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.