Joe Carter strings together some noise

Joe Carter is making a curiously convoluted argument. He's trying to get at why the majority of the American public does not accept the theory of evolution, and he's made a ten part list of reasons, which boils down to placing the blame on the critics of intelligent design creationism. We're all bad, bad people who are doing a bad, bad job of informing the public and doing a good job of antagonizing them. There is a germ of truth there—I do think we all have to do a better job of educating American citizens—but what makes it a curious and ultimately dishonest argument is that Joe Carter is a creationist. It's one thing for an evolutionist to complain that the facts are on our side and we're doing a piss-poor job of communicating them, but it is a weird thing for a creationist to complain that we do a poor job of communicating the facts, while neglecting to mention that the facts are all against his personal view of life's origins. The impression it leaves is that Joe Carter doesn't like evolution because those dang 'Darwinists' are all poopy-heads.

Let's go through each of Carter's 10 complaints (which you can find in parts I, II, and III), and you'll see that he even bungles the task of putting together a logical argument: it's loaded with false premises and inconsistencies.

  1. "By remaining completely ignorant about ID while knocking down strawman versions of the theory." Joe tries to claim that the critics of Intelligent Design creationism don't have any idea what the theory entails.

    I know that the majority of us working out of the Panda's Thumb have actually read a significant number of the source documents for the ID movement. I've read Johnson, Behe, Wells, Dembski, and of course, the Wedge document. We've read this stuff in painful detail. If it's not vacuous, please do tell us what the "theory" actually means, because all we see is uninformed people sniping at deficiencies in modern evolutionary theory, not well-intentioned contributors to science who are making productive additions to our body of knowledge.

  2. "By claiming that ID is stealth creationism." Joe finds it offensive and bigoted that one dismissal of his favorite theory is that it is a pseudo-scientific façade fronting old-style creationism.

    Look ahead to his argument #7, where Joe is going to argue that evolution is stealth atheism. If this is a bad argument against ID, why does he think it is a good argument against evolution? Consistency is not one of his valued attributes.

    He also complains that labeling ID as creationism ignores the fact that the "vast majority of people throughout history have believed in at least a basic form of creationism". This is a silly reason to demand respect for an idea; humans for most of their history have probably been animists, and even now Christianity is a minority belief, so if we're going to go with some kind of majority vote here, Joe's ideas are defunct, too. Also note in argument #7 he's going to belittle the majority opinion of the world's scientists.

    Finally, ID is stealth creationism—the Dover decision settled that by looking into the history of the idea. Truth is a pretty good reason to make an argument, I think.

  3. "By resorting to 'science of the gaps' arguments." Joe thinks claiming that science will find an answer to a problem is equivalent to the "god of the gaps" argument. He does the usual creationist thing of complaining about mysteries of science, such as abiogenesis.

    Unfortunately, Joe gets it wrong again. We don't claim of every mystery that "science will find it," and I know for sure that our ignorance will outweigh our knowledge throughout my lifetime and long beyond. I am also sure that there are many things we can't know, because the information is simply lost. Science is not an answer, it's a tool and a process, and it's the only one we've got. When we see a gap in our knowledge, what scientists do is try to come up with practical, natural procedures to fill it in and get the best answers we can. So, yes, when I see something I don't understand, I say we should try to develop a solid, evidence-based answer, and the way to do that is through the scientific method. Does Joe have a better alternative?

  4. "By claiming that ID isn't science since it's not published peer-reviewed literature…and then refusing to allow publications of ID papers in peer-reviewed journals." He's whining about the atrocious Stephen Meyer paper that was published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, slipped in with sloppy peer review under the negligent eye of Richard Sternberg.

    I've read the Meyer paper. It was terrible: poor scholarship, flagrant handwaving, a lot of empty noise. Doesn't it say something that the only way it could get published was in a relatively obscure journal with a baraminologist as acting editor, and that it was later repudiated by more responsible officers of the journal? Science has standards. Rise to them or forget about being accepted.

  5. "By making claims that natural selection is responsible for all behaviors and biological features." He's making a legitimate argument that a theory that explains everything might just be an empty theory that has left no means of testing it. That's a fair cop. I'm not a fan of just-so stories, either.

    Joe conflates a reasonable complaint and a demand for evidence that every scientist wants with a jumble of confusion, though.

    Why did we lose our body hair? Sex selection. Why do we retain some body hair? Yep, sex selection. Why do humans walk on two legs? Again, the same answer, sex selection. Why do dogs walk on all four? You guessed it, sex selection.

    Uh, "sex selection"? He's confusing natural selection with a distinctly different process, sexual selection. It does help make your argument that there is one arbitrary blanket explanation for everything if you ignorantly collapse multiple mechanisms into just one, I suppose.

    What Joe doesn't understand is that there are a set of general principles proposed, such as natural selection, sexual selection, or common descent, and that then because evolution is in part a historical science, there are also a set of particulars that have to be explained. Sometimes those particulars are not clear from the evidence we have at hand, and he's right, the explanations are unconvincing. That doesn't mean the general principles are wrong.

    For example, if a plane crashes, one general answer is "gravity did it." It's not a very satisfying answer, though, and we want the specific historical details: "cold weather caused ice to form on the wing, causing a loss of lift, allowing gravitational force to dominate." The creationists, on the other hand, want to do the equivalent of saying that the existence of ice means gravity is false.

  6. "By invoking design in non-design explanations." Joe complains that biologists use the word "design" when talking and writing about biology, therefore it is reasonable for an audience to assume they mean intelligent design.

    The semantic argument is complete nonsense. We are human beings, using language that evolved in a human context, and that is rich in a vocabulary and grammar that assumes intent and intelligent, human actors. The principles of evolutionary biology are abstract, complex, and driven by complex stochastic process that are rather poorly represented in colloquial language. We have to get very technical or mathematical or assemble very convoluted grammatical constructions to reduce the biases of human language in our discussions. When, in order to explain things to a non-technical audience, or in general introductions to a subject, we use metaphors or casual language, it does not imply that the protein or pathway or organism we're discussing was literally designed—it says we are using English (or whatever language you want). You know, a language that arose because people wanted to talk to other people about things that interest people.

    This is actually an argument against Intelligent Design creationism, not evolution. It's the IDists who are always making this shallow conflation of language describing something with the actuality: "Oooh, he said 'design'! Therefore, God exists." It's one of the dumbest arguments in the creationist arsenal.

  7. "By claiming that the criticism of ID has nothing to do with a prejudice against theism — and then having the most vocal critics of ID be anti-religious atheists." Again, there's a germ of truth to this complaint, but it's not the germ he addresses. He points out that the overwhelming majority of biologists are unbelievers, and then simultaneously complains that many of the vocal critics of Intelligent Design creationism are atheists, and that ID is criticized because of anti-religious bigotry.

    Personally, I think scientists ought to speak out more against the silliness of religion, and I'm a bit tired of the appeasers on my side who want to pretend that religion and science are fully compatible. I'd reverse his complaint a little: it's hypocritical that we keep trotting out god-worshippers as spokespeople for evolution. They just aren't at all representative. A lot of the ID debunkers are godless, but we're actually under-represented relative to the proportion of atheist scientists he cites.

    It's not bigotry, though. Think about it. Most scientists did not get their religious beliefs from their parents, so it's not childhood indoctrination. In college, religion is almost never mentioned in science classes, and there is no proscription against going to church—if anything, college campuses are loaded with desperate pastors and preachers and Christian outreach centers, trying hard to garner recruits. There's no atheist propaganda in grad school, either, as we're supposed to be shackled to the bench, doing our work. How is it that such a phenomenal percentage of biologists end up rejecting religious belief in the absence of any kind of overt proselytizing against religion?

    Could it be that training in critical thinking and having the importance of logic and evidence hammered into you day after day is exactly the kind of discipline that religion fails to meet?

  8. "By separating origins of life science from evolutionary explanations." It's simply no fair that biologists try to separate questions of the evolution of life from the origins of life—it means poor Joe can't just say, "you don't know how DNA arose" to refute the hominid evolutionary series.

    What a sad complaint. I think there is a valid point to be made that chemical evolution and the origins of life from non-life are part of the story of life on earth, and there is a lot of good work being done in that field (none of which seem to be on Joe Carter's radar.) However, it is reasonable to constrain arguments to the relevant facts. If you want to argue that humans didn't evolve, you're going to have to argue against the facts that show that they did, not some random gap in our knowledge.

    He also complains that it's reasonable to expect "the various parts to be stitched back into a seamless whole." That's correct. That's what the theory of evolution does—it ties together various details as aspects of an ongoing process.

  9. "By resorting to ad hominems instead of arguments (e.g., claiming that advocates of ID are 'ignorant')." Don't call us ignorant!

    I have to laugh at this one. Go back to Joe's #1 complaint, in which he accuses biologists of being "completely ignorant," guilty of "intellectual snobbery" and "intellectual laziness." I assume he must have figured his readers were so stupid that they'd forget what they read in Part I, #1, by the time they got to Part III, #9.

    Joe also doesn't understand what "ad hominem" means. If I accuse Fred of having a DUI arrest on his record, and therefore his understanding of evolutionary biology is erroneous, that is an ad hominem. It's an attempt to smear a person's character on the basis of an irrelevant datum rather than addressing the substance of the argument at hand. On the other hand, if I point out that Fred has never studied evolutionary biology, doesn't seem to have read any of the contemporary sources, and has made a series of outrageous errors in his explanations of biology, that is not an ad hominem at all—that's a perfectly reasonable impeachment of Fred's relevant knowledge.

    Joe claims that he's just as competent as another person he has argued with about evolutionary biology. I don't know about that, but I think he has set the bar awfully low, when he can write this long screed babbling about "sex selection" and decrying one of the most firmly supported theories in biology as false. Joe Carter is ignorant of biology. That's also not an ad hominem.

  10. "By not being able to believe their own theory." I'm afraid that Joe's last point is incoherent and makes no sense at all. He's somehow trying to argue that biologists don't believe humans are subject to the processes of evolution, and that evolution is invalid because scientists try to exempt ourselves from it.

    I don't know what Carter is smoking here, because this is as completely false as anything else he has said. Biologists certainly do think humans have been, are now, and will be subject to the processes of evolution. To back up this weird claim, he cites some philosopher, David Stove, who says odd and equally incomprehensible things like this:

    Do you know of even one human being who ever had as many descendants as he or she could have had? And yet Darwinism says that every single one of us does. For there can clearly be no question of Darwinism making an exception of man, without openly contradicting itself. 'Every single organic being', or 'each organic being': this means you.

    Errm, what? 'Darwinism' says no such thing, nor does any form of modern evolutionary biology. Humans aren't excepted from biology, and anyone who tells you differently is ignorant.

    Great job, Joe! Ending your tirade with a climactic point that was a paragon of sloppy thinking, ridiculous straw men, and illogical nonsense was a brilliant stroke!

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Errm, what? 'Darwinism' says no such thing, nor does any form of modern evolutionary biology. Humans aren't excepted from biology, and anyone who tells you differently is ignorant.

Hmmmm... Isn't it THEIR side that seeks to elevate humans above all other mammals? To me that smacks of excepting humans from biology. But I'm no scientist. :-)

Maybe he could do a Reader's Digest version. Asking people to slog through that list is not reasonable.

Devoutly to be wished:

10 Ways Intelligent Designers Waste Everybody's Time With Their Muddleheaded, Moronic Blather

Do you know of even one human being who ever had as many descendants as he or she could have had? And yet Darwinism says that every single one of us does.

We see that in recent times, any women could physically have had 14-16 children, and any man could physically have had many times that -- who is it that has ever claimed that each human has "as many descendants as he or she could have had" -- who ever, anywhere has claimed that each human has had at least a dozen kids?

Just slogging through number 1 was enough to show that Joe doesn't know what he is talking about.

The reason Americans are so ignorant of evolution is tied to the very active and vocal religious nuts we have in this nation. A group who actively spends money towards twarting education.

I've heard of Stove. He's an interesting case - an Aussie wingnut (or "curmudgeon", if you prefer) who poured vitriol on everything from feminism and literary theory to, well, everything else to his left. All this from a position of dogmatic (uh, "hard-nosed") scientific rationalism (think Hume); so it's interesting seeing the wingnuts quote him approvingly when one of his main targets was religious lunacy. In his book The Plato Cult he goes off on all the ridiculous things philosophers have said about the number three - and his first example (I think) is the Trinity.

In this case, "Darwinism" (as in his book Darwinian Fairytales) seems to mean not evolutionary theory but what we call sociobiology. (But he's not always clear.)

PZ,

Personally, I think scientists ought to speak out more against the silliness of religion, and I'm a bit tired of the appeasers on my side who want to pretend that religion and science are fully compatible.

Are a car mechanics box of tools and a child psychologists box of stuffed animals fully compatible? The comparison is not meaningful. Why set up a conflict where none exisits? It's a category error. Scientists speaking out "against the silliness of religion" is as ridiculous as a ministers offering a critique on biological science.

The valid complaint is that people without any particularly relevant training or expertise in a field sometimes offer silly evaluations of it. But that cuts both ways. Where does the scientist -- as scientists -- get the experitise to criticize religion?

Seems like you are conflating the lunatic fringe of the religious community (Carter being a good example of that fringe) with everything religous.

Do you know of even one human being who ever had as many descendants as he or she could have had?

The Chinese emperors kept harems numbering in the thousands of women. Other emperors have behaved in the same fashion. That seems to pretty much fit the bill.

Of course, for anyone without collossal wealth and power, a more effective strategy is generally to ensure that the kids you do have do well. This approach manifests itself in arrangements like the traditional nuclear family, and is a perfectly valid evolutionary strategy.

By Corkscrew (not verified) on 13 Aug 2006 #permalink

Reader's Digest version:

#1. You are ignorant.
#2. You are not nice.
#3. You complicate everything.
#4. You are snobs.
#5. You leave out God.
#6. You are closet Intelligent Designers.
#7. You are not allowed to be anti-religious.
#8. You begin in the middle.
#9. Stop attacking us.
#10. If you have read Darwin, you can't possibly believe what he says.

"By claiming that the criticism of ID has nothing to do with a prejudice against theism -- and then having the most vocal critics of ID be anti-religious atheists."

Note that he means you, PZ--you're the only one I can think of who fits his description. Way to go!

It is true that most people on the Right are more motivated by how much they hate Liberals than by any logic, so this yet-another version of the Right claiming victimization ("ID is valid because Lefties keep picking on us!"--also applicable to #s 2, 4 & 9), however idiotic, will appeal to ID supporters. So Carter is right in that respect.

( . . . college campuses are loaded with desperate pastors and preachers and Christian outreach centers, trying hard to garner recruits.

Actually, I think they're hoping for someone half-way intelligent to talk to; not all religious people are drooling moráns, but that's the sort whose company tends to get imposed on the clergy.)

By Molly, NYC (not verified) on 13 Aug 2006 #permalink

AndyS asks, "Where does the scientist -- as scientists -- get the experitise to criticize religion?"

Where does the theologian, as a theologian, get the expertise to advocate religion? The answer is: nowhere. There simply is no expertise on gods to be had. No evidence. No reasoning. Nothing. There is, of course, expertise on the history of religions, and on the literature of religions, and on the psychology of religions, and on religious culture. And I will grant that seminaries teach learned courses on all these topics and more. But on the primary topic itself, the gods, there is no one more expert than PZ, or me, or you.

And because of that, scientists are indeed more appropriate for the investigation than theologians, because they have a far better track record at investigating the unknown, and a better track record at not throwing up complete bull and pretending it is firm knowledge.

Religion and science are not necessarily out of category. Both attempt to provide explanations for observed behaviour of the world. Having this common ground they can be compared for their descriptive and predictive accuracy. Claiming theology is a completely different category only makes sense if you already believe the requisite religion's dogma, in which case you are claiming that scientists are ill-equipped to critique the supernatural and that religion is equipped, through specialized knowledge of the supernatural, to accurately describe and predict. Only then does it become a case of differing expertise arguing outside their demesnes.

Theologians would be best advised not to take up this challenge, though, and instead stick with their essential skill which is quasi-historical literary critique of their favourite mythologies, mixed with a heavy dose of armchair psychology.

Excellent points Russell. I have never understood how people like AndyS give any weight to what 'theologians' say and then equate it with what scientists say.

And AndyS your wrong here:

? The comparison is not meaningful. Why set up a conflict where none exisits? It's a category error.

That a global flood occurred is not a category error. That people fly around minus planes is not a category error. That snakes and donkeys talk is not a category error. These events occured or they didn't. And if they did then science has something to say here.

It's really sad that people take stuff like this seriously. Most of his criticism is better levelled at the ID side, straw-man arguments, intellectual laziness, and so on.

One that I find particularly egregious is the false idea of "science of the gaps".

With the "god of the gaps" type argument, when presented with "A, B, -gap-, D, E", one completely leaves the realm of the alphabet behind and says "a miracle happened and god turned B into D".

When science is presented with a similar sequence and does not know precisely how to fill the gap, you're more likely to hear something like "well, in the early 19th century, M was proposed, but that has completely fallen out of favor. Modern scientific thinking is that some currently unknown letter of the alphabet which likely bears some resemblance to O or G is a strong possibility, but more research is needed." Science assumes that the gap will be filled with the same kind of stuff that surrounds the gap, rather than assuming something totally outside of the realm of previous experience.

It's held up extremely well for centuries. There is the occasional surprise that causes a big rethink, but it's usually when a blast of insight comes from another branch of science, not out of the blue. Examples would be when Physics informs Chemistry, Chemistry informs Biology, or Neurology informs Psychology. So far the Theology department hasn't been much help at all.

Do you know of even one human being who ever had as many descendants as he or she could have had? And yet Darwinism says that every single one of us does. For there can clearly be no question of Darwinism making an exception of man, without openly contradicting itself. 'Every single organic being', or 'each organic being': this means you.

Stove is quote mining Darwin there. Darwin is talking about what he believes to be "the natural tendency of each species to increase in numbers". Joe is way too smart and really really swell to go look it up, though...

http://www.literature.org/authors/darwin-charles/the-origin-of-species/…

...even though the very nice Mr. Carter has been through all of this lovely stuff before.

I had the misfortune to observe Joe Carter's discovery of David Stove and subsequent conversation on his blog. A vivid reminder of the result of eccentric partly-informed/partly outrageous curmudgeon being the chief source of authority for an ideologue. Scary.

Polls say Bush's popularity has peaked following the frustrated attempts of blowing up british planes. Of course some kind of terrorist attempt was expectable given the recent developments in the middle east.
The interesting thing, is that the ID problems flow downstream from such contingencies. If people think Bush is doing what is right for america's security, they wil flip towards supporting him, regardless of his religious views or other major mistakes. As a side-effect, religiousness will continue to have important friends in the white house. For the growth of ID, the arena of intellectual discussion is secondary to the situation of internal US politics and specially how US citizens think the US should deal with the world (whether ID'ers ackowledge it or not).
This is why I never celebrate too heartedly if Bush may hit a low on the polls. Just another historical development may indirectly reinforce the christian right (and therefore, the political leverage of ID proselitism)

By Alexander Vargas (not verified) on 13 Aug 2006 #permalink

PZ wrote:
"On the other hand, if I point out that Fred has never studied evolutionary biology, doesn't seem to have read any of the contemporary sources, and has made a series of outrageous errors in his explanations of biology, that is not an ad hominem at all--that's a perfectly reasonable impeachment of Fred's relevant knowledge."

Wouldn't that still be an ad hominem argument, just not a fallacious one? Isn't an appeal to a qualified authority (always fallacious in science, of course) also a nonfallacious ad hominem argument?

Stove's attack on Popper, which goes under many titles (I think "Scientific Irrationalism" is the most recent), is worth reading. The rest of his work has never seemed appealing.

I especially enjoyed Carter's flailings at science in arguments #8 and #10.

#8: Carter doesn't understand that theories can assume phenomena or objects as given and still generate a selfconsistent model that explains observed facts. Maxwell's EM theory never explain what a field is, yet it describes electromagnetism well. It wasn't until quantum field theory come around that fields are explained with a correspondence to a theory of many particles.

Carter also doesn't understand that scientists most often digs where the soil is softest. It is more fruitful to explore a successful experiment or theory first. Related hard problems also often becomes easier with related knowledge.

#10: Stove seems to have been the curmudgeon Dave and Fogg mentions. The link Carter provided gives a book review ( http://www.bu.edu/partisanreview/archive/2000/3/campbell.html ), that explains in what seems to be hero worship:

"The greatest philosopher of the twentieth century may not have been Wittgenstein, or Russell, or Quine (and he certainly wasn't Heidegger), but he may have been a somewhat obscure and conservative Australian named David Stove (1927-94). If he wasn't the greatest philosopher of the century, Stove was certainly the funniest and most dazzling defender of common sense to be numbered among the ranks of last century's thinkers, better even--by far--than G. E. Moore and J. L. Austin. ...

Stove does not doubt that natural selection is overwhelmingly likely to be the true explanation of our origins, but he does reveal the sloppiness in certain Darwinian views, especially those that attempt to explain all human behavior in terms of Darwinian principles and those that use simple Malthusian principles to predict population growth."

Now it is clear that "common sense" doesn't make much sense in science.

Indeed, in one of Stoves linked papers he lists 10 points, including a variant of the one Carter makes so much of, that seems to this nonbiologist to be many strawmen. ( http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/articles/article.php?id=26 )

A reply ( http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/articles/article.php?id=1 ) by the philosopher Simon Blackburn argues as Corkscrew that it makes little sense to procreate maximally. "A kind of organism that did breed to its biological limit could easily be selected against: most obviously if all its many offspring promptly starved, where fewer would have survived." Not all organisms use r-selection (many offsprings), some use K-selection (invest in fewer offspring).

And I think that complaining that evolution doesn't maximise number of offspring must be as silly as the usual mistake that it has maximised every property at all times. Evolution makes do, not perfect.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 13 Aug 2006 #permalink

Molly:

I've always figured that the heavy religious recruiting on college campuses had to do with the influx of young men and women into a new area away from their parents and away from a large part of their former peer group. It may be the last really ripe time in a person's life for the indoctrination, the slate will likely never again be so blank. Why do you think the recruiters always come out at the beginning of semesters?

Joe's last "argument" is of particular annoyance to me. In the past, supporters of evolution have been tarred with the brush of Social Darwinism. Now Joe's saying that if we reject Social Darwinism and other models of sociological behavior based on "red in tooth and claw" evolution (which Dawkins is keen on), then suddenly we're waffling on evolution. Heads I win, tails you lose.

All this ignores the fact that evolution just happens. It needs no "help" from society. Social Darwinism and Eugenics are all about trying to "evolve" the human race into what we think is best. But the world doesn't care what we think.

As long as people are born and die in certain patterns and allelic frequencies shift over time, evolution will happen. There's no way we could control all the factors, and if we did, it would certainly blow up in our faces, because we can't foresee every aspect of how we relate to our environment and how that environment will change over time. We just do what we do. And evolution happens. So I wish people would quit trying to make the argument about morals and ethics. Evolution no more impinges on ethics and sociology than gravity does.

I ought to make a bumper sticker: "Evolution Happens". Or maybe "Evolution Is Like Shit: It Happens".

We just have to accept the fact that the majority of Americans are at best ignorant and more likely morons.

For the first part, it is not their fault, it is the fault of a disfunctional social system, starting with the schools.

Why are the people in every other developed country in the world more clued in than in America?

Furthermore, let's stop talking about creationism and call it by its real name: cretinism.

Now I see that Blackburn's reply itself got a reply ( http://www.royalinstitutephilosophy.org/articles/article.php?id=7 ) by James Franklin, a mathematician who seems to do a lot of philosophy.

Franklin argues that Blackburn only confirms Stoves view that Darwinism is 'just-so' stories. "All of which is true, and confirms Stove's central thesis that Darwinism can 'explain' anything. " Seems like a familiar argument...

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 13 Aug 2006 #permalink

Furthermore, let's stop talking about creationism and call it by its real name: cretinism.

That's incorrect, as Creationism and Cretinism are two different conditions.
Cretinism is a condition where a person's physical and mental growth are stunted due to congenital hypothyroidism (when your thyroid glands don't work very well).

Thanks, Prof. Myers, for this excellent critique. I found one statement puzzling, though:

Most scientists did not get their religious beliefs from their parents, so it's not childhood indoctrination.

I thought it was generally accepted that most people get their religious beliefs from their parents. I've heard Dawkins state this in one of his videos, for example. Are you trying to say that scientists are some kind of special people who somehow avoid this childhood indoctrination? I doubt it, so are you trying to say that most scientists have abandoned the religious beliefs of their parents in their adult life, when the mental discipline of the scientific method exposes the fallacies and absurdities of religious dogma? That I could accept. I'd appreciate a clarification, if only to thwart some creationist from using this quote as an example of those "evil scientists thinking they're so special".

bPer

Russell, bmurray, Uber,

One of the many irratating things anti-evolution zealots do is throw up a ridiculous mischaracterization of science and then claim to shoot it down. You are committing the same error with respect to religion by equating a childish, cultish, sometimes lunatic form of religion with all religion then using that mischaracterization to dismiss religion as anti-scientific nonsense. It is similar to the way rightwing attacks Democrats: mischaracterize and shootdown.

Both [religion and science] attempt to provide explanations for observed behaviour of the world. This has never been part of Buddhism, and since before the Enlightment, there has been a clear split in Christianity with a minority clinging to the notion of the Bible as the literal word of God. Personally I've never met a Jew, Muslim, or Buddhist who looks at their religion for a substitute for science and damn few Christians.

Claiming theology is a completely different category only makes sense if you already believe the requisite religion's dogma, in which case you are claiming that scientists are ill-equipped to critique the supernatural and that religion is equipped, through specialized knowledge of the supernatural, to accurately describe and predict.

If your view is the Bible-thumping, poorly educated Southern Baptist represents what it means to be religious, you are demonstrating your own ignorance of the subject.

That a global flood occurred is not a category error. That people fly around minus planes is not a category error. That snakes and donkeys talk is not a category error. These events occured or they didn't.

And these events have little to do with religion -- they are meaningful only to a few particular sects. Many, perhaps most, religious people are comfortable with metaphor and science.

If find it ironic that atheistic science supporters who place a high value on accuracy and evidence attack religion wholesale with such little knowledge about it or any capacity for nuance. And as an atheistic science supporter myself I'd like to see better informed arguments -- you make us look like we operate at the same intellectual level as Joe Carter.

If most scientists are godless, but the general population is largely godly, then we have two possibilities: that there is selection for scientists among the offspring of the small fraction of the population that also happen to be atheists, or that scientists in training tend to shed the beliefs of their parents. The former is unlikely, but the latter fits my experience and that of a number of my colleagues.

And these events have little to do with religion -- they are meaningful only to a few particular sects. Many, perhaps most, religious people are comfortable with metaphor and science.

AndyS, I don't know who you circulate about with but in my circles that includes a variety of faiths each and every one thinks things like virgins births, floods,etc are events that occured. Your argument to me is what you want religion to be like not what it is.

If find it ironic that atheistic science supporters who place a high value on accuracy and evidence attack religion wholesale with such little knowledge about it or any capacity for nuance

Ok Andy, your right, we'll excuse this little group over here when the vast majority of religions believe things contrary to what we know about the world. I just don't know what religions your talking about though seeing how pages and pages of blogs can be filled with this group or thats insane and irrational actions daily. But whatever pleases you.

AndyS writes, "One of the many irratating things anti-evolution zealots do is throw up a ridiculous mischaracterization of science and then claim to shoot it down. You are committing the same error with respect to religion by equating a childish, cultish, sometimes lunatic form of religion with all religion then using that mischaracterization to dismiss religion as anti-scientific nonsense."

I will grant you two partial points: First, there are religions like Buddhism, that are more philosophy than theology, and religions like Shinto, that are more cultural practice, in that few today take their pantheon seriously. But that's only a partial caveat. This discussion very clearly has focused on the religions that posit a god, and in particular, on the major Abrahamic religions. Granting that there are other, very different kinds of practice, also labelled religion, that sharpens the borders of the discussion, but doesn't substantially change its flavor within those borders.

The second caveat is this: Within the Abrahamic religions, it is important to distinguish fundamentalists. It would be wrong to discount them as marginal, since they constitute a large fraction of the US population, and of a large fraction of the Christian and Islamic population throughout the world. Not all -- AndyS is absolutely correct that many believers are not fundamentalist. However, my point at least wasn't specific to fundamentalism, but to any religion that posits a god: theologians have absolutely no expertise on the matter. On issues of geology and Biblical history and exegesis, a modern theologian from Harvard is likely to avoid the kinds of gross ignorance that mark his more poorly educated colleague as a fundamentalist. On the central issue on which he is supposed to be expert, the god in which they both believe, the modern theologian will have not a whit more expertise than his fundamentalist colleague. Which is to say: zero. Theology is unique in the modern academy in that none of its experts can present any evidence of its alleged subject matter. Unique and embarrassing. Though they might indeed be expert on a variety of related subjects.

Rey Fox--I'm sure you're right. But it's also true that an occupational hazard of being a clergymember--of any denomination--is losing hours, hell, days of your life that you'll never get back, listening to a lot of alte kackers whose idea of conversation is complaining about every freaking thing they've ever seen or heard of, and who want you to put in a word with the Almighty about their arthritis/rotten kids/lottery ticket.

So college kids might be easier to take.

By Molly, NYC (not verified) on 13 Aug 2006 #permalink

With respect to PZ's impeachment of the lack of relevant knowledge on the part of creationists, John wrote:

"Wouldn't that still be an ad hominem argument, just not a fallacious one? Isn't an appeal to a qualified authority (always fallacious in science, of course) also a nonfallacious ad hominem argument?"

Not at all. PZ is not saying that "X", a qualified authority has said that "Z" is a wicked, ignorant fellow, therefore you can't trust him, or that "Z" must be wicked and wrong because they are a creationist. Those would be logical fallacies, but that's not what was stated.

Instead, it was argued that "Z" loses credibility by failing to be conversant with and demonstrate understanding of the field of research they attack, and (by inference) that creationists in general don't measure up in science because they don't play by the rules. The 'rules' (peer review, reproducible results, falsifiable hypothesi, no supernatural explanations, etc.) are not based upon any particular authority. They are simply the way science is done. There is no fallacious appeal to 'authority' here; there is (quite properly) the exclusion of certain arguments from the domain of science, by definition.

To generalize: it's not ad hominem to point out the poor scientific education and pseudoscientific thinking commonly found among creationists since it speaks directly to the credibility of the sorts of claims they make, nor is it a mindless appeal to authority to point out that what they are doing isn't science.

(sigh) I get to teach scientific method soon when school begins. At least I get paid for it there.

Cheers...Scott

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 13 Aug 2006 #permalink

In the comments of this post: http://tinyurl.com/gsjt7 commenter Paul W. provided a compelling critique of the doctrine of non-overlapping magistraria. Look for a post starting with 'I think we can say something stronger than this [...]'

- JS

"Wouldn't that still be an ad hominem argument, just not a fallacious one? Isn't an appeal to a qualified authority (always fallacious in science, of course) also a nonfallacious ad hominem argument?"

Well, ad hominem is invariably used to describe the fallacious version, so that's basically just a semantic point.

I'd point out that "ignorant" is not the same as "stupid". And creationists are generally shown to be ignorant, it's not simple name-calling.

Dorkafork, I must disagree with you about creationists being "ignorant."
If a person is ignorant, outside circumstances beyond the person's awareness and or control have lead to him or being unaware or uninformed, i.e., Clyde the TV repairman is ignorant of Chinese galeaspid agnathans because he's never heard of them before.
If a person is stupid, that means the person has willfully chosen to remain unaware and or uninformed, i.e., the resident trolls of this blog have never heard of Chinese galeaspid agnathans because they think it's an unforgivable mortal sin to read about fossil organisms.

Uber,

I just don't know what religions your talking about though seeing how pages and pages of blogs can be filled with this group or thats insane and irrational actions daily.

-- which implies you are drawing sweeping conclusions from what gets posted on blogs!

Russell,

Thanks for granting me "two partial points." Maybe we are talking past each other a bit. To your point about monotheist religions:

I don't think I'm unique among atheists in having no problem with other people believing in God. Only when they use their particular notion of God to justify public policy (like going to war or what to teach in science class) do I push back. Scientists can not disprove the existence of God anymore than theologians can prove it. And most people (both religious and otherwise) are not interested in proofs one way or the other.

The notion of God is not a fit study for science -- pretty much by definition -- just like the physics doesn't belong in the realm in religion. Which is was the point I was making about religion and science being two completely different things.

which implies you are drawing sweeping conclusions from what gets posted on blogs!

Of course not! But I'm not ignoring it either as you seem prone to do. What sweeping conclusions am I making?

The notion of God is not a fit study for science -- pretty much by definition -- just like the physics doesn't belong in the realm in religion. Which is was the point I was making about religion and science being two completely different things

If God exists he would be subject to the methods and practices of science. It's that simple. Religion and it's real world claims are also subject to the methods and practices of science.

I agree with you, Andy, that I really don't care if my neighbors believe in gods, fairies, leprachauns, or loas, until they start to sacrifice the neighborhood cats. I'm even happy for them to dance naked under the full moon, as long as they don't get too loud.

But the issue is broader than private belief and practice. There are no Schools of Voodoo. No PhDs in faerology show up in the media under the pretense that that gives them some expertise to speak on issues from sex to politics. No Leprachaunologists tell the world that scientific methods are the wrong way to understand the wee folk. But we do have a plethora of preachers and theologians who act as if their study of a purely imagined subject matter ought to be treated with the same respect as study in real fields.

My own view is that it is long past time for real scholars to stand up and say: theology is a bogus field. This is not a matter of subject matter. This isn't about C. P. Snow's concern with divergent cultures. This is about reason and sense, as opposed to pretense and nonsense. It doesn't bother me if my neighbors believe in fairies. It would upset me if the media and politicians and academics started treating faerology as a serious subject, and its believers as anything other than .. well, what people believe in private is their own business, but when we speak in public, as reasonable people, we have to shake our heads at such notions.

So the one question I have is: Why should we treat belief in the gods any differently?

AndyS, once you've stripped religion of its supernatural authority to predict and constrain, is there anything left in it beyond a social club? If so, I'm keen to learn what -- it still sounds like armchair ethics and psychology at best. And if not, why bother? It's only a category error if religion doesn't do anything. Which I will concede.

You are committing the same error with respect to religion by equating a childish, cultish, sometimes lunatic form of religion with all religion then using that mischaracterization to dismiss religion as anti-scientific nonsense.

Not quite. Religion is characterized by the properties that cause the aforementioned posters to dismiss it as anti-scientific nonsense. It is not an operational logical error to dismiss all of religion for that reason, although it may potentially be empirically mistaken.

Can you provide us with even a single example of religion that isn't anti-scientific nonsense?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 13 Aug 2006 #permalink

Molly:

I'm sure the clergy has their problems with certain members of the congregation, but the thing is that these campus Christian recruiting organization usually have some degree of seperation from the rest of the church, hence the names Campus Christian Fellowship and what have you. I went to one of their worship sessions once (don't ask), and it was led by one of those horribly cheery youth ministers, and pretty much everyone there was around my age. It was on a Friday night, too. I'm sure these college students trickle down to the main services on Sunday, but I bet they have less contact with the actualy clergy than the youth minsters and their peers. But seeing as how I've already spoken beyond my actual knowledge, I'll let it go now.

Caledonian,

Can you provide us with even a single example of religion that isn't anti-scientific nonsense?

Buddhism: it has no god or supernatural mumbo jumbo or concept of sin (there is one sect that has a form of Buddha worship but I don't know much about it and it's not common outside of Asia). Buddhism main tenants have to do with taking responsibility for yourself, accepting the world as it is, and dealing with other people and the environment with compassion. What's not to like there?

But let's look at Western monotheistic religions. I grew up attending a rural Presbyterian church. There was all the usual God talk, but the Bible was taught as a collection of stories (not literal ones) and even communion was presented as a metaphor. Nothing anti-science about it. Since that time I've seen nothing to indicate the Presbyterianism, the other mainstream Protestant denominations, or the Catholics have changed much in this regard. Of course, there are plenty of people in every monotheistic religious form who believe in the supernatural and to a greater or lesser extent see that as an important part of their religious experience. But clearly not all of them do. It's a mixed bag, not all religious people are Bible-thumping, supernatural believing, anti-science nuts. Nor is there just a binary choice about that. Deists, for example.

bmurray,

once you've stripped religion of its supernatural authority to predict and constrain, is there anything left in it beyond a social club?

I don't see how a "supernatural authority to predict and constrain" is part of or has been part of religion generally. Yes, some lunatics predict the end of the world or say things like "God will send you to Hell if ..." But, again, that hardly a charasteristic of religion generally.

Christians fall out in every direction over issues like "what is God?" and "are there miracles?" Some of them are quite sophisticated (Jesuits), some are inspired in ways that have little to do with Bible stories (Thomas Merton, MLK), even within the evangelicals you find the United Chruch of Christ, and they there's the Unitarians. And it is all far more than a social club.

Russell,

I can only guess at what you are getting at with your comments on theology (not a well-defined term) and Snow's divergent cultures (maybe better defined but which way you are headed with it is unclear). So here is an idea taken from http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPST/FormanThinkPiece.html:

[The scientists invited to a discussion of ethics] made it clear that this was not a subject which could hold any interest for scientists or scholars of any sort and that I should have known this; ... that ethics was just a matter of personal taste and anything goes in matters of taste -- with one extremely important exception: a commitment to scientific truth in the academic world. Knowingly and gladly turning their backs on the domain of moral choice and responsibility, modernist scientists aimed to ascend to parnassian heights of "scientific truth" above all good and evil -- what they justified socially on classical liberal grounds by a sort of 'trickle down' theory of the moral economy, much as they appealed to a 'trickle down' theory of technologic and economic progress.

The passage (concerning an event in the 1930's) highlights for me the conundrum faced by anyone conversant only in science and mathematics: what do you do about ethics or, for that matter, literature? Is everything outside of science just matter of personal taste? Is there any room for the humanities (including theology) in academia?

Is that where you are going?

Buddhism main tenants have to do with taking responsibility for yourself, accepting the world as it is, and dealing with other people and the environment with compassion. What's not to like there?

Is calling scientists "white lab coats over brown shirts" karuna (compassion) or maitreya (loving-kindness)?

I always forget which is which.

AndyS,

I really can't agree with the notion that religion doesn't make material/supernatural claims as a norm. The religious don't have to be fundamentalists to do so, and you seem to be conflating both.

Having been raised in Quebec, I was subject to light religious education (altough my upbringing itself wasn't particularly religious) as a companion to secular school, as were most of my age. As I remember, the tone was very mild; the focus was squarely on the New Testament.

Still, no disclaimers about the stories being metaphors, even though the symbolic of the events was explored. The life of Christ itself, taught as dogma, overlaps with History. Then there are the miracles. And I do remember some stress on the question of the Trinity (as literal fact) and while transubstantiation was probably not explored in depth, the general (magical) idea was made clear.

The whole notion of presenting an unique divine guide in matters of ethics constitutes teaching supernatural constraints. It seems unconceivable to me that these particular religious people would be satisfied with explaining that Jesus' teachings are sound (that would be simple philosophy). While Hell wasn't emphasized, the notion of salvation implies a lot of supernatural mechanisms linked to dogmatic ethical codes.

That wasn't so long ago, and the restraint this education shows has more to do with the age of the students than limits in the belief of the teachers.

Most religious people aren't literalists and they make allowance with their text to fit scientifically informed cosmological views and to fit social evolution, but I find it odd, at the very least, to claim that this is an automatic process that insures that casual dogma doesn't hinder science.

And it's not just science that's concerned. Any affirmation from dogma, in any area of knowledge is naturally meant to suppress human speculation and research on the subject. I can't see how the result can be anything but negative.

I hope this helps.

"I hope this helps"?!

I meant to say "I hope this makes sense", as I usually do.

Caledonian:"Can you provide us with even a single example of religion that isn't anti-scientific nonsense?"

AndyS: "Buddhism: it has no god or supernatural mumbo jumbo..."

The various types of Buddhism all share a belief in reincarnation, and therefore AndyS has failed to provide a (valid) example.

Buddhism: it has no god or supernatural mumbo jumbo or concept of sin (there is one sect that has a form of Buddha worship but I don't know much about it and it's not common outside of Asia).

Irrelevant. The question was not whether a particular religion includes a concept of the supernatural (which it necessarily does - the idea that one can access memories of past lives as animals has no scientific basis) but whether it is anti-scientific nonsense. Buddhism makes many, many assertions about the nature of the self, the nature of suffering, and the ways we should respond to suffering. Are those assertions testable and verifiable, or do they need to be accepted on faith?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 14 Aug 2006 #permalink

Caledonian:

Regarding your question to Andy, do you feel there is any meaningful distinction between 'non-science' and 'anti-science'? If so, what is it? And, if, such a distinction is meaningful for you, would you still find 'non-science' equally nonsensical?

Curiously....Scott

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 14 Aug 2006 #permalink

Caledonian,

The question was not whether a particular religion includes a concept of the supernatural (which it necessarily does - the idea that one can access memories of past lives as animals has no scientific basis) but whether it is anti-scientific nonsense.

I can only offer a field report: I've been active in Buddhist communities for many years and have never met a Buddhist teacher who taught reincarnation as anything other than metaphor. Just like science no longer teaches atoms are indivisible, Buddhism has cast off or changed concepts that no longer make sense.

Buddhism makes many, many assertions about the nature of the self, the nature of suffering, and the ways we should respond to suffering. Are those assertions testable and verifiable, or do they need to be accepted on faith?

The distinguishing feature of Buddhism is that it asks you to take nothing on faith -- especially not the Buddha and Buddhist teachers. The suggestion is to find out what's true and what works for yourself by paying more attention to what goes on in your mind and body (e.g. through meditation practice).

John: Some critical thinking experts would say that if it isn't fallacious, it isn't an ad hominem at all.

Torbjörn Larsson: That description of Stove has something right - that the greatest philosopher of the 20th century was not Heidegger. I don't know how anyone could put Stove in that category either, mind you. Sure, sometimes the little appreciated is great (think Spinoza for a while), but I have never run into any papers or books that I can think of off hand that cite Stove favourably. He is on target about the PoMos, but that's like shooting ducks in a barrel.

bPer: The best predictor of religious belief is that of one's parents, yes. But several possibilities exist for why scientists are often heterodox to various degrees. One is that their parents were also such. I suspect, but don't know for sure, that a lot of people's affiliation is also "close" to that of their parents.

AndyS: Even non-literalistic religions do make substantial claims about the nature of the universe. You mentioned Buddhism. Idealism (in the metaphysical sense) is present in at least Tibetan, and the Dalai Lama has said as much. Similarly in Roman Catholicism. This can be generalized.

Russell: I'm reminded of what a philosopher (who I will keep anonymous to avoid him getting more hate mail) told me about McGill's faculty of religious studies. He said he wished the university didn't waste its time with such a thing, but then he said he thought twice about it and thought that if they got rid of the FRS they'd have to replace the church on campus with more ugly buildings. So, don't forget: theology might not be a legit field of studies, but it can at least save us from boxy, dreary, all-homogeneous campuses. :)

AndyS: Philosophy and even literature studies have standards of evidence that can be made more or less consiliatory with a scientific world-picture. The latter has been corrupted recently, but there are some who recognize reason. Also, it is easier to do this in philosophy, at least in principle, and is done by many scholars in that area. So, yes, there's a role for humanities. The problem lies with the ad hoc standard of evidence. I volunteer at an NGO where a Catholic priest spends some of his time and I've seen theology journals around (we are, however, a secular organization). I don't know what to make of them except the articles that are more or less biographical and historical.

Scott Hatfield: When I paint, I am not thinking scientifically. But I am also not asserting anything either. There's a school of theology which claims the same matter is true of theology, too. (the book The Sciences and the Humanities discusses this in detail), but it seems to me that this also empties of importance to believers. "If he has not risen, our faith is in vain." and all that. On the other hand, there are non-scientific activities which do sometimes make claims that are not religions. I also write poetry, and there I have to admit that I am fond of Lucretius, because of his insistence, despite the flowery language and metaphor, of trying to be accurate to the knowledge of the world. That Epicurean natural philosophy isn't as highly regarded today isn't the point - I would have the same praise if he had been a Stoic or a Peripatetic. (But probably not a Platonist.)

Joe is just blowing smoke, making believe there are logical arguments favoring Intelligent Design Creationism. It all boils down to a single point--these people dread the thought of dying and ceasing to be.

JS:
Yes, and Paul W. provides several more strong comments on "NOMA" and "belief fixation" in that thread.

Andy:
"The notion of God is not a fit study for science -- pretty much by definition -- just like the physics doesn't belong in the realm in religion."

That science has found aposteriori that supernatural hypotheses are bad theories doesn't imply that it can't study or debunk them. The find itself is a study on methods.

Andy:
"Buddhism: it has no god or supernatural mumbo jumbo"

There seems to be a lot of mumbo jumbo, especially supernatural:

"The widely accepted doctrine of dependent origination states that any phenomenon 'exists' only because of the 'existence' of other phenomena in a complex web of cause and effect. For sentient beings, this amounts to a never-ending cycle of rebirth (saá¹sÄra) according to the law of karma (PÄli: kamma) and vipÄka."

"karma is used specifically for those actions which spring from :

* mental intent
* mental obsessions

which bring about a fruit or result (vipÄka), either within the present life, or in the context of a future rebirth. Karma is the engine which drives the wheel of Samsara for each being."

"Sensation (vedana). When material elements in the world bump into each other, in the human body sensations arise"

"A Buddhist who has attained Nirvana has escaped the world of cause-and-effect (they are free from the cycle of birth and rebirth)." ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism )

"By the term "mind" is meant the "non-physical phenomenon which perceives, thinks, recognises, experiences and reacts to the environment", as per A View on Buddhism, while "mental qualities" refers to such things as intention, concentration, regret, ignorance, etc. Thus, roughly speaking, the mind is the perceiving/conceiving entity, while mental qualities are the perceptions/conceptions." ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path )

How much the idea of afterlife is bunk, the idea of rebirth is more bunk.

"Deists, for example."
They seem to have a lot of supernatural mumbo jumbo too:

"For a "rational basis for religion" they refer to the cosmological argument (first cause argument), the teleological argument (argument from design), and other aspects of what was called natural religion."
( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deism )

"But, again, that hardly a charasteristic of religion generally."
The norm and indeed the very essence of religion seems to be a supernatural claim or other that is used for belief fixation instead of facts. Ie "to predict and constrain".

Numad:
"Most religious people aren't literalists and they make allowance with their text to fit scientifically informed cosmological views and to fit social evolution, but I find it odd, at the very least, to claim that this is an automatic process that insures that casual dogma doesn't hinder science."

Well said!

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 14 Aug 2006 #permalink

Keith Douglas, re: McGill's theological faculty: when I was going to McGill, one of the student papers ran an article on the best places to have sex on campus. One of the winners was the theology faculty's chapel, though the article noted that the pipes of the chapel's organ would carry sounds upstairs to the grad student offices. So at least the building serves some purpose...