Pharyngula

Another day, another ignorant pundit

Today, it’s Peter Hitchens’ turn to make a mealy-mouthed appeal for an unearned respect for Intelligent Design creationism. This one is another generic whine, begging that people be fair and give some version of equal time to an underdog heterodoxy…creationism. After all, the only possible reason scientists could accept the idea of evolution is because they’ve mysteriously and unfairly acquired a dominant position, and this brand of pundit doesn’t stop to consider why it’s so popular. I think it’s a kind of projection: they’ve acquired this unearned position of authority, so they can’t imagine that any other idea could have gotten to where it is on merit.

My first complaint: an argument that is sprinkled with “Darwinism” and “Darwinist” used so generically is clearly derived from the creationist literature — it is an amazingly useful clue, a kind of written tic that tips us off every time, rather as if someone used the term “Newtonists” in a discussion of modern physics. Hitchens flings the term about ten times in his short essay.

The proper terms to use are “biology” and “evolutionary biologists”.

Since Darwinism is orthodoxy, on which many careers have been built and continue to prosper, is it likely that an attack which threatens that orthodoxy is going to be sympathetically treated by other scientists?

Oh, where to begin—again, Hitchens is using an inappropriate term to bias the argument. “Darwinism” (that stupid term again) is not an orthodoxy. It’s a well-supported theory that is constantly being tested and revised. Scientists do no build prosperous careers on reinforcing the status quo—they do so on challenging ideas and coming up with new explanations and evidence. If you want an outline for a generic introduction to a science paper, here it is: “Dr X says this process happens in such-and-such a way; here is my unique twist on this phenomenon, that explains it in a superior way.” Papers that don’t offer anything at all new tend to get published in lower tier journals, if at all.

Now, why should we expect attacks on ideas to be treated sympathetically? There’s this kind of pre-school plaint to the creationists: that science is just so darned mean, and why don’t they treat my proposal gently? That’s simply not the way it works. Good science involves a lot of vociferous argument and academic in-fighting, and no new idea should expect to enter the field without question and without some fierce assaults…the weak ideas will wither and die, the good ones will survive. Asking for special, gentle treatment is an invitation for a particularly brutal savaging.

But Darwinism is all about events that happened when there was nobody there to witness them. And it is also about events which – if happening now – are happening too slowly for anyone to live long enough to see them. It is amazing how many supporters of this theory cannot see the difference between the micro-evolution of adaptation or alteration within species, and the far more ambitious developments of macro-evolution, in my view qualitatively different, which Darwinists believe in.

Oh, bleh…the usual “historical science” canard. That something happens slowly (or too quickly) or distantly (or on too small or too large a scale) so that one person can’t sit there and watch it happen directly before his favorite program comes up on the TV is one of the dumbest arguments in the creationist arsenal. It rules out all of astronomy and astrophysics and geology and cosmology and chemistry and anything that involves something more than a naive sense of naked eye measurement. How can you say glaciers covered much of the northern hemisphere? Were you there? No, but I can see the effects of their movement on the modern landscape. How can you say a star is carrying out nuclear reactions and producing new elements? Have you visited one? No, but an astronomer can interpret the spectra he measures. How can you claim that a reaction occurred in that tiny volume? All you see is one drop of clear fluid, and later it’s still a drop of clear fluid. Hey, chemists have sensitive devices like chromatographs and NMR gadgets that let them see what your eyes can’t.

We can see the effects of history on modern individuals. We can sequence genes, measure protein polymorphisms, follow patterns in morphology and see the record of macroevolutionary changes as clearly in life on earth as an astronomer can track stellar history in a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. That the ignorant are unwilling to read the data is not an argument, but it’s one they drag out with annoying frequency.

The fossil record is full of gaps and highly ambiguous. Species appear and disappear suddenly, which I should have thought would upset the Darwinist position quite badly, but somehow doesn’t.

The fossil record is not at all ambiguous: it reveals a history of radical turnover and change, exactly what evolutionary biology expects, and the body of evidence on which evolution was based. The appearance and disappearance of species is something that ought to perturb creationists far more—the fixity of species is historically part of creationist religious dogma, an absolute that has only recently begun to be loosened as they grasp incomprehendingly at the micro-/macro-evolutionary distinction in the forlorn hope that recognizing a small part of the evidence for change will spare them from complete irrelevance.

It’s a rule that creationists have to indulge us with hysterically ironic remarks. Hitchens does not disappoint.

All I ask is that people keep thinking about this, don’t get frightened of doing so, and don’t try to frighten others into orthodoxy, or to misrepresent opponents’ positions.

The only orthodoxy here is Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, which demands obedience to a religious interpretation of the evidence, and which tries to frighten people into accepting it with threats of hell and various punishments for even considering competing scientific interpretations. The biggest irony, though, is that this clueless dingleberry has babbled his ignorance of science aloud, and ends by piously begging others not to misrepresent the creationists.

OK, I won’t misrepresent Peter Hitchens. I’ll just point out that he’s a dishonest, sanctimonious fraud.

Comments

  1. #1 Ichthyic
    December 6, 2006

    And expressions such as ‘Creationism’ are used to
    suggest that a complex, nuanced position is in fact a crude Hillbilly
    superstition.

    complex, nuanced position?

    what has this guy been smoking?

  2. #2 Ichthyic
    December 6, 2006

    There is a segment of the population that needs that sort of thing isn’t there?

    change needs to desires, and I’d agree with that.

    a heroin addict desires their next fix, but they’d be far better off breaking the cycle, even if it causes discomfort.

  3. #3 Ichthyic
    December 6, 2006

    You’re even more pathetic in discussing these matters than Jonathan Wells is.

    far more, in fact, considering that Wells definetly knows better, but willfully continues misrepresenting science in his diatribes (for fun and profit).

    Hitchens is just another ignorant rube, like many media pundits.

  4. #4 Ichthyic
    December 6, 2006

    I took a look at some of the other articles written by Hitchens. What’s really funny, is that Hitchens, here arguing for “the center”, regails the exact same philosophical position in his earlier article:

    A strong argument against the centre ground

    Yikes, this guy’s thinking is messed up.

  5. #5 Mena
    December 6, 2006

    Good point Ichthyic, plus it would be good for society as a whole in both cases wouldn’t it?

  6. #6 poke
    December 6, 2006

    Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hitchens drunkard brother, describes himself as an “anti-theist”:

    There may be many things to be said against atheism – I’m not an atheist anyway, I’m an anti-theist. It would be horrible if it were true that we were designed and then created and then continuously supervised throughout all our lives waking and sleeping and then continue to be supervised after our deaths – if that were true, it would be horrible. I’m very glad there’s absolutely no evidence for it at all. It would be like living in a celestial North Korea. You can’t defect from North Korea but at least you can die. With monotheism they won’t let you die and get away from them. It’s the wish to be a slave. Who wants that to be true? It’s demanding the servile condition.

    In the same interview he responds to his brother’s views on evolution:

    Peter said one prefers to think Darwin is right. No, one takes the facts and examines them. The fact that one’s appearance on earth is a random process conditioned by evolution and will end in extinction isn’t a welcome conclusion. It’s just an inescapable one, and to be in denial about it is odd. And Darwinism is not the theory of evolution. It is a theory of evolution. The quarrel between say Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, two of the greatest of biologists and palaeontologists, about punctuated evolution shows there is a great deal to argue about and no one disputes that we have evolved. It’s in the fossil record.

    Religion and evolution are about the only things he’s ever gotten right though.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1496347,00.html

  7. #7 ichthyic
    December 6, 2006

    Good point Ichthyic, plus it would be good for society as a whole in both cases wouldn’t it?

    indeed it would.

  8. #8 Ichthyic
    December 6, 2006

    hmm, IIRC, there was some coverage of that both here and on Panda’s Thumb some time ago; do a search in the PT archives on the exact name of the survey referenced by the DI. (it used to be linked right on the front page of the DI site, BTW).

  9. #9 MTran
    December 6, 2006

    Thanks, Ichthyic, I’ll wander over to PT right now. I haven’t been there in a while.

  10. #11 MTran
    December 7, 2006

    Thank you once more, Ichthyic. I am in your debt!

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