more difficult to come up with something plausible that does so, and that is plainly what Dobzhansky had in mind.

But Hunter has a second example:

Here is a typical example, from this week, of how evolutionary thinking entails IFF and how, for evolutionists, it proves evolution to be true. See if you can find the IFF statement in this quote (hint: I’m giving you some help):

Why am I as sure as I could be of any thing in science that humans and other primates have common ancestors? There are millions of complex mutations (transposable element insertions and other insertions or deletions as well as multiple point mutations in proximity) that are exactly reproduced at the corresponding (orthologous) locations in the human genome and in chimp and in many cases gorilla, orangutan and even gibbon and other monkey genomes. In the case of individual transposon insertions, the peculiarities of the particular event, e.g. the degree of truncation or the specific rearrangement of the element, the exact length of the short direct repeats that flank the insertion, are reproduced in the genomes of different species. The age of the insertion, as estimated by the sequence divergence of the transposable element sequence, matches the age determined by which species contain the insertion (the phylogenetic age) of the insertion. The same kind of observations on the inactivating mutations in unitary pseudogenes that are shared by multiple species confirm that these are records in multiple species of the same mutation events occurring millions of years ago during the branching descent of these species. If you look at really ancient transposon insertions, they tell the same story about mammals in general. There is no way to account for these millions of genomic observations in multiple species except common descent. That is what biologists are talking about when they say evolution is a fact. It is possible to argue from now on about mechanisms of evolution, but the starting point is common descent. These observations about genomes don’t depend at all on any theory of the mechanism of evolution, whether all the mutations are really “random,” or whether the elements involved have since acquired some function. The process of insertion of these elements has been very thoroughly studied for several decades and the results are clear.

There you have it. This is the essence of evolutionary thought, and it is not scientific. Here the evolutionist explains that there is “no way” to account for observations O, except for on his hypothesis, H. This is equivalent to claiming that if and only if H, then O.

Science simply cannot provide this sort of knowledge. And likewise, science cannot be used to refute such a claim. Evolutionary truth claims are not vulnerable to science, for they are not scientific to begin with.

The inner quotation comes from a comment left at a blog post at BioLogos. The commenter makes a strong argument, don’t you think? Notice that Hunter makes no attempt to provide an explanation other than common descent for the facts the commenter points to. I’d say the commenter is behaving very scientifically indeed.

But he is not talking about logical certainties. Hunter has to twist what the commenter said to make it appear that he was doing so. But when you consider that the commenter started by saying merely that he was as certain as he could be of anything in science, and did not say he was logically certain of evolution, it seems clear that Hunter is being silly.

In his essay collection Ever Since Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, replying to the old creationist chestnut that natural selection is just a meaningless tautology, wrote, “We are always ready to watch a theory fall under the impact of new data, but we do not expect a great and influential theory to collapse from a logical error in its formulation.” Indeed. Creationists love the idea that several generations of scientists have simply overlooked elementary logical fallacies in their arguments, but to everyone else it says more about the person making the argument.

Comments

  1. #1 Neil Rickert
    January 21, 2013

    IFF is a religious truth claim, and not scientific statement, because it entails knowledge of all possible explanations. And science affords no such knowledge.

    I laughed when I saw that on Hunter’s blog.

    IFF is used a lot in mathematics. It probably originated as a mathematicians abbreviation.

    Presumably Hunter is claiming that mathematics is a religion, and that scientists do not use mathematics.

  2. #2 Charles Sullivan
    January 22, 2013

    Empirical knowledge may be more provisional than analytic knowledge, But so what?

    As Dara O’briain says: “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

  3. #3 MNb
    January 22, 2013

    “Hunter has to twist”"Hunter is being silly”
    He is being dishonest. Show me one creationist who isn’t.

  4. #4 eric
    January 22, 2013

    Just to put this in perspective, Cornelius Hunter was the guy who claimed thylacines and wolves were closely related because, well, look at these 1800s drawings comparing them! (And, incidentally, the wolf drawing he used wasn’t even of a wolf. Its a fail cake with fail icing on it.)

    So I’d say for him, the IFF argument is actually quite sophisticated. He’s moved from about 9th grade argument styles to maybe Freshman year argument styles.

  5. #5 Kevin Dowd
    January 22, 2013

    I made this answer to some local pseudointellectualism over at HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/we-could-use-gods-help-where-is-he_b_2520377.html

    “”In reality they don’t believe that spirituality can evolve.”

    no.. that is a fantasy cooked up to create a strawman. Evolutionary Biologists can find various reasons why supernatural explanations helped build group solidarity and identity that helped the tribal group to survive. and they can trace these patterns, and have a fairly good understanding of how altruism and belief in imaginary beings evolve to help the group.

    Why evolution is so damaging to savlation beliefs is that if there is no original sin, then there was nothing to be forgiven.. and so no need for a heroic salvation suicide. and either the diety used billions of years of blood and one animal eating another to create man, which seems kind of insane, or we have been created by an entirely nature process.

    We are a product of a completely material and physical reality that does not require a supernatural explanation. and so why would we need to posit a special being that we cannot see, hear or touch and which has no material effect in the world? It is a vestige of our early ignorance and nothing more.”

  6. #6 Greg Esres
    January 22, 2013

    Some philosophers refer to “abduction” or “appeal to the best explanation”, although I’m not sure if there is any objective way to define “best”.

  7. #7 eric
    January 22, 2013

    although I’m not sure if there is any objective way to define “best”.

    Well, you can take the very pragmatic and operationalist approach and say: there doesn’t have to be one. Humans typically have a reason for making such determinations; we have a decision to make or a goal to achieve, and that is the reason for comparing two or more things. So we design our measurement criteria based on our goal. If I want to measure best at high jumping, I use a ruler. If my goal is market share, I measure sales of my product as percent of the total.

    If my goal is best at consistency with a literal interpretation of the bible, evolution does not do so well as a theory. Creationism is better on that criterion. But if my goal is designing a flu vaccine, or figuring out where to dig to find a tiktaalik (or even figuring out if “finding a tiktaalik” can be reasonably expected to happen with an investment of X dollars), evolution is the best idea in town.

    In fact evolution is best at a lot of the things humans are very interested in doing; a lot of the goals we want to achieve. Scientific explanations in general are. This is obviously not a coincidence; so long as human societies have material, empirical, physical goals, explanations that are best based on physical and empirical measures of best are the ones that are generally going to be preferred. We value mainstream geology because we value oil and other buried materials. We value buildings with solid foundations. We value being able to shove a tube in the ground and accurately predict the types of minerals we will find. Stuff like that. If we valued religious consistency more than those things, we might value some other idea about the earth’s formation and history more than mainstream geology.

  8. #8 miller
    January 22, 2013

    I find it bizarre how Cornelius puts IFF in all caps, and reifies it into something more than a logical operator. Saying “IFF has no place in scientific hypotheses” doesn’t even make sense. It seems that by “IFF” he means something like “Arguments based on the assumption ‘iff hypothesis H then observation O’.”

    It is also bizarre to apply deductive logic to something that is obviously properly the realm of inductive reasoning. It’s a newb move, for people who are so impressed by elementary logic concepts that they forgot how to make arguments. Reminds me of the way “A is A” is one of the axioms of Objectivism.

  9. #9 rork
    January 22, 2013

    Technically “There is no way to account for these millions of genomic observations in multiple species except common descent. ” might be an IFF statement, and might be a bit of overstatement – the author was perhaps (rightly) ignoring that there could be a just-so crank-pot story to explain it (whatever we do observe, was specially constructed that way – that “explains” everything, but is an utterly useless theory).

    I think it is wonderful to think it likely that I am related to the oak trees (or what-you-will), literally. This is a beautiful, extraordinary thing.

    PS: I study genes, and leverage evolutionary ideas daily, cause that gives you an edge when placing bets on what might be true or not (you place bets by doing more research on some things and not others).

  10. #10 Lenoxus
    January 22, 2013

    So it’s 2013, and they’re still grinding the ax of “evolutionists fail to consider alternatives.” Well, no one anywhere is under any obligation to consider alternatives that don’t carry the weight of nontrivial evidence. Even creationists seem to grasps this point, they just think that it’s evolution which lacks evidence.

    If I observe my nephew throw cereal on the floor, it’s technically true that “My nephew threw cereal on the floor” is not the only possible explanation for what I observed. Perhaps a Neptunian secret agent disguised as my nephew is in fierce battle with aliens that resemble Cheerios. Or maybe I’m hallucinating or dreaming. But for all practical purposes, it’s quite reasonable to say “I see Sam throw cereal on the floor IFF Sam throws cereal on the floor.”

    That’s where Stephen Jay Gould’s point becomes so relevant. By all means, creationists, provide us an alternative account of the common genetic structures, especially shared pseudogenes. Make sure that this account isn’t merely plausible, but actually explains the observations better. Good luck.

  11. #11 Anton Mates
    January 22, 2013

    Filling out Eric’s description of Hunter’s past fails, for those unfamiliar with the story:

    (And, incidentally, the wolf drawing he used wasn’t even of a wolf. Its a fail cake with fail icing on it.)

    It wasn’t just not of a wolf, it was of a thylacine. In fact, Hunter used the exact same drawing for both animals, only crudely photoshopped to look a bit different. (One copy was cropped a bit, the other was flipped horizontally and lightened.) More on that here.

    So I’d say for him, the IFF argument is actually quite sophisticated. He’s moved from about 9th grade argument styles to maybe Freshman year argument styles.

    No 9th grader with functioning eyesight would have difficulty distinguishing a thylacine from a wolf. We’re talking “first grader who’s never been to a petting zoo” here.

  12. #12 Verbose Stoic
    January 23, 2013

    If I observe my nephew throw cereal on the floor, it’s technically true that “My nephew threw cereal on the floor” is not the only possible explanation for what I observed. Perhaps a Neptunian secret agent disguised as my nephew is in fierce battle with aliens that resemble Cheerios. Or maybe I’m hallucinating or dreaming. But for all practical purposes, it’s quite reasonable to say “I see Sam throw cereal on the floor IFF Sam throws cereal on the floor.”

    While I find Hunter’s arguments a bit vague and likely not the case, this is in fact a prime example of what you CAN’T do with IFF.

    The best way to think about it is that IFF means this:

    If X, then Y is true.
    If Y, then X is also true.

    Thus, in this example, you would have to be able to say that if you see Sam throw cereal on the floor, then Sam throws cereal on the floor AND if Sam throws cereal on the floor, then you see Sam throw cereal on the floor. And, likely, beyond that one incident (otherwise you just have the simple tautology around a specific event, which you wouldn’t use IFF for). And while it’s reasonable to say that if you see Sam throw cereal on the floor, then it must be the case that Sam threw cereal on the floor (despite there being some potential exceptional cases that could make that not hold), it is not reasonable to say that if Sam throws cereal on the floor, then it must be the case that you see him throw cereal on the floor, as there are a host of other options and cases that are all quite reasonable.

    And turning to science now, science — whether through abduction or induction — can’t get that sort of IFF either. One can take a theory and say that if the theory is true, then we should see X. But it can’t say in return that if we see X, then the theory must be true, because there are a vast number of alternative theories where we would ALSO see X. Thus, in science, testing a theory to see if X will occur partially CONFIRMS a theory — its predictions hold up against reality — but do not prove that theory TRUE, because there are many, many other alternatives where that event also is predicted by the theory.

    So, if the scientists Hunter is accusing of doing this really ARE relying on the second part of that IFF, then he’d have a case. Unfortunately for him, at worst they might be expressing their conclusions with more certainty than they actually have, as a certainty rather than as the most plausible answer, but that’s not enough to get to the IFF issue.

  13. #13 Verbose Stoic
    January 23, 2013

    Actually, for clarity, translate these lines:

    If X, then Y is true.
    If Y, then X is also true.

    to:

    “If X, then Y” is true.
    “If Y, then X” is also true.

    As written, it might imply that in those statements Y is true and X is also true, and that’s not what I’m saying.

  14. #14 eric
    January 23, 2013

    VS:

    So, if the scientists Hunter is accusing of doing this really ARE relying on the second part of that IFF, then he’d have a case. Unfortunately for him, at worst they might be expressing their conclusions with more certainty than they actually have, as a certainty rather than as the most plausible answer, but that’s not enough to get to the IFF issue.

    Yup, I agree. As Jason points out, statements like “Why am I as sure as I could be” are pretty clear evidence that Hunter is either misinterpreting (to be charitable) or misrepresenting what his opponents are asserting.

    I’d draw a more general lesson here, which is that unless some scientist goes to the trouble of expliticly and in painful detail describing his/her position as complete philosophical certainty, one should never assume that that is what they mean. Pretty much every vernacular claim of certainty should be understood as pragmatic certainty, not philosophical, and as coming with the standard scientific caveat: my conclusions are tentative and subject to revision, should new relevant evidence arise.

  15. #15 Lenoxus
    January 23, 2013

    VB: Very good point, I wasn’t thinking. If I didn’t already know the answer, I imagine I would fail the Wason selection task. What I should have done is add a condition along the lines of “I am currently observing Sam and what he is doing.” Thus, the probability of Sam throwing cereal on the floor without my noticing it becomes close to zero.

    To return to evolution, it’s technically possible for human and chimpanzee ancestry to be the case without our observing and understanding the consequent genetic evidence; in fact, this was true for most of human history, because we didn’t know anything about DNA. Once we were able to to in-depth DNA analysis, however, the probability that shared ancestry would be true and yet the genetics would not demonstrate certain similarities becomes extremely small. And there would have to be some sort of highly probable explanation for the lack of observed similarity. Ideally, we would reach a point where it becomes clear that our original assumption, “If shared ancestry than DNA signature (with very high probability)”, was actually untrue, rather like the untrue statement “If snow exists somewhere, then Darlene Smith is currently making a snowman (with very high probability).”

    But all that is academic since we do in fact observe the signature (Darlene is, to the best of her awareness, making a snowman). Hence, the more frequently discussed converse possibility is: what if there is no shared ancestry but the genetic similarities are nonetheless present? This is the conundrum for which creationists must give an explanation. And it’s not enough for them to present a faintly–plausible scenario, but rather a situation which, if true, would very likely lead to the current observations. Either that, or they must convincingly argue that Evolution is far less probable than believed. It’s basic Bayesianism. Creationists tend to go for the latter, which amounts to arguing: We are in a highly improbable scenario one way or the other. Yes, perhaps it seems a bit improbable that God would give humans and chimps a shared pseudogene, but shared ancestry of any kind is far less probable still.

    (I’ve never heard a great explanation for why the creationist-emphasized gulf between us and other apes — we compose operas and they don’t — could not be bridged with god-guided evolution. After all, the Christian Jesus and Mary were radically different in their abilties, but a genetic test would presumably show her to be his mother, and the bridge between them is supposed to be explained by divine intervention of a sort. The only answer I’ve read is that evolution is un-Biblical, which leads us to wonder what’s so extremely improbable about the Bible not being literally true.)

    Oddly enough, I feel something of the opposite way. The God hypothesis is so fractally flawed (and YEC in particular so drastically antithetical to known facts) that anything is more likely, including hypotheses that approach but do not reach it, like creation by powerful extraterrestrials. At the same time, there’s nothing terribly unlikely about evolution (in the abstract rather than the particulars of the tree of life) except for the probabilities involved in the process of abiogenesis, which are merely low but not beyond the pale (especially considering the vastness of the universe).

  16. #16 Glen Davidson
    eastern WA
    January 23, 2013

    Massimo-Pigliucci seems to have similar problems with understanding Dobzhansky apt aphorism, saying:

    Perhaps the trouble started with Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the fathers of modern evolutionary theory, who famously said that nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution (the phrase is, in fact, approvingly quoted by Pross). Problem is, Dobzhansky was writing for an audience of science high school teachers, and his statement is patently wrong, as an even cursory examination of the history of biology makes clear. For instance, developmental biologists had done a lot of highly fruitful research throughout the 19th and 20th centuries even as they ignored Darwin. And molecular biologists made spectacular progress from the 1950s though the onset of the 21st century, again pretty much completing [sic] ignoring evolution. This is not to say that evolutionary theory doesn’t help in understanding developmental and molecular systems, but it is a stretch of the record to make claims such as those of Dobzhansky.

    Really, a philosopher doesn’t understand how to take an aphorism? That’s pathetic. Oh oh, it isn’t literally true, so it’s wrong.

    There are a million aphorisms to slaughter with the literalistic dullness of Pigliucci’s banality. Better start with Nietzsche, because it might not be literally true that when you stare too long into the abyss that it gazes back at you.

    What is it with people who seem unable to understand what scientists say? Corny’s hardly any sort of expert on anything, of course, but Pigliucci ought to be.

    Glen Davidson

  17. #17 Glen Davidson
    eastern WA
    January 23, 2013

    Dobzhansky qualified his statement in his essay, it should be noted:

    Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.

    Clearly he’s not saying that no little functional arrangement of parts makes any sense without evolution, but that biology as a whole fails to make sense without evolution. Outside of pseudoscience there should be no quibble with that claim.

    Glen Davidson

  18. #18 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    IFF is used a lot in mathematics. It probably originated as a mathematicians abbreviation.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_and_only_if#Origin_of_iff

    It did. A math professor told me the same guy who invented it also invented the black rectangle at the end of the proof (taking place of QED) but that may very well be apocryphal.

  19. #19 Dan L.
    January 25, 2013

    Thus, in science, testing a theory to see if X will occur partially CONFIRMS a theory — its predictions hold up against reality — but do not prove that theory TRUE, because there are many, many other alternatives where that event also is predicted by the theory.

    In fact, “confirmationism” was rejected in favor of “falsificationism” (essentially for this reason). And then that was rejected (for even more interesting reasons). Observations and experiments probabilify theories.

  20. #20 anon
    January 28, 2013
  21. #21 proximity1
    January 29, 2013

    RE; ” I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Dobzhansky did not need to be schooled in elementary logic. ”

    That’s not a very stout limb you’re out on.

    Look, Hunter can be wrong–as I, just as you, think he is–and Dobzhansky’s statement “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” can be valid, and it could very well have been that Dobzhansky could have used a good course in elementary logic–as I happen to believe.

    Dobzhansky made mistakes–and some of them were very silly blunders of logic where he stated stuff that was simply hogwash.

    None of that, of course, undermines the validity of ENS (evolution by natural selection) or Darwin’s work.

    Dobzhansky was a primary proponent of the so-called “modern evolutionary synthesis” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_evolutionary_synthesis )a set of ideas that is woefully lacking in sound reasoning and which is steadily sinking into the mire of nonsense from which it sprang, pulled down by gains in ever-growing body of experimentally tested molecular biology.

    There is no shame in scientists’ getting things wrong per se. But there is shame–or there ought to be– in the kind of reasoning errors that Dobzhansky made, shame in the absurd and craven group-think that has perpetuated those errors ever since and shame in the way that all of this is squarely in the archetypical practice of contemporary science.

  22. #22 Jim Thomerson
    January 29, 2013

    Interesting to note that Dobzhansky was also a practicing Christian.