8/16/2007

VOX DEI BAIT #2

Vox raises some interesting questions. I'm going to beg off on at least one:

3. Is the acceptable margin of error greater for economics or evolution? (It's much larger for both than people realize.) What margin of error is too great to allow a discipline to be reasonably considered a science?

This was prompted by unflattering comparisons between the two, some of which was aimed at tweaking Vox, who thinks he has some credentials in the former area. I don't want to get sidetracked by something like a turf war. I'm not sure that the margin of error is the issue in either case; it's just that both fields study complex phenomena that are more difficult to model than, say, perfectly round billiard balls moving on a frictionless surface. On with the show....

Do you understand the difference between a historical model and a predictive model? If you don't mind, would you quickly explain to those having problems understanding the difference why this is relevant to a discussion of evolution?

This is reminiscent of Charles Thaxton's distinction between origins science and operations science, which Sonleitner discusses here. (More vulgarly, Ken Ham is fond of asking his audiences "Were you there?") In general, historical models are based upon inference, rather than direct experimental test. There is nothing inherently unscientific about the former, as long as you are willing to accept that a higher burden of proof exists. Which is fine: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It might be added that claims that can be falsified by a single experiment are, often as not, trivial or (as in my above example with a frictionless surface) artificial.

And which type of model, in your opinion, is a better description of the current state of Neo-Darwinian theory?

I don't care for the term 'Neo-Darwinism'; to many Americans, it implies something like religious belief. I prefer the term 'modern synthesis' or 'modern synthetic theory' because this gives the real flavor of the enterprise as I know it. I think the question as posed is a false dichotomy. Simply put, as a synthesis the modern theory contains both historical and predictive elements, inference and observation, speculation and rigorous test.

Now, having said that, it's pretty important that evolutionary biologists (EB) should be at pains to distinguish between inference and experiment, etc. In general, the scientific literature itself is very good at making these distinctions in the discussion of results and their interpretation and popularizations of science are not. And that's a big part of the problem!

Here's an excellent article from the ASA (American Scientific Affiliation) website by Keith Miller that discusses this question. The author, a paleontologist and a Christian, concludes that the differences between the historical and 'hard' sciences in terms of testability are greatly exagerrated.

Is Talk Origins a reliable source? I seem to have come under an amount of criticism for relying on it. If it is unreliable, can you suggest an acceptable one?

The technical articles at Talk Origins seem pretty solid to me, and I don't hesitate to refer to them. I don't pay any attention to the other stuff that goes there, and I suspect that's what bothers some creationists. TO is assertively pro-evolution, and some of the legendary kerfuffles in its forums show partisanship (on all sides) at its worst, but that has no bearing on the scholarship in the technical articles, some of which is outstanding. There are few people who have considered more creationist arguments in more detail than Mark Issak, and I admire Doug Theobald's work, as well.

I conclude that pro-evo types should not, in my opinion, have any problem with Vox basing his arguments on anything at TO, but they certainly have a right to rake him over the coals if they think he's misrepresenting or misunderstanding the material he refers to.

Creationists who don't like TO because of its perceived partisanship might want to look at the ASA site. They have a searchable archive of their journal (Perspectives on Science and Faith) going back nearly 50 years, with lots of scholarship, that's a tremendous resource. Most of the authors are Christians, and they run the gamut between YEC's and full-blown evolutionary biologists. (Disclaimer: I'm a member myself)

Another good source for those who are wary of TO is the archives of the National Center for Science Education. It's a p'm a member of this organization, as well as ASA. There's a lot of detailed criticism of the leaders of the ID movement here. (Disclaimer: I belong to this outfit, too)

Well, I have to go earn a living now, I'll be back for some of Vox's other questions later!



8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Scott, thank you very much for your civil discourse and I am enjoying this very much.

Best regards,
superninja

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

As the saying goes, all things might be lawful, but not all things are profitable. I hope you find this edifying.

Also, please note that I've edited and reposted this with more detail since your comment. Peace...SH

tz said...

You do a disservice to your cause by evading the economics v.s. evolution argument.

It is important as the precision and predictive value of science, i.e. what "evolution" means or is saying is part of the debate and one cause of the shifting.

When I take a beaker with 100ml of a known concentration of CaCl2 and a similar one of NaCO3, I can predict exactly the result when I mix them including the temperature of the resulting mixture. That is chemistry and physics.

What can evolution say? If you will say it can't know or predict anything, then it is hardly "science" in either common or technical definitions. But if it can integrate data or predict things, you should be able to rank it somewhere along a continuum somewhere between the above chemistry experiment and say what a psychologist might predict of a randomly selected individual (I'll also allow for things like quantum mechanics which says with certainty and experiment you can't predict some things).

This would avoid a great deal of talking past each other. If it is jello, then we shouldn't try to nail it down. But I've never heard any evolutionist say anything other than that evolution was like the chemistry experiment until people start asking things like what the result of an experiment would be. If we don't know, or can't know, saying so would help.

Economics is limited, but it (or certain schools) have very testable predictions with measurable accuracy (e.g. credit expansions result in crashes per Mises and Minsky). So asking for a comparison is quite far - is evolution like chemistry or like economics, or something else.

jack said...

Thanks Scott:

I am a regular, lurker mostly, sometimes commenter, over at Vox Populi.
Your responses are a breath of fresh air compared to most rabid attacks that are directed at Vox's site. And, I am filling out my Favorites list with your links.
I don't agree too much with mainstream evolution theory a la Darwin and subsequent revisions thereof, but try to maintain an open mind.
I hope this debate goes on forever as I fully agree with Superninja's comment at 10:24 am.

Jack

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

Hello everyone I haven't yet greeted!

TZ, I intend to address the question of how evolution is predictive in greater detail, but I don't need to rank economics on a hierarchy with biology to do so. In fact, I think it's a distraction: the PZ/VD exchange that contrasted the two seems to have a lot more heat than light, and I just don't feel I have a dog in that fight, sorry.

Anonymous said...

In general, the scientific literature itself is very good at making these distinctions in the discussion of results and their interpretation and popularizations of science are not.

Isn't this pretty much what Jonathan Eisen was saying? Of course, he saw it as a PR problem, whereas you undoubtedly see it as an education problem.

It seems to me that among scientists there is a certain tension between the idea of the general public having dangerously superficial expectations of science (due to its popularization) and the idea of the general public being too ignorant to really understand it.

--emerod

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

Oh, that's very well said, emerod (and welcome, by the way)....There was a time when it was fashionable in certain circles to downplay the very real achievement of Carl Sagan as a popularizer of science, as if he had somehow sold the scientific community out by appearing on the Tonight Show Now that Carl is gone, a lot of those same people are complaining that we aren't doing a good enough job of selling (or, as some put it, 'framing') science to the general public.

Anonymous said...

I think you should use "selling." It helps you distinguish between the inadequacies of the product, the hucksterism of the promoter, and the gullibility of the consumer, when there is some dissatisfaction with the end result.

I actually was more concerned with the distinction between the simpering fool who hopes for a scientist (or some "science writer") to dictate the correct political opinions and sexual habits for him, and the cowering fool who thinks scientists are colluding with journalists, movie producers, and bankers to dictate the correct political opinions and sexual habits for him.

--emerod