Gene Expression

A monkey too smart

Yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine who is a graduate student at a university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the department of “Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.” My friend asserted that most people within her department are dumb, overbearing, arrogant and uninformed. Her concern was that this was within a department specializing in evolutionary theory at the nation’s elite university!

Then we got to talking about Intelligent Design, and I mentioned how a link from The Corner resulted in an influx of Intelligent Design proponents on my other weblog. Now, as a kid growing up in a conservative religious part of of the country I’d debated Creationists many times. I knew their tricks, from the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the Moon Dust argument. But what I encountered this time was a new species. I was greeted by an assault from the technical end of molecular & population genetics. An individual was asserting that Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection showed that evolution was not viable as a long term project. In short, this theorem states that the rate in increase of fitness is proportional to the additive genetic variation. Since selection on this additive genetic variation should exhaust the variation itself, over time the change in fitness should approach zero as variation is depleted. But this ignores the reality that mutation (and sometimes migration) can replenish additive genetic variation, and it neglects that many evolutionary population geneticists are skeptical about the widespread applicability of the theorem beyond one locus. Now, not getting into issues of mutation-selection balance and what not, the fact that a neo-Creationist tried to pull this trick on me was shocking and disturbing, because I’m skeptical that many intelligent people would have a cogent response. The individual even tried to spin some talking points out of the neutral theory of molecular evolution.

The reality is that this is simply a variation on the Second Law of Thermodynamics tactic, memorize some technical issue and try to bluff your way through the debate. Fortunately, I wasn’t taken in, and many of my readers have enough evolutionary genetic saavy to see the game for what it is, but, this sort of behavior is grossly undermining of the attempts to engage in good faith science. The fact is that no one human can master all technical aspects of the world and we have to rely on experts who we assume understand what they are talking about. When neo-Creationists and their ilk inject themselves into the discourse, and confuse and deceive those outside the technical circle, the noise in the system of science increases greatly. Ultimately the complexity and technicality of modern science means that it is difficult for anyone to attain a gestalt understanding of whole fields and theories, let alone multiple disciplines. Good faith, sincerity and honesty1 play crucial lubricating roles in the process of knowledge acquisition and model building, and the neo-Creationists sacrifice all of these in the service of a greater God. Which gets me back to where I started, many scientists are bullshit artists. They get where they get often because of political skill and good verbal repackaging of derivative work. Marry that to the mercenary intellectual outlook of the neo-Creationists and I think we are likely to see an escalation of the “conflict” between science & non-science in the next few decades. The Creationists are evolving….

1 – What about reproducibility and peer review you say? Talk to Hwang Woo Suk. The system of science is corrective in the long run, but its efficiency is still contingent upon the parameters I pointed to above.

Comments

  1. #1 Adam Ierymenko
    January 23, 2006

    I once wasted a bit of time engaging some IDers over at a blog called evangelical outpost. I saw more or less the same tactic over there. I call it “argument by escalating complexity/obscurity”.

    Basically, I would explain the problem with the ID argument and explain what had and hadn’t been shown in science and so on, and then the same argument would just be thrown back at me. However, the argument when it was thrown back at me would contain more technical terminology, more math, and more obscure wording. The goal here was obviously to exhaust either my attention span, my education level, or my patience. The latter went first, but not before I pointed out the tactic that was being used.

    I’ve seen this tactic used many times in other debates, and in all it seems to be a highly effective tactic for bowling over people who aren’t familiar with sketchy debate tactics like this. The best thing to do when faced with this tactic is to point out the tactic and then request that they simplify. Note that I think the following applies to all positions: if you can’t simplify, there is nothing there.

    All of these high-falutin’-sounding ID arguments (that I’ve seen so far) reduce to one of the following:

    - Dembski’s thoroughly debunked No Free Lunch / information conservation argument.

    - Some other form of mathematism. (Mathematism is when you use math to try to “prove” things about the world rather than looking at the world first and then using math to describe what you see. It’s a form of pre-empirical-science medieval scholasticism/rationalism.)

    - The thoroughly smashed and silly second law of thermodynamics argument.

    - The missing link argument or other arguments about the completeness of the fossil record.

    - Postmodernist arguments against the validity of inductive reasoning or that “narratives” are arbitrary.

    - Behe’s weak irreducibility argument, which is really just a rehash of the age-old “what good is half an eye?” argument.

    - Meaningless obscurantism (using really sophisticated but meaningless rhetoric to bowl people over).

    - Arguments from authority, tradition, or consequences.

    All of these are either very weak, completely debunked, or fallacious and so all you really need to do is reveal them by stripping away the layers of obscurantism that cover them up.

    My exchange at the evangelical blog provoked this post on my own:

    http://www.greythumb.org/blog/index.php?/archives/66-Abiogenesis-and-information-growth-in-simulations-what-does-it-mean.html

    BTW, I also think that people on “our side” should endeavor whenever possible to simplify their rhetoric without dumbing down the point. We shouldn’t play the obscurantism game, since we don’t need to.

  2. #2 razib
    January 23, 2006

    I also think that people on “our side” should endeavor whenever possible to simplify their rhetoric without dumbing down the point.

    point taken, but the problem is that “our side” has a issue of the lack of organizational centrality. for example, re: fisher’s fundamental theorem, i think many people will reject it as unfruitful and pretentious. fisher wanted there to be an ‘ideal gas law’ (he came out of stat mechanics) for evolutionary biology. many would say this isn’t possible, but you still have individuals of note and authority like jim crow who think it is a worthwhile thing to take into account. ultimately, ID and ‘evolution’ are orthogonal enterprises with asymmetrical tactical capacities….

  3. #3 Dan Dare
    January 23, 2006

    Razib, I have found this kind of tactic used all the time by creationist types; cherrypick some obscure point and attack. Often you can overwhelm quite knowledgeable but non-specialist types by coming up with some obscure point that takes 5 minutes to assert and five hours to refute, assuming you knew the right answer. It’s the old “baffle them with bullshit” debating tactic.

    This is one reason why I never debate creationists. Especially in public forums. There is no way you can avoid looking weak. They can say anything they like. They are not bound by reason and can pull miracles out of the hat any time they choose – but you stumble even once in your rational defence, and you look like a loser.

    It also proves the point that rational argument can only be used on people who have a prior comittment to reason.

    Creationists are the enemy. There is no common ground between us. Science may well just have to accept putting up with them and ignoring them, either that or never argue without a team of specialists to back you up. In the end we will see which side produces the results – the science – the technology. Creationism can never win because in the end science is international. Their kind of arguments can only work in a particular society with a particular set of superstitions. Even if America fell under creationist control, other non-Christian countries would not. In the end their superior performance would make the argument for us.

    Fascinating, that in this century when genetics is likely to achieve its greatest triumphs against disease and ageing and human suffering, we are still facing this kind of attack from primitives in this area.

  4. #4 Dave S.
    January 23, 2006

    It also proves the point that rational argument can only be used on people who have a prior comittment to reason.

    As my dad used to say, you can’t argue a man out of a corner using reason when he didn’t get himself into the corner that way in the first place.

    Another nice example of this sort of cheap tactic can be seen over in the Panda’s Thumb. There a poster named Ghost of Paley came barging in spouting (apparently) knowledgable about certain tetrapod fossils. Unfortunately for him another poster who actually was knowledgable came in and set him on the path of scientific riteousness. However, at first glance and to those not as experienced in the minutea of tetrapod cladistics, GOPs nonsense looked sorta convincing.

    Not having to treat the data honestly is a huge advantage for them.

  5. #5 Dan Dare
    January 23, 2006

    Thanks for that link to Panda’s Thumb, Dave S. That thread was awesome.

  6. #6 Matt McIntosh
    January 23, 2006

    Dan — I know the feeling, but this isn’t just a creationist thing. On any technical subject where there’s political agendas involved, you see this same kind of thing. It takes me ten minutes on my most eloquent days to explain comparative advantage, but only a small fraction of that time for some vulgar Marxist imbecile to toss off comments about how the third world is being exploited, etc. It happens with distortions of history as well, e.g. the assinine claim that the US put Saddam in power.

    On the plus side, though, this is what the TalkOrigins archive is for. It helps a lot to have a central database of all the specious technical arguments employed by Creationists and accompanied by thorough refutations. I’d have been baffled by bullshit many a time without its assistance.

  7. #7 Fly
    January 23, 2006

    Matt: “I know the feeling, but this isn’t just a creationist thing. On any technical subject where there’s political agendas involved, you see this same kind of thing. It takes me ten minutes on my most eloquent days to explain comparative advantage, but only a small fraction of that time for some vulgar Marxist imbecile to toss off comments about how the third world is being exploited, etc. It happens with distortions of history as well, e.g. the assinine claim that the US put Saddam in power.”

    I believe the Internet will evolve tools similar to Wikipedia to address this problem. Explanations need to be matched to the audience’s IQ/education/background. Trust and reputation needs to be established.

  8. #8 Dan Dare
    January 23, 2006

    Thanks Matt. I’m bookmarking the TalkOrigins archive for future reference.

  9. #9 Robert Speirs
    January 24, 2006

    These tactics remind me of chess players who memorize some obscure opening featuring, say, advancing the King’s Rook’s Pawn first and hope the other guy makes a mistake in the reply. Then, if they win or even draw, they claim, “Center pawn openings are fatally flawed.”