Cheesed off

Brad Monton, creationists’ newest favorite atheist, is upset. Carl Zimmer and Sean Carroll, upset that BloggingHeads allowed and utterly bungled an interview between conservative linguist and apparent ID sycophant John McWhorter and creationist Michael Behe, have declared that they will not participate in diavlogs at that site any more. Monton, a philosopher who thinks every critique of ID creationism but his sucks goats, thinks thats a bad idea. His defense of this claim begins rockily and then crashes into a hill and catches fire. To whit:

while I’m no expert on biology, I find Behe’s arguments interesting and worth discussing, even though I ultimately think he’s wrong. There’s are some wrong ideas that aren’t worth discussing (like the claim that the moon is made of green cheese), but I think Behe’s arguments are on the other side of the line. (And even with the moon claim, it is interesting to think about what evidence we have for the claim that the moon isn’t made of green cheese, and what the moon would look like if it were.)

Now I think the claim that the moon is made of green cheese has no particular interest, least of all in the senses Monton advances. An object the size of the moon and made of cheese could not hold together. Plus, where did all the cows come from, and how did they get to space? It doesn’t make sense, which is why nursery tales aren’t science. As The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams notes, when that saying was initially coined in the 1500s, “Luna’s non-cheesiosity was not a matter regarding which even the rustics were in doubt.” It’s a statement meant to be obviously wrong, and inherently unworthy of discussion. That Monton still thinks there’s useful discourse to be had about how we know it’s wrong lets us calibrate his gullibility.

Monton continues:

So the question becomes: how should those who think that they aren’t worth discussing behave? Should they intellectually distance themseves from those who think that they are worth discussing? Or should they adopt more of a live-and-let-live attitude, and recognize that it’s worthwhile for those smart people who think that the ideas are worth discussing to be able to discuss them?

The latter strikes me as the right answer. Given that some smart educated people think that they are worth discussing, those who disagree should nevertheless be happy that the ideas are being discussed.

Shorter Monton: People who think a topic is too dumb to waste time on should be glad other people are wasting time on it in their stead.

But assuming that we value the potential contributions of people who are wasting time on such ideas, asking us to be happy with their time-wasting nonsense is asking us to give up something rather important. Bloggingheads has limited bandwidth, posts a limited number of videos, and has a large impact on the broader community. Bandwidth, pageviews and other resources consumed by the Behe/McWhorter love-fest are resources taken from what might be an edifying experience not just for other scientists (who will, and can, get nothing useful from Behe), but for the general public, who will be misled about the state of science and indeed the nature of science. This is hardly free, and people who find Bloggingheads’ apparent willingness to pander to creationists troublesome are free to protest that and withdraw from that conversation.

Monton objects to Carl Zimmer’s explanation that he is withdrawing from Bloggingheads because he feels that, in discussing science, “All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty.” Monton replies:

We have to be careful about restricting discussion to what’s based on peer-reviewed science. The revolutionary ideas come first, and peer-review comes later. In my opinion, a forum like bloggingheads should be a place where the revolutionary ideas can be discussed. This means that wrong ideas will end up being discussed too, but that’s a necessary consequence of open-minded intellectual inquiry.

Saying that revolutionary ideas come first is fairly trite, and is a form of the “they mocked Einstein, too” defense. The problem is, lots of crackpot ideas also come before peer review, and the difference between revolutionary ideas and crackpot ideas is that revolutionary ideas survive peer review, and crackpottery doesn’t.

Peer review doesn’t, however, block wrong ideas. It works to weed out implausible, impractical, and unsupported claims, but the scientific process thrives by putting imperfect ideas out before a community of scholars, who then pick at it and correct it. Most current scientific knowledge is wrong, but wrong to a much lesser degree than the body of knowledge a decade ago. That’s what peer review does.

For Monton’s benefit, evading peer review lets an author do several things that are bad for public discourse. First, it lets someone repeat claims which have already been extensively rebutted. This is a common trick played by creationists, including Michael Behe. It doesn’t matter how often people present plausible evolutionary mechanisms by which supposedly irreducibly complex structures could have evolved, he’ll keep claiming evolution can’t explain those structures. Indeed, he’ll keep claiming irreducible complexity is a legitimate argument for ID after he’s been forced to concede that irreducible complexity is not presently formulated as a valid test of evolution. Never mind the oft-repeated (and oft-ignored) point that a test of known evolutionary mechanisms would still not be a meaningful test of ID.

In this sense, Behe’s claims are not merely wrong, they are egregiously, bull-headedly wrong. Peer-review (when implemented right) forces authors to confront the claims of their critics, and not just repeat fallacious claims. By evading peer review, Behe is giving himself an excuse for various forms of intellectual dishonesty, permission to degrade the public discourse.

Evading peer review doesn’t mean that authors have to be right, but they have to have at least plausible claims. Monton acknowledges that he isn’t an expert in this field, and as someone who is, I feel comfortable saying that Behe’s claims are not biologically plausible. Peer review operates as a service to people like Monton, people who could easily be swayed by what Carl Zimmer rightly calls “specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty.” Not everyone has the background to evaluate Behe’s claims, and unless Monton wants to become an expert on biochemistry, evolution, and molecular biology, he ought to rely on the peer review process to catch egregiously bad arguments, such as those advanced by Behe and other creationists.

That’s not to say he shouldn’t engage their philosophy, but until he has the biological background to detect BS on his own, he and the general public should do what scientists have done for some time now: trust the process of review by relevant experts to weed out the egregiously wrong claims from the peer reviewed literature, and treat material that skirts peer review as inherently untrustworthy.

Comments

  1. #1 Glen Davidson
    September 3, 2009

    Monton’s a fool. Paley was interesting and worth discussing, but then he was someone who faulted evolutionary ideas of his time of being untestable, while he simply claimed that results of god’s designs would be similar to those of human “architects” and “artificers.” And Darwin took him seriously, coming up with an evolutionary concept that was testable, while he also tested Paley’s ideas and showed clearly that known design processes didn’t produce animals.

    Since then, ID has been worse than an idea like that of the moon being made of green cheese, because it attempts to change science to accept woo (an inscrutable designer who needn’t be god, but must be like god–able to fashion a universe), and for the equivalent of “it looks like it’s designed” be the actual “test” of ID.

    IOW, there are ideas not worth discussing–not because they aren’t slightly interesting (if Behe’s claims really fit that criterion)–but because they are patently deceptive, dishonest, and intended to destroy long-standing judicial and scientific standards for evidence and for understanding of that evidence. Madoff might have something interesting to say as well, but financial analysts discussing his earlier claims as if they were honest and worthy financial statements would give false conceptions to the public which expects more discrimimating analysis from the experts. That is to say, a crook should be called a crook.

    Behe mis-states just about everything about science and evolution in his books. He misrepresents science as if it legitimately accepts the IDists’ false dilemma (if it didn’t evolve, God the Designer), he ignores the fact that he needs actual evidence for design (rationality or purpose, for instance), he explains nothing about why the history of life in genomes and in the fossil record accord with the predictions of non-teleological evolutionary theory, and perhaps worst of all, he fails to come up with a plausible causal mechanism in his “model.”

    He’s telling falsehoods to us and to the public, iow. Are falsehoods really worthy of consideration by scientists, or should they call a crook a crook?

    Monton’s too bad at philosophy to recognize that someone playing the system and attempting to deceive happens to deserve no scientific consideration–let alone to be given a spot on a science forum. There is something to be said for scientists and other competents answering Behe, but only to show how he misrepresents nearly everything in his statements about ID and evolution. Whether he’s really ignorant enough to believe what he says is not my concern, what matters is that in practical terms he is a charlatan, much as Madoff was.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  2. #2 RBH
    September 3, 2009

    From Monton’s quotation:

    while I’m no expert on biology, I find Behe’s arguments interesting and worth discussing, even though I ultimately think he’s wrong.

    Shorter Glen: If Monton knew some biology and some history of evolutionary ideas, he’d know why Behe’s arguments aren’t worth discussing.

  3. #3 Dr. Puck
    September 4, 2009

    Read Monton’s article

    Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision
    http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00002583/

    It’s safe to say Dr. Monton sets out 4 points he is going to argue for and approaches each such argument completely sideways. This paper alone sets Monton’s approaches out. They are really funny, albeit not nutritious at all.

    Monton’s basic round is: ‘Nobody has proved ID not possible.’ and, ‘science doesn’t preclude theoretical novelty.’

    Head-slappingly jejune.

  4. #4 The Curmudgeon
    September 4, 2009

    I, for one, think Apollo’s sun chariot is an interesting idea that’s worth discussing. Teach the controversy!

  5. #5 Bilbo
    September 11, 2009

    Hi Josh,

    First, I watched the first few minutes of the McWhorter/Behe diavlog, and after McWhoter’s skunk evolution example, realized that I wouldn’t learn anything I hadn’t already learned from reading Behe’s books. So I agree with editor Wright’s opinion that Behe should have been interviewed by an expert. I disagree with Wright that the conversation would necessarily have become too technical for a lay audience to follow. A good interviewer could have made sure technical issues were explained.

    Second, a discussion of why the moon isn’t made of green cheese can be interesting. You wrote: “An object the size of the moon and made of cheese could not hold together.” That’s an interesting comment, which could lead to a good physics lesson for a lay audience.

    Third, judging by Behe’s responses at his blog, his critique of neo-Darwinism hasn’t been properly refuted. Further, it isn’t just IDists such as Behe who are attacking neo-Darwinism. Lynn Margulis has been claiming that neo-Darwinism is dead for quite a while now. Why is nobody attacking her as a crackpot?

  6. #6 Josh Rosenau
    September 13, 2009

    I would suggest that Behe is not the best judge of whether his arguments are refuted.

    It has been obvious to nonspecialists that the moon isn’t made of cheese for 5 centuries, so I see nothing inherently interesting about the physics behind the refutation.

    Finally, what Margulis means when she says she isn’t a neo-Darwinist is rather different than what Behe means. She means that the modern synthesis of the ’40s is incomplete because it fails to adequately account for symbiosis and cooperative interactions. She has conducted experiments and analyses which actually demonstrate the action of her proposed additions to the synthesis. She has occasionally pushed those ideas beyond the available evidence, and is sometimes regarded as verging on crackpottery, but her ideas generate clear and testable hypotheses, which she then tests. Behe poses no detailed alternate model. He falsely claims evolution cannot do things it has repeatedly been show to do. He has not developed an active research program to test his ideas, which is unsurprising given that his ideas generate no testable hypotheses. This, by any reasonable standard, is crackpottery.

  7. #7 Bilbo
    September 14, 2009

    Josh wrote: I would suggest that Behe is not the best judge of whether his arguments are refuted.

    I agree, but he offers rebuttals of all the available attacks on his arguments, and his rebuttals seem rather convincing.

    It has been obvious to nonspecialists that the moon isn’t made of cheese for 5 centuries, so I see nothing inherently interesting about the physics behind the refutation.

    I was referring to your statement that, “An object the size of the moon and made of cheese could not hold together.” Non-specialist, such as myself, wouldn’t know that, it is inherently interesting to me, at least.

    Finally, what Margulis means when she says she isn’t a neo-Darwinist is rather different than what Behe means. She means that the modern synthesis of the ’40s is incomplete because it fails to adequately account for symbiosis and cooperative interactions. She has conducted experiments and analyses which actually demonstrate the action of her proposed additions to the synthesis. She has occasionally pushed those ideas beyond the available evidence, and is sometimes regarded as verging on crackpottery, but her ideas generate clear and testable hypotheses, which she then tests.

    You’ve misrepresented Margulis. She thinks that neo-Darwinism is almost a complete failure at explaining evolution, largely for the same reasons that Behe thinks it is, though not nearly as well argued as Behe. I suggest you read her book, Acquiring Genomes. Once it is clear to you that Margulis makes the same claim that neo-Darwinism has failed to explain evolution, then feel free to call her a crackpot.

    Behe poses no detailed alternate model.

    That doesn’t refute his arguments against neo-Darwinism.

    He falsely claims evolution cannot do things it has repeatedly been show to do.

    I haven’t seen a clear refutation of his claims.

    Clearly showing that his arguments are wrong would be a good test.

    This, by any reasonable standard, is crackpottery.

    Then we may conclude that Behe is not a crackpot.

  8. #8 Bilbo
    September 14, 2009

    Or one can just read the interview of Margulis here:

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0903/S00194.htm

    Josh wrote: He has not developed an active research program to test his ideas, which is unsurprising given that his ideas generate no testable hypotheses.

    At first I thought by “his ideas,” you meant his arguments against neo-Darwinism, which stand or fall regardless of whether he has an alternative hypothesis. But now I realize you probably also meant intelligent design. Behe’s argument orignal argument, from Darwin’s Black Box, was a combination of the improbability of non-intelligent hypotheses, combined with the similarity between irreducibly complex systems and known designed objects, such as complex machines. In The Edge of Evolution, he strengthens his argument by linking apparent design in biology with apparent design of the universe, of our planet, and even of our moon (the latter two being based on the book, Rare Earth).

    So as it stands, Behe’s alternative hypothesis of design can be strengthened or weakened by analyzing the probability of non-design in biology or cosmology, or by showing the dissimilarity with known design.

    Mike Gene offers two more promising categories that can strengthen or weaken the design hypothesis: Foresight and Rationality. See his book, The Design Matrix, or visit his blog at…oh what was that address?

  9. #9 Bilbo
    September 14, 2009

    From Margulis’s interview:

    “The real disagreement about what the neo-Darwinists tout, for which there’s very little evidence, if any, is that random mutations accumulate and when they accumulate enough, new species originate. The source of purposeful inherited novelty in evolution, the underlying reason the new species appear, is not random mutation rather it is symbiogenesis, the acquisition of foreign genomes.”

  10. #10 Bilbo
    September 14, 2009

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