Saturday, September 8, 2007

House of Cards

Nothing makes my stomach churn quite like spiteful ignorance.

In particular, I'm talking about the sorts of individuals who, out of ignorance (be it unwitting or willful), malice, or denial, will attempt unceasingly to poke holes in all of humanity's greatest scientific achievements because they don't like the implications of one theory or another. I'm talking about the sorts of folks who will reject out of hand entire disciplines of thought because they can imagine a question that can't be answered in that school. There are others in virtually every arena of science, but by far the most prominent are religious creationists, especially the "stealth" creationists of the Intelligent Design movement.

I'm talking about assholes like this or this, who pretend at science while twisting every fact they encounter to conform with their preconceptions. These are the types from whom you'll hear big talk about how "many scientists" are "increasingly questioning" evolutionary biology. They're the type who will proudly parade before the world an apparent gap in the fossil record, or a biogenesis question that science "can't" answer, as if a single unknown detail will bring the whole institution crashing down - as if each and every question that can be asked, each detail throughout all of the history of the universe, is a card in a towering but delicate house of cards where every single precariously balanced fact is a necessary support for all the others.

I have a little news for you, though, folks: that's not how it works.

Science - the sum over history of human evidentiary thought - is not dependent on any single fact or theory. It is a collection, not a construction.

Let's go over that again, because I'm so fucking sick of hearing argument after argument that essentially simplify down to "science can't answer this question I came up with to my satisfaction, so everything it concludes must be wrong and therefore my theory must be right." We'll get to the fallacy in the latter half of that in a little while, but for now we're discussing the former. So: science is a process which allows humans to use material evidence to find reproducible information which can allow us to form predictive theories about the real world. It is designed to be self-correcting, and is strengthened, not destroyed, whenever a gap is discovered or an error is deleted, because rather than being depending on every single facet, it is cumulative. There is no "god of the gaps" waiting to provide a divine explanation for any questions science hasn't answered, because anything we don't know is simply a question we haven't answered yet.

There is no unilateral community. The "Scientists" that you hear about so often in the news, in advertisements, and in criticisms simply don't exist. Science is a cutthroat community; it is positively Darwinian, in fact. Why? Well, simple: scientists make a name for themselves by demolishing older theories and replacing them with newer, better ones. It is in any individual scientist's best interests to formulate newer, more accurate theories to supplant the old.

And the only reason people can't accept this is religious bias. Witness the divergent worlds of mathematics & physics, and biological science... in particular, the cultural treatment of each. You will find no widespread criticism of astronomical physics because "Newton was wrong" or "Newtonian physics can't explain" this or that. We've accepted, happily and without cultural upheaval, the idea that Einstein's relativity supplanted classical Newtonian physics, and that relativity was thereafter modified by quantum physics. People accept the idea that modern discoveries in physics can necessitate new mathematical models. Why, then, is it so difficult for so many of us to accept that new discoveries in areas like biology or geology may require revision or wholesale replacement of classical theory? Why do people still believe that attacking Darwin's original ideas or even his personal life is somehow a telling blow against evolutionary biology? Why is "Darwin recanted on his deathbed" still advanced as "proof" that evolutionary theory is all some sort of hoax? Why is a single small gap in the fossil record assumed to be "proof" that the world was supernaturally created, rather than evidence of a world that is chaotic, destructive, and wholly unreliable as a historical recorder?

Why is it unacceptable to refine and revise some theories? Well, here's the thing: it isn't. Not only is it acceptable, it's required.

Science is not a house of cards. It does not collapse in upon itself if you remove on small piece, or if you add on one piece too many. Bad theories can be excised and replaced as a matter of course - indeed, doing so is the matter of course in many branches of science!

To extend the metaphor, science has much more in common with a notebook, its sheets laid flat and orderly - picture it as a big, fat three-ring binder, tabbed, annotated, scribbled on, noted, de-noted, constantly re-ordered and reviewed. Every page is in a different hand. Some sheets - Euclidean geometry, Cartesian coordinates - are staid, solid, uniform and yellowed with age, and on others - superstring theory - a hundred different pens have scribbled and more aren't yet dry. In the section simply labeled "biology," perhaps one page in twenty of Darwin's original enormous contribution remains. Given that only footnotes remain of the work of ancient luminaries like Aristotle, Darwin's contribution is notably substantial, but even so it can hardly be said to be the greater part of evolutionary science. The science binder is infinitely expandable and infinitely divisible, and anyone can insert, mark, or remove a page so long as their contribution withstands the harsh scrutiny of their peers.

In the front of this binder, there is a page of rules. It is titled simply "The Scientific Method," and it reads, in large, plain font:

BEFORE ADDING CONTENT

I. OBSERVE
II. HYPOTHESIZE
III. PREDICT
IV. TEST

REPEAT AS NECESSARY

You'll notice, with a simple experiment, that large binders of information do not crumble to ruin if you remove and replace a page, or if you find that a certain piece of information has yet to be added. Science is not an iterative, stochastic process, but rather a cumulative one. Pull out a page, and you'll still have a big, thick binder with a space awaiting new pages.

And that's quite enough of that metaphor.


Now, as to the second half of the usual false dichotomy. "Evolution has problems, so everything must have been created."

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you could demonstrate conclusively that biological evolution was impossible. I'm not going to worry about how you might demonstrate this; that's not the point here. Just assume that, for whatever reason, you could prove that things didn't evolve.

Where do you go from there?

If you've shown that evolution is incorrect, you must have done so with data that conflicts with the predictions of an evolutionary universe. So what might the data indicate? To make a positive assertion, you must have evidence for your assertion, not simply evidence against some conflicting notion.

Imagine that I have a box. I present you with the box, and tell you that inside, there's a gift for you. Now, you've been wanting a new car, and a new watch. Everyone wants a new car and a new watch, right? But you can see plainly that there's no room in the box for a car. (We'll set aside for the moment the possibility that I was clever and only put the car keys in the box.) You conclude that the box must contain a shiny new Rolex, because I am a generous fellow. "Thank you," you say. "This is a princely gift." Upon opening the box, you are surprised to find a cubic zirconia tie pin in the shape of a yorkshire terrier.

The box represents the universe, of course, and opening the act of finding out how it works, so opening the box is stretching the metaphor more than a little. All the same, the rhetorical error so often seen is the same as the thought error in the example - a false dichotomy. You erroneously reduced the realm of possibility from virtually infinite to a mere two, a mistake which seems impossibly stupid in this context, but which happens all the time in the real world. Listen closely to political debate, personal argument, or particularly religious dispute, and you will quite often hear what amounts to "If not A, then B!" The problem is, "not A" is not the same as B, because lurking out there waiting to be addressed is the entirety of the rest of the alphabet and more.


So in short: no, a single missing data point does not break the statistical curve, and no, breaking the curve would not even in fact prove anything; and that doesn't even address the fact that most of the objections that inconsistent shills like Michael Behe raise are out-and-out lies. No, Mr. Behe, the bacterial flagellum is not "irreducibly complex"; genetic sequencing of flagellate bacteria have provided several solid possible histories for the development of the flagellum from simpler units which coincide quite nicely with theoretical predictions of said development. No, we will not "teach the controversy," because the only "controversy" is between meticulously obtained and organized knowledge and ignorance, and ignorance is not a valid "alternative world view." No, creationism is not "just as valid a scientific theory," because there is nothing remotely scientific about claiming, "Well, if you can't explain every single detail of the universe on the spot, my god must have done it."

So can we quit rehashing these arguments now? I know I've wandered from the topic a bit, but I swear I hear this same worn-out bullshit every day, and it's past time it was put to rest. I'm past tired of popular opinion and policy in what damned well ought to be a great nation being shaped by misinformation, misconception, and ignorance.

Stop trying to pull down my binder. It's not a house of cards.

And no, it's not a series of tubes, either, smartass.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

I really enjoyed the Yorkshire terrier bit.

Also this made it pretty clear to me that we are related; Surely getting this passionate about ignorant bullshit is not common. Or more to the point not nearly common enough.