8/28/2007

VOX DEI-BATE #9

I'm going to tie up a loose end from a previous post before addressing the rest of Vox's most recent offering. Before I start, let me stress that I am not a mind-reader, and this is not amateur night at Sigmund's, and no personal criticism is implied. This is my attempt to understand Vox's general orientation, in order that both of our views get a fair shake. I would like to have Vox respond to this, to clarify or offer correction, before I address the questions that his most recent post raises---because I could be wrong here and I want to be fair.

Anyway, the loose end can be found in this quote from Vox's most recent post:

(Vox) Despite our varying degrees of trust in TENS, I think we are nevertheless beginning to find some common ground. I'm particularly interested to discover where Scott is going with the following statement; no doubt many of you are too:


(me) I think this observation has some bearing on some issues that Vox has raised in the past few posts as to how some 'evolutionists' have enlisted Darwin to 'attack religious faith', ridicule politicians who fail to say they 'believe in evolution', or attempt to suppress skepticism about TENS as unscientific.1

First of all, I don't believe that any of the above concerns are scientific questions, regardless of where we might stand. They are cultural concerns, and often politicized. The concerns as raised could be true, they could be false, but they would have no bearing on the question of whether or not TENS is the best model we have now, or likely to be the best model we have in the future.

Secondly, Vox has been very open about his lack of formal education in biology, particularly evolutionary biology, and much of his acknowledged sources are popularizations:


"I'm curious to see what sort of answers science has for someone who hasn't paid any more attention to the literature than reading four of Dawkins' books, plus "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel Dennett."2

This feeds my impression that Vox's skepticism with respect to evolution is not so much with the discipline of evolutionary biology as practiced, but with the baggage that comes with books that are as much works of advocacy as they are expositions of science, especially those by Dawkins. In fact, I think that his beef is largely with Dawkins, especially Dawkins the popularizer of 'evolution-as-another-nail-in-religion's-coffin', who first makes a distinctive appearance in The Blind Watchmaker (1986). This is certainly the Dawkins that the guy in the pew is most likely to have heard of, especially since publication of The God Delusion (2006).

Again, I'm just speculating and Vox can correct me if he likes, but the money quote for me is this:

"....
that it is scientifically irresponsible to argue that one must be either stupid or ignorant to possess doubts about TENS."

This is awfully reminiscent of a pretty famous quote from Dawkins in which he lays down the gauntlet, one that has been parroted ever since by outraged creationists (present company excluded, of course):


"It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."

Now, if you're one of the outraged, you owe it to yourselves to read the full book review from which this passage comes, because the failure to nest it in its proper context does a great disservice to Dr. Dawkins. In the review, Dawkins goes on to say that he doesn't believe that his readers are likely stupid or insane, and talks about recent experiences in touring America, and concludes that his main impression was one of "sincere questions from intelligent people who really wanted to know because they had literally no education in evolution." 3

That's not a prejudicial statement. It's the truth. Surveys reveal time and time again that ignorance on this topic is widespread in North America. Even those who naively say they 'believe' in evolution often harbor profound misconceptions of what TENS is really all about. In fact, based on my experiences as a teacher, I believe that the misconceptions attached to the theory in the popular culture are at least as much of a barrier to its acceptance as any prior theological commitments on the part of its audience.

Now, recognizing that Vox may not have intended to paraphrase Dawkins (it just came out that way, perhaps?), let's break it down: what doubts does Vox really have, really, with TENS? He doesn't doubt that TENS "is, as he and others have said, the best model they've got right now." He acknowledges that he's unlikely to present an alternative model that would pass muster, and I suspect he knows that at present nobody else is in a position to do so, either.

Nor, to Vox's credit, does he play the creationist card of arguing that, in the absence of positive evidence for an alternative model, it is sufficient to bring negative arguments against evolution as grounds for rejection. Vox may not, by his own admission, know much about the biology but he's smart enough, I think, to recognize that virtually all of those negative arguments have been throughly addressed by people who know a lot more about the science than he does.

Besides, it's not really the science that bothers him. Vox understands that scientific claims are always tentative, always subject to review/modification/rejection in the light of new findings. He clearly is not losing sleep at night because the silly biologists who can't predict things the way they do in his field of economics don't have a better model. No, what gets Vox exercised is the uses to which the 'evolutionists' he knows about put that model. And that usage is clearly atheism. With that in mind, let's discuss some points of agreement.

" I can state with complete confidence that it is utterly absurd to attack religious faith on the basis of TENS..."

Well, I'm a believer, so I'm clearly not attempting to attack religious faith on any basis, yet I'm an enthusiastic evolutionary biologist. With Michael Ruse (someone Vox really needs to add to his reading list), I would answer 'yes' to the question 'Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?". Can any scientific theory, including TENS, 'prove' God's non-existence.? Of course not: that's excluded by the nature of science itself! As Vox himself has written, "those who attempt to enlist TENS as proof for things which cannot be tested have left the domain of science. "

So, in that sense I actually agree with Vox.
If someone thinks that the fact of evolution conclusively 'proves' God's non-existence, that shows that they don't even understand how science works.4 On the other hand, Vox, 'Darwin's dangerous idea' does demolish the Argument from Design, whether we're talking about William Paley's watch or Michael Behe's claims of 'irreducible complexity.' Evolutionary biology might not 'disprove' God, but it cripples one of the better arguments that historically has been made for God's existence in the past, that of teleology. It provided the conceptual framework and the data to justify Hume's famous skepticism: no one who understands the history of this debate can be considered credible who does not acknowledge the devastating effect that Darwin's thought has on teleology.

So, in that sense I would say Vox is wrong: an attack on religion that does not rely exclusively on a rejection of teleology in its' attempt to unseat the Almighty is not absurd in its face. In his favor, I point out that the object of his wrath (Dawkins) has only recently found it necessary to buttress his traditional, evolutionary-based skepticism with other arguments----but I could care less about that myself because, as should now be clear, whenever Dawkins steps out of his evolutionary theorizing to argue toward God's non-existence, he is no longer doing science. Now, more Vox:


"....it is ridiculous to ask political candidates whether they "believe" in TENS."

I agree with Vox again, but not because one can reject TENS outright on the basis of science. It's that word 'believe' that I object to. Properly speaking, I don't 'believe' in evolution, either: that implies an affirmation of faith, but I don't need faith to accept that evolution is a fact, or that natural selection is a fact, or that in individual cases natural selection has been observed to lead to evolution, etc. No faith required! Rather, these are simply facts about the natural world that any credible model must acknowledge and account for. The question that was put to the GOP hopefuls many weeks back was crude to the point of being misleading, but (sigh) politics is often not about making logical arguments that use language properly, right? It's a shame that not one of them had the sophistication to point out the absurdity of the question, and in the process affirm that evolution is good science.

Finally, we come back to this: "...it is scientifically irresponsible to argue that one must be either stupid or ignorant to possess doubts about TENS as a theory capable of standing up to the conventional definition of the scientific method of hypothesis, testing and replicable observation."

I omitted the last clause in my prior discussion, because while I think that what partially motivates Vox's skepticism is his distaste for Dawkins and his disciples, what informs his actual argument is his understanding of theories. His 'back-testing' argument is an attempt to argue that, see, evolution can't do some of the things I think a truly scientific theory ought to do, so, while it can do some things, I feel justified in being skeptical about those things that can't be tested until I can see more confirmed predictions to a higher level of accuracy.

Well, obviously I'm not impressed by that argument. TENS is a robust theory in its proper domain, biology. The central claim (that evolution is caused by natural selection) is a hypothesis that in countless cases has been tested and verified. TENS potentially unites a vast number of different observations from different research programs in a powerful web of explanation. Many observations derived from TENS are manifestly replicable---in fact, so much so that they are rightly considered trivial.

Within that web of explanation there have been proposed many individual hypotheses, many of which are often difficult or impossible to test, or which subsequent research has falsified. Vox completely misreads the situation here in my judgment: his 'intuition' regarding a high margin of error and many falsified predictions derived from TENS leads him to be skeptical about as a whole, but the status of TENS as a scientific theory does not rest on the question of whether every application leads to testable predictions, but whether evolution by natural selection is a testable prediction itself. In fact, the falsification of many hypotheses, the debates within evolutionary biology on how to best conceptualize various items, all of these seeming 'defects' that creationists are constantly trying to hang their hats on are actually a sign of the robustness of TENS as a scientific theory. What Vox intuits as a weakness of our research program, ironically, is precisely what those of us who actually study biology regard as a strength!

I'm going to stop right here and give Vox a chance to correct any of my armchair psychoanalysis and ask his pardon in advance if I've mischaracterized him. I suspect that Vox and I are in substantive agreement that TENS is the only game in town, and that he is not actually urging anyone to reject TENS outright. Rather, he is skeptical about the applications of TENS to those things which are difficult or impossible to test, and deeply resents those who would employ such applications as personal weapons in the cultural wars. I sympathize, but I'm not here to defend such practicies, I'm here to defend TENS.

1) Even the claim that skepticism with respect to TENS is discouraged can be expected to have no long-term consequence if sufficient evidence emerges that is best explained by an alternative model! The only way to slow the self-corrective nature of the scientific enterprise is to enlist tyranny in behalf of some privileged belief system that feels threatened: geocentric interpretations of the Holy Scriptures in the case of Giordano Bruno, rejection of the state-sponsored Lysenko vernalization program by Nikolai Vavilov. Despite Bruno's execution and Vavilov's torture, the global scientific community persevered: both the geocentrism of the Church and the Lysenko's "genetics" are throughly discredited.



2) For all I know, two of the Dawkins books that Vox refers to could be The Selfish Gene (1976) or The Extended Phenotype (1982), which are deep, far-reaching books that, while accessible to laymen, can not really be said to be popularizations. These books are at best only tangentially concerned with defending the general correctness of the modern theory: rather, they discuss technical and conceptual challenges within evolutionary biology, and are addressed at least as much towards workers in the field as to the well-read layman. It would not surprise me if Vox had read these, he's certainly capable----but, as mentioned above, I don't think that this is the Dawkins that he has a beef with.

3) This mild-mannered take may be hard for some of you to square with the image that you may have of Dawkins. If so, watch this conversation between two old friends. And, at the risk of sounding like a name-dropper, I know from personal experience that Dawkins is really willing to reach out to anyone who is willing to promote honest engagement on such matters, even in the pews.

4) It might interest readers to learn that Dawkins has never made that claim, and he discusses the subtleties of this in The God Delusion.


4 comments:

Jim RL said...

I think part of the anger that comes at Dawkins is that people are so defensive about being called "ignorant". It's a very real attack on our pride, but the truth is that we are all ignorant of a great many things. Ignorance is a fact of existence. It's our fear of uncertainty that makes us susceptible to those who peddle "Truth" to those of us who are uncomfortable with doubt. Once you convinve someone that they know the "Truth", they are done listening and can easily be led to fanaticism.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

Welcome, Jim Ri, and well-said!

Vera said...

What's TENS?

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

TENS is an acronym of my coinage that Vox and I are both using in this 'debate.' It stands for the 'Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.'

I find it helpful to remind all involved that what is theoretical is not evolution (it's a fact) or whether natural selection actually happens (it does), but the proposed relationship between the two in all cases---specific cases having been confirmed, of course.

It nips a lot of problems in the bud.