Pharyngula

Appleyard must be fishing for more traffic

I am deeply, horribly ashamed. On the principle that one’s reputation is known by the quality of one’s enemies…I have the pathetic Bryan Appleyard acting as if he is my nemesis. You know a post is worthless when it begins with “Please note that at the end of this post P.Z.Myers will still be a jerk and I still won’t be,” and then goes downhill from there. But then, Andrew Sullivan thinks there’s some substance to Appleyard’s bilious nonsense, so I tried hard to see if there was some reasonable argument somewhere in his pouty whine. There isn’t; it’s mostly excuses for why his science writing is such godawful tripe and wrong-headed babble.

His big point, if he has one, is that evolution has become an ideology. In that he shares common ground with the ideologues of the Discovery Institute, and also reveals that he doesn’t know anything about science.

The big point is that […]ideology has migrated from politics to religion and science. This is bad for religion and very bad for science.
The minor reason it’s bad for science is it generates public confusion and mistrust. So, for example, mention intelligent design and the likes of Myers will be hurling abuse. But I gather from reading John Gribbin’s superb exposition In Search of the Multiverse that ID is, in fact, a perfectly respectable hypothesis among some physicists – the designer would not be a deity but a more technically advanced civilisation. So the world is ‘designed’ then? ‘No!’ howls Myers; ‘Maybe,’ murmur the physicists.

ID is also a perfectly respectable hypothesis among some biologists — the ones on the crank side of the spectrum. Most of the physicists I know are fairly sensible on the matter, and reject Intelligent Design creationism; the physicists aren’t murmuring “Maybe,” they’re walking quietly away from loons like Appleyard.

I thought Gribbin’s book was awful. Basically, he believes that if there are multiple universes, then all things are possible…and that maybe our universe is the creation of semi-god-like beings in another universe. This is not convincing. It’s simply deistic wishful thinking. Citing Gribbin as representative of common thought in the physics community is a bad idea.

It also misses the point. Sure, you can invent science fiction scenarios — the Big Bang was a science experiment in a grander metaverse, life was concocted in an alien laboratory and inoculated into our oceans 4 billion years ago — but these fantasies ignore the reality. Life was not designed, because we have the evidence of the processes that formed it and we see the relationships in living forms today. Appleyard is comparing hypothetical speculation about gaps in our knowledge with the concrete facts of life’s evolution on earth and pretending that his guesswork about physics is as good as the solid body of evidence in the scientific literature…of which he is completely oblivious.

This isn’t ideology. It’s the simple, plain fact that we can see in the molecules of our body our relationship to the weirdest marine annelid you can find, and that we can trace eons of history without invoking a single angelic intervention, yet can still explain in rough outline our origins. We are the progeny of worms, not clever cosmonauts from another dimension. Any physicist who tries to argue that ID is ‘respectable’ is an arrogant ignoramus with no knowledge of biology; even Gribbin is not arguing for intelligent design, but for a rather fuzzy version of pseudoscientific deism.

Not that Appleyard would be able to tell the difference. He’s a fellow whose mind is as muddled as a plate of scrambled eggs, and he thinks this is a virtue.

I was in the middle of writing on Friday when I noticed, as if for the first time, a habit of mine. For pace and economy I often set up a point of view without reservation or comment from me. Thus, for example, ‘Hitler was right. Arnold Bonkers says….’. This seems to confuse people. Furthermore, I tend to write hybrid pieces – typically about 20 per cent column and 80 per cent news feature. The latter involves transmission of information, but not for the purpose of illustrating my own approval of disapproval of something or other. This further confuses people. On top of that, I had to shorten the Darwin piece that all this fuss was about by about 40 per cent at the last minute. It happens. This required me to tighten up my economy and pace habit even further. This definitely confuses people.

To be clear: I have no problem with the plausibility and coherence of a Darwinian explanation of the development of the eye. Indeed, to be honest, I don’t care one way or another: it’s not on my agenda or within my realm of competence, though I do regard myself as free to report the views of those who do find it unconvincing.

So evolution isn’t within his ‘realm of competence,’ and he has just noticed that his writing style is confusing, but he insists on writing about the subject. That’s a plain admission that a) he’s ignorant, and b) his writing sucks. Which is what I’ve been saying all along.

At last! We agree on something!