Stranger Fruit

Expertise and opinion

Over at the Pandas Thumb, "ThisIsPerfection" accuses me of using an argument from authority when I posted the composition of the 300 signatories of the DI’s "Dissent from Darwinism" list. I beg to differ. It is the DI itself that is engaging in such an argument. Witness:

More than 700 Ph.D. scientists have adopted a statement expressing skepticism of the core mechanism of modern Darwinian theory and urging a careful examination of the evidence ( Those scientists include members of the national academy of sciences in several countries, as well as professors at Princeton, MIT, Tulane, UCLA, Ohio State, and the University of Michigan.

Now that is a classic argument from authority.

Look, we’ve been through this many times before. The plain fact is that the vast majority of the signatories – being chemists, physicists, engineers and suchlike – have no obvious expertise in evolutionary biology. What they do have, however, is an opinion. As the adage goes, everyone has an opinion.


  1. #1 Jefe
    January 9, 2008

    Debunking an argument from authority != an argument from authority.

  2. #2 qetzal
    January 9, 2008

    In any case, I thought the actual fallacy was “argument from inappropriate authority.” That’s what DI’s list does.

    I don’t think citing appropriate authorities in support of an argument is fallacious. It may not be very strong support, since even appropriate authorities can be wrong, but that’s a different matter.

  3. #3 Sigmund
    January 9, 2008

    “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of the theory of quantum mechanics to account for the full range of physical phenomenon seen in the universe. Careful examination of the evidence for quantum theory should be encouraged.”

    Imagine if this was circulated amongst the scientific community and it was signed by 200 biologists, 50 chemists, thirty computer scientists and twenty physicists. Of the 20 those qualified in physics, none are at the forefront of their research and all 20 are known to be active members of a fundamentalist religion.
    Does anyone seriously think that the physics community would accept this list as a valid controversy in their field of research suggesting that we should abandon quantum theory?

  4. #4 JamesLS
    January 9, 2008

    There is little doubt that modern evolutionary biologists and most other scientists consider the counter-evolutionary views expressed by the 700 ‘unqualified’ PhD’s as pure hokum. Yet, their strategy is pure gold in the ongoing public debate. In a personal example, I am having a difficult time explaining the complexity of ‘valid’ scientific qualification to some of my nonscience educated relatives.

    While Sigmund’s comment contains an excellent example of a valid rejoinder, most such examples offered by scientists only reverberate within our own scientific sound baffles…muffled to the majority of the public. We need to do a better job of reaching the majority of the public with valid (and ‘catchy’) rejoinders that the public can use in personal conversations. Think David Letterman and Keith Olberman. Think N, not solely n.

  5. #5 Sigmund
    January 9, 2008

    JamessLS, I actually agree with you on this one. The example I gave above is really aimed at physicists, chemists and engineers, who have kept quiet since they don’t think this issue affects them.
    As for the general public, I am much more in favor of the flying spaghetti monster approach, which acts to both counteract the ‘evolution versus protestant creationism’ false dichotomy, and which also throws a little humor on the scene (it creates a Lisa Simpson versus Ned Flanders type situation that a lot of people can relate to).

  6. #6 John Mashey
    January 9, 2008

    I’ll amplify what JamesLS notes: this stuff *isn’t* propagated with intent to change the minds of the relevant scientific community, just as similar lists (Morano’s recent 400 list, or the 100-list just before that, although to be fair, Morano drafted people.)

    Unfortunately, it’s not clear that blog-debunking list N when it appears does anything to deter list N+1 when it appears. What is the probability that DI will issue list N+1 sometime? [~1.0, I’d guess.]

    I suggest musing on other tactics:

    1) In the climate science area, I’ve found useful, in that reiteration of tired old arguments can be counted, not with more words, but just saying: look at this list, it’s #s 2, 5, and 7.
    That makes the point how repetitive something is, and is terse enough to work in letter-to-editor and websites with short word limits.

    2) DeSMogBLog has a list of professional global warming deniers, although not organized as handily as 1).

    3) ExxonSecrets and SourceWatch sometimes list interesting people. I sometimes wish for a good database of these folks.

    4) One wonders, are there any *consequences* to an actual signer of such petitions? Some certainly know what they are signing. Perhaps others are misled? Are there any for whom widespread knowledge that they’d signed, among their colleagues / customers might make them think harder about signing N+1? Are there any appropriate ways to make people think twice about putting their names on such things? Are there any cases in which picking a few signers and shining a spotlight on them can help?


  7. #7 TSK
    January 10, 2008

    As you directly address the criticism, I have moved the debate here (-) me (+) you:

    (-) If experts from other fields agree with you, you take
    that as evidence for the correctness of your claim.

    (+) Please show me where I make such a claim.

    This is not a “claim”, it is the inevitable outcome if you stick with your proposition that you don’t care what experts from other fields say and they shouldn’t care what do you say for their field of expertise.
    Lets say someone can prove that the current explanation of evolution is practically impossible if the Earth is 1000 years old. You walk to the physics and geology department and ask: “How old is the Earth ?”. You get the answer: “Four
    billion years”. You have three options:
    a) accept it
    b) ignore it/say it’s not conclusive/you are skeptical etc.
    c) deny it

    c) isn’t possible by your proposition because you are lacking the knowledge to deny expertise. While b) is less negative, it is pretty hard to defend by your proposition.
    The outcome means a) which feels good because you were in the right. So you can refute the young earth argument by refering to the expert.

    Same situation. Now someone claims that evolution defies entropy. Again the march to the physics and chemistry department. But now the answer: “Yes, evolution is impossible. You are in the wrong”. Now you are bit testy because you are normally ending again in a). But…who says that they are “real” experts ? In fact, your only way to defend your opinion by your proposition is to deny expertise. And that is exactly what you are doing here.

    It all ends in cherrypicking the opinions which you like
    like a politician.

    (+) Let me fix that for you. If experts from other fields disagree with you regarding your field, you take that as evidence for their incompetence. See? It makes sense now.

    Ah. Now *I* with no expertise in biology am asking a evolutionary biologist: Does species selection exist ?
    First I am meeting Dawkins and he says “No”. Then, by pure coincidence I meet a Gouldian and he says “Yes”. I ask: Is the existence of a supernatural being compatible with biology ? I meet Collins and he says “Yes”. I meet Myers and he says “$&%*%*/* !!!”

    What now ?

    (+) I’m well aware that physicists determine the age of the Earth (not using the sun or radiocarbon dating though). However, the age of the earth is not an area of research within evolutionary biology (or the subset of such called “Darwinism”). [Other examples]

    Irrelevant. If the time frame for evolution is too short, evolution theory would be dead. It is impossible to explain
    evolution if earth is 10 000 years old as it is impossible
    to stonewall a complete house in less than ten seconds.
    And besides the rate of cooling it was the available energy
    of the sun which placed an upper limit on the possibility of life (If no sun, no life on earth). Kelvin and other physicists pinned down the possible lifetime to millions of years assuming gravitational contraction. {Sorry for my slippery, I meant radioisotopic methods).

    And many (if not even the most) attacks on evolution and its subset darwinism comes from other fields than evolutionary biology and there are not evolutionary biologists who are dealing with that.

    Experts are not infallible, even Einstein did embarrassing errors. Using its own brain to evaluate statements is a necessity. Stupidly swallowing every word from an expert is just another form of faith and it is even worse than obliging religious instructions because it is done in the name of reason. I have been caught several times when I unknowingly committed an inaccuracy in my field of expertise
    by non-experts simply by asking thoroughly.

    It is intellectually dishonest to attack people by ad hominem (idiots), ad crumenam (they don’t have a job) or guilt by association (they have signed other questionable documents). *Especially* if the signed statement does not promote creationism or intelligent design. Signed statements
    are simply worthless to settle a question, this was true during the “100 scientists vs Einstein” era and it is still

    Myers have been tricked to occur in an movie attacking evolution, is Myers now a creationist ?

  8. #8 SLC
    January 10, 2008

    Re TSK

    1, Lord Kelvins’ calculation of the cooling rate of the earth did not take into account radioactive decay in the interior as the phenomena was unknown at the time. Kelvin himself later admitted that the discovery of radioactive decay invalidated his calculations.

    2. A physicist who declares that evolution is impossible due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics is incompetent as that law only applies to closed systems; the earth is not a closed system.

  9. #9 JamesLS
    January 10, 2008


    I too am a huge fan of the flying spaghetti monster (FSM). It is delightfully humorous and directly to the point when I am discussing religion(s) vrs my atheism with a relatively educated crowd. Yet, to my disappointment, when I use the FSM approach with less educated religious folks (my sister, for example) I find that they are quickly (almost immediately) turned-off or ‘deafened’ to whatever else I have to say because they believe that I am attacking their heartfelt religious beliefs.

    I sincerely wish that I were a PsychoHistorian (a little Isaac Asimov – Foundation trilogy humor), so that I would mathmatically know exactly what to do to fix the problem…but, I don’t know. I can only truthfully present the facts of the issue in as non-threatening manner as possible, hoping for a good outcome.

    I want to convince creationist that science is not their enemy, not that science views their religion as foolish. I want them to see that science is (potentially) compatable with an enlightened religious belief. I know that this approach can work, because my baptist minister father did eventually accepted evoloution. Trust me, a truly hard sell on my part.

    I know, some will say that I am simply asking creationists to take one or two steps on a journey that will eventially lead them to see the foolishness of religion. I see the truth in that counter position. But, I want to lead them willingly along the road to understanding. I do not think they will go along this path if I pressure them with jeers and humiliation.

    Sigmund, I believe that you understand this reasoning. I believe I fully understand yours. We are not that far apart. I simply wish that we could convince more scientists that a system of rewarding logical thought, although slow, is more effective than sneering at their ignorance from our ivory towers.

    In any case, my best wishes to you and yours.

  10. #10 Chris Noble
    January 10, 2008

    Signed statements are simply worthless to settle a question, this was true during the “100 scientists vs Einstein” era and it is still true.

    Well at least you got one thing right.
    Somebodies opinion is never an excuse for evidence no matter how credentialled that person is.

    The characteristic feature of the various lists such as “Dissent from Darwin” is that they are meant to be a substitute for evidence. They are not directed to scientists but rather to lay people who do not have the time, desire or background to evaluate the evidence by themselves.

  11. #11 John Mashey
    January 11, 2008

    re: #6
    I ran across this at Stoat:

    Wow! I didn’t realize there were so many arguments; climate change denialists are pikers by comparison.

  12. #12 Sigmund
    January 11, 2008

    JamesLS, I can understand where you are coming from but I think that there is an inherent problem with the idea that everyone is potentially open to reason on this matter. In my opinion there is a hard core of people who can never be convinced by scientific evidence. Its not an exclusive religious thing either – look at the 911 truthers or the anti-vaccination or HIV deniers. Creationists are a special case. How do you convince someone who is trained to believe that the more convincing the argument then the more likely that it is Satan trying to tempt them away from Gods truth?
    My view is that we must, unfortunately abandon these people and concentrate on the large numbers who ARE open to convincing. The tactics that work with this group may indeed infuriate the creationists but so will anything they disagree with but we must not let this fact deter us from tactics that actually succeed with the moderates.

  13. #13 TSK
    January 11, 2008


    Correct. But in the 19th century the matter of time was one of main objections against Darwins theory because as you noted radioactive decay was unknown.

    The main argument in the second case was that the reaction to negative confirmations drives the questioner with the given proposition to question the authority. The negation was made for the sake of the argument; I was aware that the answer of the physicist is wrong (Or do you have a better objection against evolution which can be confirmed ?).

  14. #14 TomS
    January 11, 2008


    2. A physicist who declares that evolution is impossible due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics is incompetent as that law only applies to closed systems; the earth is not a closed system.

    I am not a scientist, but my understanding of the 2nd law of thermodynamics is that it applies in all systems. It is true that it says that entropy increases in closed systems, but the 2lot is more general than that, and applies in open systems, too.

    The standard creationist response to your claim is something like this: If the 2lot applied only to open systems, then there wouldn’t be a whole lot that it applied to.

    What then happens is that there is a dispute about the meaning of the 2lot, and the outside observer, who is ignorant of science, sees this as a “genuine” “scientific” “contoversy”. That is a victory for creationism.

    Myself, I prefer to point out that the laws of thermodynamics apply to “intelligent designers”. These laws were developed in the 19th century when the cleverest of engineers came up against certain limits to what they could do. If there were something that didn’t obey the laws of thermodynamics, “intelligent design” would be one of the last places to look for an explanation.

    This, I believe, points out once again that there is no explanation from “intelligent design”. It doesn’t allow the creationists to argue over the issues that they want to, as if there were a real scientific controversy or alternative.

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