Evolving Thoughts

Jason Rosenhouse, of Evolutionblog, has posted a rather snarky review of a book review by the historian and philosopher Ian Hacking that was published in The Nation. Jason titled his comment “How not to defend evolution”. Here’s my take on it.

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…

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The problem as I see it lies in the attitude of the sciences (and yes, I include mathematics amongst that tribe) to the humanities, and in particular history of science. As I have noted before, the sciences have a kind of rolling wall of fog at a temporal distance behind them. They only cite those papers that are this side of that wall, or those papers that stand out like mountain peaks from the more distant past. History is messy and interferes with the simplistic story that textbooks (and, let it be said, defenders of evolution) want to tell.

It would be very nice if history was a narrative like Babylon 5, with lots of story arcs that nevertheless move the whole story ahead linearly. It isn’t. There are no pure heroes and no pure villains, and if you want to talk about those who preceded Darwin as well as those who followed him, you have to take them in their own terms first before passing judgement on their ideas.

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.

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.

But, as Hacking also notes, Lakatos is not the final word on what is science. It looks very much like science is more complex and interesting than single sloganised views of science, either those of philosophers of science (except mine own, of course, and those I defer to) or of the scientists themselves. And evolutionary biology is more problematic, in the sense that it is much harder to characterise the general requirements of science for evolution, and indeed much of biology, than other sciences like physics or chemistry or astronomy (the main examples of the early philosophy of science literature).

Hacking also rightly notes that the ID movement objects to the idea of chance in evolution. And that this is a hard pill to swallow. It is. Objections to the causal role of, or even existence of, chance date back to the classical era. Unfortunately, Hacking doesn’t mention that consequent – that chance is not all that operates in evolution; nor does he note that the operative definition of “chance” in evolution is “undirected”, not “chaotic”, although evolution can occur when direction is given (say by humans) and a certain amount of chaos is actually necessary for evolution to occur or else selection would only ever act to stablise populations, not change them.

But it is the Tree of Life theme that is most interesting. I disagree with Hacking that the biblical or Jewish uses of tree metaphors are either very interesting or related to our modern conceptions. But we have been using tree metaphors since Aristotle to classify our world, and the idea of genealogical trees developed, as Hacking notes, from biblical interpretation (and from the need to track marriages amongst the aristocracy for purposes of “breeding”, but that’s another story).

The idea that classification is genealogical begins in the 17th century in natural history, and is fully in flower by the early 19th century. The first person to give genealogical trees of species was Darwin, but he had precursors in George Bentham’s use of logical trees (the so-called “Tree of Porphyry”) to classify plant species, and in Karl Ernst von Baer’s developmental trees of shared and unshared developmental sequences between species.

Hacking notes that the idea that we will one day have the “one true tree of life” through modern methods based on evolutionary theory is what sticks in the craw of those who doubt the Darwinian theory. Perhaps it does. It also sticks in the craw of many professional taxonomists. While we may be confident that species actually do evolve from common ancestors with their nearest relatives, the actual path of history is not open to direct inspection, and so such reconstructions of the past must lie in a certain amount of inevitable uncertainty, now and forever. Information is erased by history, and wanting it not to be so doesn’t stop it from being erased. Novel techniques make it possible to identify some of the past, but even they are in the same logical straits as phylogenies based on morphological traits.

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. Yes, it is hard to reconstruct the past – this is true of every worldview irrespective of their dogma or methodology. But this is why evolutionary biology is exciting – it allows us to make the attempt, and moreover to falsify past attempts by appealing to more and better data. ID, on the other hand, has no program here; nothing beyond attacks on the perceived or invented flaws of evolutionary biology, as if sniping were a way of doing science.

Hacking rightly notes that Darwin saw this clearly. He even discusses the matter in the Origin:

All the foregoing rules and aids and difficulties in classification are explained, if I do not greatly deceive myself, on the view that the natural system is founded on descent with modification; that the characters which naturalists consider as showing true affinity between any two or more species, are those which have been inherited from a common parent, and, in so far, all true classification is genealogical; that community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking, and not some unknown plan of creation, or the enunciation of general propositions, and the mere putting together and separating objects more or less alike.

But I must explain my meaning more fully. I believe that the arrangement of the groups within each class, in due subordination and relation to the other groups, must be strictly genealogical in order to be natural; but that the amount of difference in the several branches or groups, though allied in the same degree in blood to their common progenitor, may differ greatly, being due to the different degrees of modification which they have undergone; and this is expressed by the forms being ranked under different genera, families, sections, or orders.

and later he says

We shall never, probably, disentangle the inextricable web of affinities between the members of any one class; but when we have a distinct object in view, and do not look to some unknown plan of creation, we may hope to make sure but slow progress.

This is exactly what has transpired since. We continue to make progress, even though we will never achieve that mythical beast, the “one true tree”. If it is good enough for Darwin to make this point, why should Hacking be criticised for so doing? The answer is, I believe, due to the framing of the debate by those who think that a certain view of evolution is all-conquering and all-powerful; dare we say it, a “universal acid”?

Yes, everybody frames all debates in certain terms of contrasts. Those who argue for evolution tend to do it too. But evolution is a science, and science is not about truth, not even of trees, but instead is about making progress and learning about the world. To assert that it must be about truth is to make a dogma, to fossilise a view in conceptual amber. Science is a process, not a set of doctrines for assent.

Hacking makes a nice contrast with the “research program” of Michael Behe, who tries to pick holes in the current state of (necessarily incomplete) research in order to boost his own form of anti-Darwinism. There’s no science done here. But likewise the simplified narrative of Kitcher’s about why life in America is so harsh that the religious have to stand against Darwinian ideas is not based on good history, as the volume by Numbers on the history of creationism, and the volume by Leinesch on the Scopes trial indicate. I have not read Leinesch, so I cannot comment on that book, but it seems to me that the Scopes trial was as much about resisting the eugenics movement that was, at the time, allied with evolutionary biology (see the textbook Scopes taught out of, Hunter’s Civic Biology), as it was promoting a religious agenda. It is likely that the harsh and withering prose of Mencken is as much to blame for the increasing divergence between American religious opinion and evolution as anything else. Let us not ignore the fact that in the period from around 1890 to 1920 or so, it was the evolution boosters who tied eugenics in with evolution, not those who wrote The Fundamentals. In one way, Bryan was on the right side.

Jason (and no doubt some other usual suspects) will attack Hacking for not dismissing religious opinion out of hand. Hacking is not religious any more than Dawkins, but he, unlike Dawkins and others, recognises the very real strengths of religion as a way of life. We do not need to deny those strengths to attack the untruths that some of the anti-Darwinians push, although it would be nice if we could offer a secular alternative without the flaws of religion. In fact, I think we can do just that (it is called, unsurprisingly, secularism) in a tolerant society. But that is beside the point here – if we are to argue against religiously motivated attacks on evolutionary science, such as intelligent design or whatever scam (“teach the controversy”, which only exists because they say there is one) they are presently pushing, let us do so by taking into account the history and not by ignoring it.

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. Sure, creationists will mine Hacking for quotes out of context – they may do it to me as well. But what idiots do with honest writing is no reason not to be honest.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention – Paley never was a Bishop, but at best a subdean. This is a classical philosopher’s error – Hacking has perhaps allowed Bishop Berkeley’s rank to wander across to Paley. A minor mistake.

Comments

  1. #1 RBH
    September 21, 2007

    I too thought Hacking’s review was mostly well expressed and informative, probably because I just finished Kitcher’s book.

    One side note: You wrote

    While we may be confident that species actually do evolve from common ancestors with their nearest relatives, the actual path of history is not open to direct inspection, and so such reconstructions of the past must lie in a certain amount of inevitable uncertainty, now and forever.

    That is the root of the often quote-mined remark by Colin Patterson:

    “. . .Fossils may tell us many things, but one thing they can never disclose is whether they were ancestors of anything else.”

  2. #2 Richard Carter, FCD
    September 21, 2007

    An excellent post. Evolution, by its very nature is messy; why should unravelling its history be simple and clear-cut?

  3. #3 Chris
    September 21, 2007

    I do enjoy your posts.

    The think that people always seem to skim over (particuarly anti-evolution people) is that Darwin really was a bloody genius, in every sense of the word. Time after time, essay after essay, he nailed it down in a way that still rings true 150 years later. We don’t continue to use his name because it sounds good, but because he was da man.

    We had a very interesting talk here last year by Steve Schneider, climate change guru, in which he discussed the difference in doing science on complex systems (climate, the human body) versus simple systems. In a complex system, one experiment can’t disprove the theory, rather it alters your confidence in the picture you think you have of how the system works. It distrubs me a bit that I’d never heard that viewpoint elucidated until the 3rd year of my PhD…

  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    September 21, 2007

    An excellent post, even by your standards! Thank you …

  5. #5 Thony C.
    September 21, 2007

    I went straight from banging my head against the wall upon reading Jason’s dismally ignorant dismissal of Hacking to cheering the Aussi Silverback on, in his thoughtful demolition of said Jason. Thank you Mr Wilkins you saved me the trouble of writing a similar rebuttal and did the job much better than I would have done.

  6. #6 PZ Myers
    September 21, 2007

    Eh, I read the essay too, and didn’t care for it too much. My objection isn’t that he got things wrong — the points he makes are interesting, but the explanation rambles and lacks focus, and then it just ends, plop. And ending with a weird speculative paragraph about the nature of the designer is simply misleading and confusing. It’s a dog’s breakfast of an essay with a wet fart of a capper. You can make a good case that the individual bits of the recipe are quite tasty (and I really didn’t object to the fragments you highlighted), but it was all such a wandering muddle that I couldn’t get excited about much of anything in it.

    Of course, if he chose his words pretty carefully as you claim, then perhaps I should be taking a stronger exception to “self-indulgent, virulent atheists” and “loathsome arrogance”. So you think that was a deliberate idiocy, huh?

  7. #7 BRC
    September 21, 2007

    Great post John. I think it also speaks to the legitimacy of blogs and blog writers (not you). Somebody taking on the intellect of Ian Hacking? Claiming that he lacks focus? Jason and PZ are judging the literary merits of Ian Hacking? Come on.

    We need a more serious, broader discussion about what science bloggers actually do, what we actually contribute. If the value of Sb is to provide a forum for folks to spout off with little intellectual merit or credibility, then here we are–not just bloggers, of course, but our readers too. Pace, PZ’s popularity. If it is to engage in the world of ideas and practices about science and society, then we need to reformulate how to do so.

    And if someone believes that I am suggesting the democratic forum of the blog is untenable, then back away, that’s not my point. I’m more interested here in how one might match humility with conversation. All of which I say only by way of follow-up to entirely pompous claims about a scholar of profound credibility.

  8. #8 bob koepp
    September 21, 2007

    “Evolution, by its very nature is messy; why should unravelling its history be simple and clear-cut?”

    While I don’t disagree, I think it more informative to note: History by its very nature is messy (too bad for whigs); since evolution is a historical process, we should expect it to be messy.

  9. #9 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 21, 2007

    Nice essay. But I’m going to defend scientists vs historians a bit.

    IMHO the reason for the “rolling wall” isn’t that history is messy or that as you note later it is hard to reconstruct the past. The main reason is that it is impossible to make sense of abstracted science in the context of its history. The active content is here and now as currently accepted parts emerged in a disorderly fashion.

    Btw, minor point but it looks like a slip when you note that Jason had a long text too, as he and Hacking had different target groups. (And especially as Jason specified that: “into print”.)

  10. #10 PZ Myers
    September 21, 2007

    Jason and PZ are judging the literary merits of Ian Hacking?

    In my case, no. I simply read the essay, found nothing particularly interesting in it (aside from the crude shot at atheists, which I chose to ignore), and didn’t even find the prose or the story he told particularly scintillating. I let it slide, except here where I’m told it’s a really, really good essay, and I roused myself to say I didn’t find it so.

    But OK, some people liked it. Some people disliked it. I said “Eh.” I don’t think the diversity of opinion says much about the legitimacy of blogs either way.

  11. #11 Dave S.
    September 21, 2007

    The essay was 4600 words long. Jason’s response is 1520 words of part one of a two parter. Hmm…

    Part II is up now, and has 1751 words according to my word processor. That’s a total of 3271 (not counting comments). Make of that what you will.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 21, 2007

    John-

    I think we have an actual, substantive disagreement here, as opposed to just a difference of opinion about one particular essay. I have generally been frustrated by the way philosophers have responded to the problems of ID and creationism. I think they tend to introduce a lot of needless and irrelevant nuance and subtlety into their writing on the subject; things that don’t really further their argument but mostly serve to confuse the issue. For me, Hacking was the straw that broke the camel’s back. You should’t need more than two sentences to explain that scientists like theories that help them get results. Hacking draped the same point over several paragraphs, being sure, for some reason, to imform us of how Lakatos and Kuhn viewed the matter. That’s just one example. I won’t belabor this more now, because I will probably devote a whole post to it over at my blog.

    But one other thing:

    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…

    Now who’s being snarky! A good chunk of those 1520 words was made up of quotes from Hacking. I could hardly avoid quoting the fellow to whom I was responding.

    Thony C.-

    If you disagree with my assessment of Hacking’s essay, that’s fine. But if you are going to describe my writing as dismally ignorant, it would be nice if you could give a specific example.

    BRC-

    I was not assessing the literary merits of Hacking’s essay. I was assessing the clarity with which he made his points. As for focus, is Hacking such an expert in that regard that he is above criticism?

    Nor was I taking on the intellect of Dr. Hacking. I was taking on his lack of finesse in presenting his ideas to the public.

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 21, 2007

    Dave S-

    Since several people have found it amusing to point that out, I would reply that my objection is not to words per se, but to using vastly more words than your argument requires.

  14. #14 John Pieret
    September 21, 2007

    … they tend to introduce a lot of needless and irrelevant nuance and subtlety into their writing on the subject; things that don’t really further their argument …

    Yeah! Simple-mindedness is the answer! Oh, wait a minute … isn’t that fundamentalism’s gig?

    You seem to be making an assumption that the purpose of Hacking’s argument is the same as yours. Personally, I think nuance and subtlety was a large part of his purpose. And some of us are more interested in Lakatos’ views of science (Hacking didn’t mention Kuhn) than having a two sentence proclamation from on high by Jason Rosenhouse on what science is or should be.

  15. #15 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 21, 2007

    John Pieret-

    I believe I said “needless and irrelevant” nuance and subtlety. Leaving such things out of your essay is not simple-mindedness. It is good writing.

    I made no assumptions at all about Hacking’s argument. I simply read what he wrote and found that it was terribly unfocussed, frequently unclear, and in several places was playing right into the hands of the ID folks. And I don’t know what you are referring to in suggetsing that I make two sentence proclamations about what is and isn’t science. Did I do that somewhere?

    As for the reference to Kuhn, sorry, I meant Popper.

  16. #16 John Lynch
    September 21, 2007

    Nice job, John. More or less encapsulated what I was thinking.

  17. #17 John Pieret
    September 21, 2007

    I made no assumptions at all about Hacking’s argument.

    Then how can you possibly determine that the nuances and subtleties are “needless and irrelevant” to “further [his] argument”? Are you claiming to know better than Hacking what Hacking intended to accomplish in this article?

    I simply read what he wrote and found that it was terribly unfocussed, frequently unclear and in several places was playing right into the hands of the ID folks.

    It is only “unfocused” if you know what the “focus” was supposed to be. Instead of entertaining the possibility that the problem was your lack of understanding, you assigned Hacking the intent of “defending” evolution against ID in some simplistic, propagandistic fashion, instead of discussing the nuances and subtleties that you are unaware and/or uninterested in.

    And, I’m sorry, but saying we can’t discuss the nuances and subtleties of science, philosophy and religion out in the open for fear that the IDers might exploit it is not much different that we have to limit individual rights to save American democracy from terrorism.

    And I don’t know what you are referring to in suggetsing that I make two sentence proclamations about what is and isn’t science. Did I do that somewhere?

    “You should’t need more than two sentences to explain that scientists like theories that help them get results.”

    Yeah, who wants to hear about Lakatos when we have can have two sentences from Jason?

  18. #18 Dave S.
    September 21, 2007

    John Wilkins says:

    …nor does he note that the operative definition of “chance” in evolution is “undirected”, not “chaotic”…

    I would say it does not appear ot have any direction rather than it is “undirected”.

  19. #19 John S. Wilkins
    September 21, 2007

    PZ said if he chose his words pretty carefully as you claim, then perhaps I should be taking a stronger exception to “self-indulgent, virulent atheists” and “loathsome arrogance”. So you think that was a deliberate idiocy, huh?

    No, I think that was an opinion. One he is entitled to, and which on occasions is fully justified (just as the same claim about the behaviour of the religious also is, on occasions).

    What I find most interesting here is that some are inclined to argue that if you nuance your claims in any way at all you are “framing” the debate, but if you don’t do it in another context you are “playing into the hands of the creationists”.

  20. #20 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 22, 2007

    John Pieret-

    On the off chance that you’re being serious I’ll attempt one more reply to your comments.

    It is only “unfocused” if you know what the “focus” was supposed to be. Instead of entertaining the possibility that the problem was your lack of understanding, you assigned Hacking the intent of “defending” evolution against ID in some simplistic, propagandistic fashion, instead of discussing the nuances and subtleties that you are unaware and/or uninterested in.

    The essay is unfocussed because it meanders quite a bit, first seeming to set up one point before veering off into another. I explained this at length in my two blog posts on the subject. You don’t need prior knowledge of what a person was trying to say to determine that his essay never converges on a clear message.

    And, I’m sorry, but saying we can’t discuss the nuances and subtleties of science, philosophy and religion out in the open for fear that the IDers might exploit it is not much different that we have to limit individual rights to save American democracy from terrorism.

    This is so far removed from anything I actually said that I have to asseume you made no attempt to read my blog posts carefully. Or even gave them a cursory reading for that matter. Discussing the subtleties of science, philosophy and religion is not what plays into the creationists hands. I never said anything close to that. What does play into their hands, as I explained clearly at my blog, is misrepresenting Behe’s arguments, suggesting that he has pointed out some worthwhile open problems to scientists, never stating clearly that Behe is wrong but focusing instead on his inability to generate a research program, stating bluntly that Behe is not a creationist and that ID is not pseudoscience (when Hacking is wrong on both counts), failing to draw a distinction between “difficulties” in evolutionary theory in the sense that Behe and Discovery use the term as opposed to “open questions” that further scientific research (a point Wilkins also missed, in his zeal to distort most of what I said), and in numerous other places where Hacking phrased things carelessly in ways that beg to be taken out of context.

    Yeah, who wants to hear about Lakatos when we have can have two sentences from Jason?

    A better question is “Who wants to sift through a long digression on the origin of the term “degenerate” in relation to scientific research programs when the point being made was simply that evolution produces results while ID doesn’t?”

  21. #21 John S. Wilkins
    September 22, 2007

    Jason said A better question is “Who wants to sift through a long digression on the origin of the term ‘degenerate’ in relation to scientific research programs when the point being made was simply that evolution produces results while ID doesn’t?”

    Gosh. A philosopher of science chooses to use a public forum to discuss some issues in the philosophy of science, in order to spread the topic around, rather than just adhere to the party line. Hang him!

    There are interesting things about science other than the correctness of this or that view. The nature of science is what is at issue (among other things) and Hacking chose to discuss that. Behe’s claptrap offers an opportunity to openly discuss science as a process rather than a set of doctrines. I personally think this is a worthwhile pursuit. So you and PZ don’t. I do not care what you think is worthwhile here. I think Hacking did a fine job.

    Since science itself is a series of problems, perhaps we should stop reporting on them in case the IDiots misrepresent them.

  22. #22 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 22, 2007

    John Wilkins-

    Ah! I begin to see the problem. It’s that you don’t bother to read anything that I write before composing your replies.

    As I just got through explaining to Pieret, it’s not reporting on the problems of science that I think plays into ID hands. It’s good points badly made that does that.

    And I’m not sure what party line you are talking about. Contrary to the nonsense you wrote in your opening post, I did not, for the most part, fault Hacking for the points that he made. I did point to some specific instances where I think Hacking was actually wrong (all of which you chose to ignore). But I said over and over again that I thought his points were good. It was his writing that was bad, and, worse than that, bad in ways that actually undercut the points he was making.

    And the issue was not whether I care about Lakatos’ views on science, it is whether there is any need to discourse about them in a paragraph whose point was that evolution gets results and ID doesn’t.

  23. #23 John S. Wilkins
    September 22, 2007

    Ah! I begin to see the problem. You have some kind of gold standard of what people ought to write when dealing with these issues, and when they do not, they are wrong.

    I didn’t think the points were badly made. You do. What else we can say apart from de gustibus non est disputandum I do not know.

    There is a need (as I argued above) to mention Lakatos in a debate where the nature of science is at issue. But since this doesn’t meet your gold standard, it must be wrong.

    I don’t think his presentation undercut that debate. In fact, they served it.

  24. #24 Marion delgado
    September 22, 2007

    OMG Smart people!

    God or whatever bless you John Wilkins. It really scares me how many ‘defenders of science’ aren’t even familiar with Popper (other than as a name to drop complete with “theories can only be falsified.”), let alone with Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, etc. I would add Hank Bauer to that list, he’s a very humble man (P Chemist I think) with an encyclopedic knowledge of history and sociology of science and a real gift for communicating the heart of science issues to people.

    The critics who say that a lot of what goes on is how not to defend (evolution, other science) are completely right. If “science” tries to depend on smug scientism for its apologetics, it’s doomed to continued setbacks. But you’re pointing out – very, very aptly – why Hacking is an unsuitable example of that.

    If someone wants a short reason why? Think of the articles about how debunking myths too specifically just reinforces them. Hence, saying that there is no real gap in the fossil record or no such thing as irreducible complexity or evolution in no way depends on haeckel or ontology recapitulates philogeny or what have you, the reciipient is as likely as not to pass on the opposite of every one of those claims.

    But Hacking’s way, what gets passed on? Creationism is what scientists call a “dead research program” – it doesnt produce anything new anymore. Or “I heard scientists call creation science a “moribund program” whatever that means. Etc.

  25. #25 PZ Myers
    September 22, 2007

    I don’t think it’s a worthwhile pursuit to “openly discuss science as a process”? The things I learn on other people’s blogs…

    It’s very nice that he has a right to his opinion — I wasn’t disputing that. It’s very nice that he’s such a revered figure that smart people don’t criticize him anymore. Like I said, I read the essay and didn’t find anything compelling, and here I read your defense of him and didn’t find anything that I missed that should get me fired up. I’m not one of those fans of the “universal acid” hype, so you can’t just dismiss me as ideologically opposed, nor do I disagree at all with the premises you mentioned.

    I just didn’t find the essay good or useful in any way.

  26. #26 Thony C.
    September 22, 2007

    If you disagree with my assessment of Hacking’s essay, that’s fine. But if you are going to describe my writing as dismally ignorant, it would be nice if you could give a specific example.

    Jason it is not my style to provoke somebody and then to walk away and normally you would have a right to an answer to your request. However since posting my original comment I have gone down with a very virulent norovirus which means I am not up to the task at the moment. The two Johns have said most of what I would have said anyway. I will cross swords with you on another day, for now its back to my bed.

  27. #27 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 22, 2007

    It really scares me how many ‘defenders of science’ aren’t even familiar with Popper (other than as a name to drop complete with “theories can only be falsified.”), let alone with Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, etc.

    Why would that be scary or even important? “‘Defenders of science’” as you call it are mainly interested in science results, whether they are scientists or laymen.

    Philosophy or philosophy of science hasn’t IMHO a very good handle on what science is as a project, mainly because they haven’t listened to what science teaches us, to gather data and make verifiable theories. (Not that this is easy to do when it comes to the social parts of the subject.)

    You should also consider that there are wide differences in education over the world. Where I come from you don’t have to study philosophy as part of your science studies. It would have been of some value to me personally, as I happened to get into an area with some fuzzy thinking. But ordinarily the basic methods incorporate lessons learned, and avoids fallacies et cetera.

    My experience of Popper may be mirrored by other scientists. We are taught and experience early on that testability and verification is absolutely essential to get rid of false data and false explanations. Then you hear someone mention Popper, and it turns out that the guy has a model (falsifiability) for how it works and why it is important. Of course you sit up and take notice.

    Moreover, those other guys are mentioned in connection with postmodern ideas such as that facts ‘are relative’ instead of repeatable, theories ‘are repaired’ instead of rejected, and science ‘shift paradigms’ instead of improve. I’m sure there is more to it, but for a scientist it isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for studying what they say.

    Be what it may, mentioning Popper when discussing the use and understanding of predictions and tests is natural IMO.

  28. #28 windy
    September 22, 2007

    Ah! I begin to see the problem. You have some kind of gold standard of what people ought to write when dealing with these issues…

    It seems that Hacking has one, too, so perhaps it is permissible to criticize him a bit on that point? :)

  29. #29 Jared
    September 22, 2007

    Moreover, those other guys are mentioned in connection with postmodern ideas such as that facts ‘are relative’ instead of repeatable, theories ‘are repaired’ instead of rejected, and science ‘shift paradigms’ instead of improve.

    I’ve heard of Feyerabend but the only two I’ve actually read much about are Popper and Kuhn. Before this, I’d never even heard of Lakatos.

    After looking at their Wikipedia entries, I think that I was lucky.

  30. #30 Ponder Stibbons
    September 23, 2007

    Jason wrote:

    And the issue was not whether I care about Lakatos’ views on science, it is whether there is any need to discourse about them in a paragraph whose point was that evolution gets results and ID doesn’t.

    I didn’t read that paragraph as making that point. I read it as making the point that anti-Darwinism is degenerate science. And since Hacking was using Lakatos’ criteria for degenerate science to claim that anti-Darwinism is degenerate science, I think there is a need to explain Lakatos’ views. Note that Hacking isn’t simply trying to say that anti-Darwinism is wrong. He’s trying to make a different point from Kitcher’s (which was that anti-Darwinism is dead science) by saying that anti-Darwinism is instead degenerate science.

  31. #31 Marion Delgado
    September 23, 2007

    Torbjoern:

    First of all, usually the shift is an improvement of some kind, as Kuhn pointed out, but not always. And he pointed out why there is inertia – not that there is. That comes from Max Planck*. Like it or not, science is a human endeavor, and scientific behavior is observable and studiable.

    Your position to me is exactly that of the people who think evolution and natural selection has to be improvement. The evolution is the observation, the mechanism is the science, but the improvement is at least somewhat in the eye of the beholder.

    But it’s not Lakatos’ work (no more postmodern than Popper’s, by the way – at all) or Feyerabend’s that pointed out to me how scary a lack of knowledge of history, sociology and philosophy of science is when you’re doing a metascientific process like determining what is and is not science and how to judge amongst scientific theories when the answer is not immediately evident, etc. It was actually Henry Bauer’s short work, the Myth of the Scientific Method.

    I do think falsifiability applies more poorly as a standard to Intelligent Design than does Lakatos’ criterion. To take an even better example, look at UFOs. In pure science terms, they’re in no way against our understanding of any science whatsoever. As for falsifiability, many UFO theories, most, probably, could be falsified if we undertook a multibillion-dollar worldwide program, drafted all the interested lay people, and extensively coordinated observations with satellites, etc. The reason we don’t is not that Ufology is not falsifiable per se, its that it hasn’t produced anything new or responded to contradictory data by providing an even better, more fleshed out theory.

    If we drained loch ness and sent 100,000 researchers to scour its length and breadth, we could easily falsify the “there is a monster of some sort, probably a pleiseosaur in this lake” theory. Conversely, and contra Popper, frankly, if that monster was there (oops), the loch ness monster theory would be proven, not approximately, but absolutely. Again, that will never happen, not because the loch ness monster is inherently unfalsifiable, or the question is not of scientific interest, but because despite strong amateur activity, it hasn’t progressed in all the time its been around.

    *”Scientific theories don’t change because old scientists change their minds; they change because old scientists die”

  32. #32 John S. Wilkins
    September 23, 2007

    Marion: while I agree with your comment in general (and of course Lakatos is not postmodern, whatever that means – only someone completely ignorant of that debate could even suggest it), I must demur on the Planck Principle. There have been a few papers on this, and while one said it was false (the Hull, Diamond and Tessler article), and others said it held up, more or less, I think that it is not a principle, but a contingent fact based on the composition of the science and the issues at a particular moment. In other words, there’s no generalisation there to be had.

    The rest of what you said strikes me as very true. Induction by enumeration can be proven if you exhaust the domain of all possible contenders. In physics, this is impracticable and probably formally impossible. In biology, it isn’t.

  33. #33 Marion Delgado
    September 23, 2007

    John Wilkins:

    You’re almost certainly right about the “Planck Principle,” but it would be interesting to put it to the test with comparative studies.

    This whole thing reminds me of what Keynes said:

    “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

    I think that’s a pretty gross overstatement, but comparably, disdain them as much as you like, philosophy/history/sociology of science issues not only arise, but have detectable effects in science. I think sociology did more for string theory than any essential soundness in it. The excessive respect some scientists give to people like Dennett, Harris and Hitchens smacks of scientism to me, and their tin ear to philosophical logic doesn’t help them. They’re completely at sea when dealing with the intersection of science and capitalism. And so on.

    There is nothing at the bottom of a test tube or in a telescope’s lens that says teaching creationism in school is harmful to science. Or that being harmful to science is undesirable. That falls out of no fundamental equation. I don’t see a good outcome to this “when I hear the word ‘philosophy’ I reach for my mouse!!” attitude. Defenders of evolution are doing philosophy, they just either object to doing it well, or, as in Jason’s case, don’t seem to understand what doing it well would entail.

  34. #34 Bob Evans
    September 23, 2007

    A magnificent post, John. I say that with absolutely no malice for Jayson and from the perspective of one far from qualified to critique substantively either side of the scientific debate. I’ve come to recognize the brillience of both you and he in your respective disciplines. I look forward to participating in a similar format a year or so hence, once I’ve waded through the Origen and a lot more of these blogs. To my credit, I am a ‘religious’ lurker.

    I am qualified to recognize the Boethian ‘ring’ to what you’ve said here though. It will be in that spirit, I’m sure, that cooler heads will eventually prevail in these debates to the benefit of future generations.

    Perhaps it will one day be feasable for both theists and atheists alike to enjoy a gathering together such as the one that recently took place in New York City. We can declare a ‘truce’ for the evening and karaoke the night away. In the end, isn’t that the desired objective?

    There was a lot of wisdom in BRC’s comment, notwithstanding the knock to Jason and PZ. Ditto for Marion’s posts. I think there is a place for flame throwing occasionally in these debates from both sides of the aisle but not merely for sport.

  35. #35 Ian H Spedding FCD
    September 23, 2007

    John Wilkins wrote:

    Sure, creationists will mine Hacking for quotes out of context – they may do it to me as well. But what idiots do with honest writing is no reason not to be honest.

    More than that, if you allow what you write to be limited in some way by concerns about how quotes may be mined from it by creationists then you are granting them a power over what you do that they most certainly do not deserve.

    The fact is that creationists are going to quote-mine whatever you do, so it should be seen it as an opportunity not problem. The more they misquote scientists, the more ammunition they hand us. Imagine confronting a creationist in a Q&A session where you could reel off a list of the quotations they have misused set against what the original author really said. Calling them liars does nothing. One mined quotation can be dismissed as a misunderstanding or misrepresentation. A whole string of mined quotations exposes them as deliberate and persistent liars.

  36. #36 John Pieret
    September 24, 2007

    I haven’t been able to keep my hand in on this because of computer woes and can only drop a brief word in from work. As many will know, I have had some small experience with quote mining and Jason’s notion that making some hyper-distinction between terms like “difficulties” and “open questions” will, in any way, slow down the Discovery Institute from warping the sense that they are being used by scientists and philosophers of science is seriously unrealistic. Indeed, given the DI’s current line, taken from the movie Expelled, that “Darwinists” in academia are discriminating against IDers in order to hide the “weaknesses” of evolutionary theory, Jason’s articles could well become an exhibit in their case, as an example of one Darwinist chiding another for not keeping up semantical appearances, while the “problems” with the theory, whatever they are called, remain.

    Oh, and as to Jason’s claim that he never meant to say that we should not discuss the nuances and subtleties of the history of creationism and ID, there is this:

    It would seem that Hacking believes the appropriate response to the Discovery Institute’s dubious scientific claims is to discourse on the history of tree metaphors.

    … which I don’t know how to interpret other than that discussing such subtlties as the tree metaphor is “inappropriate” when dealing with ID. He follows that up by mocking Hacking for showing off his “erudition on the subject of tree metaphors” and saying that we should only “humor Hacking,” while the rest of us “get back to the business of explaining why the Discovery Institute is wrong.” I’m sorry, but paying lip service to the “interesting questions” Hacking raised does not change the tone of the articles one wit.

  37. #37 windy
    September 26, 2007

    Might the disagreement be summarized like this: Jason reviewed an article on Intelligent Design, while John reviewed an article on the philosophy of biology?

    Also, when someone pays as much attention to detail and definitions as Hacking in his article (is ID dead, degenerate or pseudoscience?), there is a temptation to nitpick him on detail in turn. For example, I felt that his explanations of the problems with phylogenetic trees were disturbingly just a little bit “off”. (Biologists don’t doubt that HGT exists; The Nature paper did not solve the “conundrum” of the branching order of hominids, but the difference between fossil and molecular date estimates of the human-chimp split). Fair or not, I think it’s a natural response to take him to task on the distinction of “problems” vs “open questions” as well.

  38. #38 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    March 27, 2008

    FWIW, catching up on old threads:

    @ Marion:

    I have no idea what you mean by ‘shifts’ not being improvements, as I would imagine that they come about out of better predictability or consistency with other theory. It is IMO not unreasonable to use a main characterization of science as improving.

    Nor do I understand your point on inertia. How does that contradict testability?

    I agree that science is an observable process, but I don’t agree that philosophy is the way to treat observations – science is. This argues for a “science on science”, and that we have today is not knowledge.

    Your position to me is exactly that of the people who think evolution and natural selection has to be improvement.

    Ah, but even if the analogy would be correct, which it isn’t, there is selective pressures for improvement (enlargement et cetera).

    To take an even better example, look at UFOs.

    I believe you confuse necessary with sufficient. And without observations no possibility for making a predictable theory, yet you call it such.

    i’m not sure I get the point of your monster story. First, it isn’t a theory, but an isolated hypothesis, that moreover describes a single data point so it will only result in an observation.

    Second, the uncertainty in the observation relating to your hypothesis would be such things as if there were really only one monster, if it was “a pleiseosaur”, et cetera, so it isn’t an absolute – it can never be in empirical sciences, if you believe you get that result you know that you are doing something wrong.

    @ John:

    Lakatos is not postmodern, whatever that means – only someone completely ignorant of that debate could even suggest it

    Of course I’m completely (well, almost) ignorant of “that debate” – I’m relating what I heard from others.

    I’m devoted to a “science on science” as it should be a future possibility, and could possibly be useful to further improve science.

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