Response to comments on Science and Creationism

I’ve received an interesting comment within a posting here about “Irreducible complexity explained“. It deserves a bit of thought and a carefully considered response, so I thought I’d post my reply here, its too long to be just a comment reply, and may be of interest to others.

The commenter basically raises four points, so I propose to consider each in turn.

1) We have to take a lot on trust from academia. The assertion that peer review indicated acceptability and not necessarily accuracy muddies things.

Peer-reviewers simply consider if a submitted papers claim is supported by the data in it, ensure its appropriate for the journal, and that the study has used proper controls to account for other possible explanations. Its only one small part of the overall process.

My thinking here is that we place our trust in the process on the basis of the evidence we have that it works, and that it is reliable. The scientific method is something we can have confidence in. Its not just about Peer Review publication, its about the bigger picture. We can always find examples of peer-reviewed papers that have turned out to be a tragic mistake, and yet thats not a bad thing. A recent illustration of this was the apparent link between the MMR Vaccine and Autism. Mr Wakefield published in the Lancet and had data to back it all up. We now know that he rigged the data and also had a financial interest in killing the MMR vaccine, he has since then been struck off and his paper has been withdrawn. Is this the process not working? Not at all, I would argue that its a good example of the overall process working successfully. Others could not replicate his results, and eventually the truth surfaced.

2) Darwinism when viewed as the biological equivalent to the physics ‘theory of everything’ seems entirely unsatisfactory as an explanation of the Universe, life and humanity. It seems to lead down a dead end of nihilism of the type such a brilliant scientist as PZ dishes up.

There are a couple of points here.

The use of the term “Darwinism” indicates the cool-aid you have been drinking :-)  The term Darwinism is often used in the United States by promoters of creationism, notably by leading members of the intelligent design movement, as an epithet to attack evolution as though it were an ideology (an “ism”). However, Darwinism is also used neutrally within the scientific community to distinguish modern evolutionary theories from those first proposed by Darwin, as well as by historians to differentiate it from other evolutionary theories from around the same period.

Natural Selection is in fact a very good explanation for the reality we see around us. It is one of the cornerstones of modern biology, and is also a very satisfactory explanation. We have mountains of data that confirms it.

As for the topic of nihilism, it can be argued that is precisely where Intelligent Design leads you. To embrace a fantasy, for which there is no evidence, and then build a foundation of meaning upon that fantasy is true nihilism. PZ does not dish out nihilism, he serves up reality. Take for example his blog posting here yesterday where PZ puts it like this, “we prefer to find meaning in what is real“.

3) There seems to be a ‘closed shop’ as far as critics of Darwinism goes. It was interesting reading the comments following Arthur Hunt’s critique of Doug Axe’s work. Most comments were dismissive of his work except for Katerina who kept asking ‘What does this add to the Science?’ That was until someone commented that Axe supported ID concepts whereupon her attitude completely changed.

There is no evidence for a closed shop, “Darwinism” is historical, and a lot has changed since his time. The understanding of what is going on has greatly increased. The term “Darwinism” refers to his initial thinking over 150 years ago. As an example, we now think about mechanisms for natural selection such as genetic drift and gene flow as better alternatives to the mechanisms proposed by Darwin himself. There is nothing hammered in store, just a desire to follow the evidence.

Additionally, the Intelligent design community do themselves no favors, there are many examples of blatent lies and deception going on (for example my blog posting last Nov here in which I dissected the quote mining designed with a very clear purpose to deceive). Behavior like that very quickly erodes their credibility to zero. Time and time again the same old arguments are presented. Even when refuted in detail, they still tout them out, and that is very dishonest. Net effect is that any hint of ID motivates many to handle it in precisely the same manner that many physicists treat “cold fusion”.

4) I think actually, Dave, that both you and I are grateful for the Creationists. For me they are the only ones prepared to critique and dig around for interesting facts. For instance they enlightened me to the function of the Muller cells in the eye which act as fibre optic transmitters to reduce ‘light noise’ and enhance vision. This rather upsets the view that the vertebrate eye is ‘back-to-front’. For yourself, if you didn’t have the Creationists to lampoon then your articles would merely be well-researched, serious comment and probably as a consequence not so frequently read.

There are many diverse areas of science, and I would argue that they all yield truly fascinating facts, stuff that is orders of magnitude beyond anything being done within the Intelligent design community. The actual contribution to science by the ID community has been so far more or less zero. The problem is that if you start with the conclusion and work backwards, then not very much science happens. Its the reverse of how real science actually works, where you start with the data and work towards an explanation, then test that explanation to verify it.

Finally, as for being grateful that I have some silliness to point out, the ID folks have no monopoly. We also have astrology, homeopathy, psychics, ghosts, spoon-benders, lay-liners, dowsing etc… its a very very long list. They all have one thing in common, they claim to have evidence, yet when you go looking, you never quite find any.

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