Or, to put it another way, what is the quality of the evidence and why should anyone care?

Over at Stan's place, he's got a couple of posts that are worth checking out. The first is a sly list of 'atheist's commandments for God', which (since Stan is essentially trying to engage atheists on philosophical terms) seems to be about one part humor, one part frustration. Definitely got me thinking: after all, if you put enough conditions on the possibility of God's existence, you can definitely rule out that possibility up front....sort of like what ID types like Philip Johnson claim we evolutionary biologists do!

More seriously, Stan has for some time made much of the fact that evolutionary biology, as a discipline, relies more upon inferences from the data than from 'proven' facts, as in engineering (Stan's background). This is very similar to Vox Day's argument, that he was skeptical of evolutionary biology because of its failure make predictions akin to those in economics (Vox's field of expertise). No doubt I will soon have a plumber explain that he has his doubts about evolution because, you know, Darwin never wielded a pipe wrench.

Anyway, Stan's latest in this vein can be read here. Now, my snap reply is that this is like some hoops fan claiming we could greatly improve the quality of football by requiring those players moving downfield to dribble the pigskin. Apples and oranges! The sort of problems that confront an engineer and a paleontologist are often entirely different problems, and you may need to employ very different mental tool kits to make them tractable.

That's not how Stan sees it, though. He thinks that evolutionary biology is, well, inferior:

The standards of evidence that are used and enjoyed by evolutionary biologists are far, FAR below the standards of other sciences. These folks are so accustomed to such low standards that they cannot comprehend why others object to their mantras of TRUTH based on inferences that are claimed "scientific".

Owch! Them's fightin' words, podnuh! Obviously, this is a rhetorical gambit similar to Philip Johnson's schtick. Johnson essentially argues that evolutionary biologists have rigged the playing field of science to exclude non-natural explanations, and in his best courtroom summation mode asks the 'jury' which places 'Darwin On Trial' if that is any sort of way to run a railroad. But, of course, science is not a court of law, so again the whole business is premised upon an 'apples and oranges' business. Stephen Jay Gould explains why in a review of Johnson's original book on the thesis:

....I accept the enlightenment that intelligent outsiders can bring to the puzzles of a discipline. The differences in approach are so fascinating—and each valid in its own realm. Philosophers will dissect the logic of an argument, an exercise devoid of empirical content, well past the point of glaze over scientific eyes (and here I blame scientists for their parochiality, for all the world's empirics cannot save an argument falsely formulated). Lawyers face a still different problem that makes their enterprise even more divergent from science—and for two major reasons.

First, the law must reach a decision even when insufficient evidence exist for confident judgment. (Scientists often err in the opposite direction of overcaution even when the evidence is compelling, if not watertight.) Thus, in capital cases, the law must free a probably guilty man whose malfeasance cannot be proved beyond a doubt (a moral principle that seems admirable to me but would not work well in science). We operate with probabilities; the law must often traffic in absolutes.

Second, there is no "natural law" waiting to be discovered "out there" (pace Clarence Thomas in his recent testimony). Legal systems are human inventions, based on a history of human thought and practice. Consequently, the law gives decisive weight to the history of its own development—hence the rule of precedent in deciding cases. Scientists work in an opposite way; we search continually for new signals from nature to invalidate a history of past argument.

The sort of 'evidence', the standard of 'proof' that a jurist like Philip Johnson would accept in a court of law is not the same as the evidentiary standards within science, and when we allow someone to make this sort of argument without pointing this out we are doing little more than enshrining a turf war. There is no guarantee that following Johnson's notions of 'proof' will give us a better outcome than the biologist's idea of what counts as evidence: raise your hand, friend, if you think the jury got it right in the original Simpson case!

Now, Stan is not making quite the same argument, but it's pretty close. The similarities between his 'take' and the author of the Wedge Strategy is striking: he is what Gould would call an 'intelligent outsider' raising a question not so much about the work that evolutionary biologists do, but about the logical assumptions by which we operate. Gould says (and I agree) that there is no reason why such outsiders can not make a vital contribution to the enterprise, even to the point of overturning a paradigm, I suppose. But Gould also concludes:

But, to be useful in this way, a lawyer would have to understand and use our norms and rules, or at least tell us where we err in our procedures; he cannot simply trot out some applicable criteria from his own world and falsely condemn us from a mixture of ignorance and inappropriateness.

I think the same thing could be said about any expert from outside evolutionary biology who fails to appreciate why we do things the way we do in the 'historical sciences'. Stan's habit of denigrating inference in and of itself seems to miss the point of why we rely more heavily on inference from the data, as when Stan writes:

If one takes the revered "mountain of evidence" and separates it, piece by piece, into two sub-mountains, one of inferential evidence and one of hard, empirical, reproducible fact, one will still have only one mountain: the inferential evidence mountain.

Now, it is not (as some might have you believe) necessarily the case that reasoning from inference is easier, less thoughtful or less rigorous than following the 'cookbook' version of scientific method that a lot of doctors and engineers learn. Gould, in the article I cite above, mocks Johnson for holding such views, describing them as a 'narrow and blinkered caricature of science' and 'a silly restriction' that would be fatal to much scientific enterprise.

Now, why is Gould so scornful? Because, as a historian of science, he was well-aware of many counter-examples. You don't have to look at ancient history, or some 'historical science' like evolution to see this; in fact, even the 'hard' sciences* often employ a chain of largely inferential reasoning: Einstein's original theory of relativity is an outstanding example. No one would say that Einstein's chain of inferences were 'easy' or lacked 'rigor'. However, Einstein's chain of reasoning did eventually lead to testable predictions, and the fact that they have survived such tests is a good reason for physicists to take the theory seriously. There is nothing inherently inferior about inferential reasoning.

I further disagree with the claim that there is a real dearth of empirical evidence. In a previous post to Stan, I pointed out that evolution through natural selection has been documented many times, up to and including speciation events. There is massive direct evidence for the fact that populations evolve, and that one possible result of evolution is speciation. There is also massive direct evidence from multiple sources that the Earth is very old, that life has been around for a long time, and that thus there have been ample opportunity for evolution to occur. There is a massive and ever-growing literature on the fossil record reveals a pattern of change that occurs in a definite chronological sequence.

No inference is required to accept any of these points. Populations evolve. New species come into existence from time to time. The Earth is very old. The fossil record is a chronology.

But let's say, for the sake of discussion, that I'm fundamentally off-base here. Let's say that these above points are trivial when compared to the chain of largely-inferential reasoning that supports the rest of evolutionary biology. Let's return to Stan's conclusion:

If one takes the revered "mountain of evidence" and separates it, piece by piece, into two sub-mountains, one of inferential evidence and one of hard, empirical, reproducible fact, one will still have only one mountain: the inferential evidence mountain.

Well and good. Then, my questions for Stan are these:

Where is the inferential reference mountain for a young Earth?

Where is the inferential reference mountain for millions of separate acts of creation?

Where is the inferential reference mountain to account for the (presumably false) appearance of common descent?

Where is the inferential reference mountain for a non-evolutionary explanation for homologous structures, vestigial organs, common biochemistry, common embryological features, the fossil record, the origin of sex, neoteny, Hox genes, pseudogenes, mutualisms, ecological niche occupation, the origin of the eukaryotic cell, adaptive radiations, haplodiploidy in social insects?

In fact, forget inference! I'll accept scientific evidence of any sort on behalf of a non-evolutionary account of any of these items. See, the reason why we follow the chain of inferential reasoning is because the inferences are consistent with an extremely large amount of observations, and the inferences are considered useful to the degree that they lead to new findings or testable predictions. (These things are typically lacking in creationist accounts.)

Anyway, my 'beef' with Stan's argument seems reducible to a parable:

Suppose a customer charges into the kitchen of a restaurant and examines their supply of top sirloin. Pronouncing the supply inadequate, the customer asks the staff to hand over their knives, or at least to turn off the slicer for a moment to consider their deficiencies. "Why," the customer says, "I have ten times as much top sirloin in my fridge at home!"

"That may well be," the chef allows, "and I thank you for pointing it out. But you have to admit, that doesn't make you a cook, much less a chef. You may think this is all a matter of following a recipe that anyone can read, but I assure you much of what we do happens up here," pointing to his head, "and involves, yes, a little imagination. Now, we can't invent 'meat' that we don't have. If you prefer a different cut of 'beef', would it be too much to suggest that you supply it? In the meantime, until you can whip up a better meal with the same ingredients, I suggest you stand aside and let those who know how, cook!"



R. Moore said...

What I like about Stan is his honesty. Most who make the argument from ignorance pretend to be diligent students of of evolution whose studies have led to the conclusion that Darwin is wrong.

But not Stan! From his review of a review:

"Here's why I won't bother with the book"

Stan's reality filter keeps his mind uncluttered so all his faculties can be concentrated on always arriving at the answer he wants. I find his approach very helpful, because I don't have to waste time reading his blogs -- he states right up front how uninformed he is on the issues.

If only Vox Day would take a page from Stan, we could all save a lot of time.

Stan said...

R. Moore,
There has been a considerable amount of appeal to authority going on lately, which I think that these exchanges show quite plainly.

If everyone must stand in abeyance of every authority who puts out a book with Truth on the title, or cook in the kitchen, then there must be a hierarchy of authority regressing to one person who is so embued with maximal authority that all must be silent awaiting the universal truths he will bestow. Only the utterings of that authority should be allowed, by the logic of authority-reverence.

I feel no such compunction, despite parables and ridicule. The insistence that I must be unquestioningly credulous to your belief system - which is what inference amounts to - is absurd.

I keep saying this: kindly show me one - just one - piece of hard empirical evidence for your belief.

Evolution is supposedly based on materialism, hard and fast. Any deviation from materialism is squelched post haste. Yet the mainstay of materialism, empiricism, is totally lacking in evolution. Not so? Kindly prove that with actual data.


Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Again, Stan, you're missing the point. Yes, evolutionary biologists use chains of inferential reasoning, much more than engineers. That doesn't mean that it doesn't contain facts, or that all inferences regarding the facts at our disposal are equally probable. The ones we take most seriously are the ones that are useful, and by that I mean the ones that lead to ideas which can be tested.

Now, I'm not going to waste our time revisiting the facts that I've already listed, facts that you have pointedly avoided replying to. Instead, you've complained that we're essentially appealing to authority.

As a cook might say, "Nuts!" The point of my parable is most certainly NOT an appeal to authority. It's an observation that an armchair philosopher (you) is not going to get much traction with real biologists until you get 'into the kitchen' with us and grapple with the facts that are at our disposal. If you want us to reject all or part of the present reigning model, you have to provide an alternative that would explain a comparable number of facts in a way that can be tested.

See, this is where creationists typically stub their toe. They either don't have a mastery of the actual facts, or (like Kurt Wise) they are keenly aware that evidence of any kind supporting a creationist model is scant, and largely revolves around what they hold on faith. I've given you an opportunity to provide me with evidence to the contrary. What've you got? Again, you can't expect working scientists to take your claims seriously just because you throw philosophical terms around! That's not blind allegiance to authority: that's just common sense. No one is trying to keep you out of the kitchen, or prevent you from becoming a cook.

Stan said...

Well we are dicing when we should be slicing. If by facts you mean that dinosaurs with fuzzy feathers existed, no problem. If by fact you mean that dinosaurs with fuzzy feathers prove evolution is Truth, then problem.

If by fact you mean:
"homologous structures, vestigial organs, common biochemistry, common embryological features, the fossil record, the origin of sex, neoteny, Hox genes, pseudogenes, mutualisms, ecological niche occupation, the origin of the eukaryotic cell, adaptive radiations, haplodiploidy in social insects"
prove evolution is Truth, well it is just not Truth. And if any one of these empirically proves evolution to be fact, which one is it, please?

As you and S.J.Gould seem to admit, the evidence is completely inferential. Perhaps an inferred conclusion is warranted in your mind that a mountain of inference equals Truth. Or at least fact. That is of course opinion.

You are right about the use of philosophical terms, like Truth. I posted what I did because of the misuse of that term, an infraction that is commonly incurred in the pursuit of proselytizing for worldviews. Your annoyance at the presence of the philosophical term "Truth" is hardly warranted given that it was the very subject being addressed in my post. Can you honestly say that evolution is Truth, based on inference?

Despite Gould's apologetic for inference-as-science, it is a dangerous substitute for standard materialist empiricism. This is in evidence almost daily when new reports are issued on the findings of scientists who have connected blushing to the prehistoric need of man to hide in the flowers... and so on. This is inferentialism ad absurdum and it is now a daily irritation. It is a natural outcome of approving of inference as fact. In the case of the book, Truth.

And your continuing insistence that one is required to provide another hypothesis or be silent is just wrong; paleo-whatever could be pursued just fine by acknowledging that instances of fossilized creatures have been found, without the obligatory, gratuitous evolution extrapolations.

Have I somewhere here denied that fossils have inferential content? I have not intended to do so. What I maintain is that inference is not the same as empiricism; it should not be used to declare fact, much less Truth.

Let's have another go at this: YEC is incorrect; ID is not science. I agree. However, science, even empirical science, produces only contingent information regarding material subjects. If "fact" is incontrovertible knowledge, then science cannot produce it. If Truth is absolute, science cannot produce it. Therefore evolution is not incontrovertable fact, nor is it Truth.

Sloan said...

I wonder what I'm supposed to infer from this, other than the obvious.

I've noticed that creationists tend to shy away from the evidence for evolution uncovered in molecular biology and genetics. I suspect a lot of them are not familiar with Sean Carroll or Neil Shubin. It's a pity, because I'd really, really like to hear a creationist explanation for why human chromosome 2 looks EXACTLY like a fusion between two ancestral chromosomes.

But what I'm beginning to realize is that YEC creationists' basic problem is that they simply don't know what they don't know. Science has moved on with discovery after discovery, each of which continues to affirm Darwin's original idea, and they are left behind to try to poke holes.

I understand the problems with arguments based on inferential data. No, it's not hard empirical "proof" of the sort that would satisfy most creationists. But you know, what it really comes down to is simply this: at some point you've gotta fish, or cut bait. After all, Scott and I have biology classes to teach, and our students expect us to guide them toward a proper understanding of truth as it relates to biology. Our minds have to be settled on this issue. When faced with a mountain of inferential data, from multiple disciplines, that ALL points in the same direction, wouldn't it be kinda stupid to ignore it?

Stan said...

Sloan says,
"After all, Scott and I have biology classes to teach, and our students expect us to guide them toward a proper understanding of truth as it relates to biology. Our minds have to be settled on this issue. When faced with a mountain of inferential data, from multiple disciplines, that ALL points in the same direction, wouldn't it be kinda stupid to ignore it?"

[Emphasis added].

Sloan, your inference that I am a creationist is incorrect. Inferences do that sometimes, especially when they are without empirical back-up.

Once again, my issue is your use of the term "truth". What you have in evolution is not "truth". It is not even incontrovertable fact, much less absolute truth. But you seem to want to teach it as truth. And to that I object.

Check the other facets of biology; they are empirical and sound. Evolution is not, and should not be misrepresented to be more than it is: an hypothesis backed up by a mountain of inference. That statement would be valid and intellectually honest. (And less likely to be inferred into a worldview as Truth).

BTW I have read Sean Carrol and I found him to be a cheerleader who attributed false conclusions to the Grant & Grant Finch study, which I have also read and discussed with Scott.

I have not read Shubin, but I do have an extensive done-reading list I would be happy to share with you if you wish.