Field of Science

Once unto the breach, dear friends

A short time ago, as I headed to teach one of my classes, I saw an older white guy writing a chalk advertisement on the pavement in front of the student union.  The advertised talk seemed to be a presentation or discussion of the problems with evolutionary theory. Since I did not have my son that evening, I decided to attend.

This was not a talk, presentation, or discussion of the problems with evolutionary theory. No, this was nothing more than a collection of well-disputed creationist talking points hiding under the auspices of an honest scholarly seminar.

I learned several things because of my attendance, none of which the presenters wanted me to learn I expect. 

1. The Importance of Authority
I mean 'Really!?!?'
During the overinflated introductions, the first clue that authority carries most of the weight in an argument occurred when we were told to not look up things during the talk (I kid you not). This was not in order to ensure we were paying attention. You will note that we were only asked to not look up information, we were not asked to simply put away our mobile devices. If that is not a cry for help, I don't know what is. Of course, I took that to mean post often and frequently and redundantly. So I kept Facebook open most of the evening, I should have linked to twitter, but screw it, I was busy spewing righteous indignation. The advantage of posting constant updates is it gave me a safety valve and avoided the potential for aneurisms.

The argument from authority came up throughout the talks. Initially it was in the form of the speakers credentials. I do not have a problem with this in principle, it is important to know why we should be listening to these people. However, when you overinflate someone's credentials to make them seem to be experts, problems ensue. One of the speakers studied evolutionary biology...during their fisheries and wildlife training! You know because nothing says evolutionary biologist like a fish and wildlife degree. We were also told that both presenters taught at colleges and universities, although we were not told which ones and in what capacity. Based on the constant lies and half-truths stated during the presentations, I expect that these talks at my university will constitute 'teaching at my university' in the future.

The argument from authority continued throughout the talks in the form of slides containing nothing but a quote from some person. Almost always these quotations came from creationists. Using quotes can be a powerful form of argument, if it is backed up with some substance. Using the quote 'To be or not to be' as a preface to address teenage angst and suicide prevention can be powerful approach. Using the quote 'To be or not to be' as evidence that teenagers contemplate suicide as demonstrated by Ophelia drowning herself, is not a powerful argument and contains an obvious WTF*. This is the approach the presenters took. "Creationists have a problem with evolutionary theory, so here are quotes by other people (almost all of which were not biologically trained) that agree with us." This is akin to me using the picture below on the left and stating that the presenters are lying assholes with absolutely no shame, no soul, and no business setting foot on a college campus. Then advancing to the slide on the right and noting that Mr. Stratten supports my position and thinks I may be wasting my time.
Quote Support
Average donkey

The final argument from authority comes from the reference to the bible. By and large, the presenters tried to bring up neither god nor the bible, but they had to early on to establish their position. Without the crutch of god and the bible, their points would have been obviously ridiculous. However, once god and the bible are established as the counter-argument, this ridiculousness is given a free pass. The debate then becomes the bible/god vs evolution comparison. Since all the bible/god position has for evidence is the bible (thus an absolute argument from authority position), the evolution position has to be cast in the same light, it's all argument from authority. We can ignore the evidence and just focus on who said what, never mind why they said it.

2. The Gish Gallop
You may have heard of the dreaded 'Gish Gallop.' If not let me introduce it to you. The Gish Gallop is a debating technique perfected by Duane Gish, who, not surprisingly, is a creationist. Basically you take a complex issue and move from topic to topic using lies, out of context data, lies, half-truths, strawmen, lies, misconceptions, lies, etc. during a debate. Your opponent does not have sufficient time to rebut all of these lies and ends up discrediting one or two at most during their time. This leaves the audience thinking that the other 15 talking points were valid (or at least not discredited). The talk I attended was nothing more than an extended, 90 fucking minute, Gish Gallop. This is a primary reason why scientists should not debate creationists. (Remember we were told not to look anything up, which prevents a suspecting mind from realizing the presenters were full of shit in real time.)

Topics covered, using frequent lies, out of context data, half-truths, full lies, strawmen, lies, misconceptions, and lies, included but were not limited to the following:
  • Racism is a direct outcome of evolutionary theory, yet Genesis shows that we are all equal. So no racism in the bible or before 1859.
  • Cells are literal factories. There is no metaphor to see here, move along
  • Haeckel's embryos and peppermoths FTW!
  • There is no such thing as junk DNA.
  • The Cambrian explosion occurred in a short time frame, because you know the word explosion.
  • Darwin was concerned about the dearth of fossils (true, be we found a couple more since 1859 /snark).
  • Pictures of ancient organisms often colorized, but we do not actually know what color they were. Therefore evolution not correct. Q.E.D
  • Piltdown man was a hoax (no mention of the fact it was exposed by scientists).
  • and as if the arguments could not get any worse: the presenters stated that Lucy is likely male1, yet has a female-associated name. The obvious conclusion from this is that evolutionary theory is wrong.
  • Plus there was a slide with this on it2
Damn you New Scientist

3. Data vs. interpretation
I will give the presenters credit in that they had a thesis for their talk. At least they had a point that they came back to with some regularity. I also think this is an important point and from that standpoint I agree with the presenters. Of course this is like saying the presenters and I both agree that knives are sharp, but the presenters think the best way to show this is to replace the balls in a ball pit with machetes and sharing said pit with a sugar-hopped up toddler birthday party.

A recurring theme was that they had no problems with the data (not true of course), but simply with the interpretation of the data. One of the classes I teach is an advanced microbiology course (in fact this is the course I was heading towards when I saw the old white chalk-writing guy). We spend a great deal of time learning how to evaluate data and critique interpretations of data. This is not easy stuff, in fact I will go so far as to say it is kind of fucking hard! 

Regardless, the argument between evolution and the bible was cast as simply one of interpretation.
If we look at the molecular evidence we see protein sequences are more similar in related organisms. The same is true if we look at DNA sequences. Evolutionary biologists conclude this supports common decent, creationists conclude this supports common design. It's simply an issue of interpretation and there is no way to resolve these different interpretations. Therefore both are equally valid! Except not really, because all the data is bad.
They argue that all the data is bad later on and fail to address the fact that they directly contradict themselves. As they lay it out, maybe a case could be made. But their case is incomplete. First, many amino acids that make up a protein sequence behave similarly. Thus, the fact that more closely related organisms have identical sequences whereas more distantly related organisms have slightly different sequences supports common decent not common design, unless we want to argue that the designer is lazy. Second, the DNA encoding a protein sequence is redundant. In other words different DNA sequences give rise to the exact same amino acid. The fact that more closely related organisms have identical DNA sequences whereas more distantly related organisms have slightly different sequences, yet make the exact same protein supports common decent not common design, unless we want to argue that the designer is infinitely lazy. Third, within the mammalian genome reside the carcasses of dead retroviruses. What is surprising is that these carcasses are positioned in the exact same place in related organisms and then absent in more distantly related organisms. Like the dead on election day, the don't do anything. They are just there. More molecular evidence that supports common decent, not common design, unless we want to argue that the designer is eternally drunk on top of being infinitely lazy. 

This type of argument occurred several times during the talk. The data is fine, it's simply interpretation. What irks me most, at least at the time I am writing this, is that when I write papers, give presentations, etc. I try to undermine my own ideas. I raise any conflicting data or alternative ideas. I, and most other scientists, do this because we want to get at the truth. At the very least, we do not want to make fools of ourselves. These kind of one-sided presentations go against all of my training. It disgusts me in a political discussion (most choices are difficult and have pros and cons, a healthy discussion of both is warranted yet rarely occurs). But it cuts deep to my core when this one-sided approach is given under the guise of being an evidence based talk.

Question Time
And now it was (FINALLY) time for questions. Albeit questions with some rules. (Remember this is the 'don't look things up' talk, so rules regarding questions should be expected.) We were told one question per participant, which makes sense. We were told that we could ask additional questions if there were no first time questioners. We were also instructed not to rebut the answers given. This makes sense at face value, as you don't want to have simple argument, but is also a cop-out allowing the presenters to lie make a mistake without response (this did not go as well as they might have wanted).

I tried to ask a bigger picture question rather than one that simply disputes one of the hundred or so misconceptions, lies, or fallacies the presenters made. I decided on two, but only asked one. (Dealing with fucktards is important to me, making sure I get to call my son and say 'Goodnight' and 'I love you' is more important. I had to leave during questions to make sure the latter happened.) The question I did not ask was:
Do you think that the tens of thousands of biologists in the world teaching evolutionary principles are stupid, evil, or a combination of the two? Because if the points you have made were actually true, it seems like the conclusion has to be something along these lines. I ask, because essentially all evidence gained in support of evolutionary theory was obtained by god-fearing individual scientists. Indeed all the interpretations that have led to the modern theory of evolution was developed primarily by Christians. Hell, even the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, is an evangelical Christian who has written a couple of books about God and biology.
I like this question because for 90 minutes the presenters had presented a completely one-sided argument lie-fest in support of young earth creationism (they tried to avoid discussing age of the earth issues during the talk, but audience questions led them to admit their position). It begs the question, what is going on all over the world. Why don't the vast vast majority of biologists agree with the presenters position. These are intelligent highly trained individuals and many of them are practicing Christians. So what gives?

However, I asked a different question. Remember one of the points they came back to several times was the issue of data versus interpretation. This is an important point in science, which I stress in the courses I teach. There are questions regarding data, how it was obtained, what was observed , etc. However, these are different from the questions regarding interpretation. With interpretation, the authors (generally speaking) put their data in context with the broader body of knowledge. They go beyond telling you what the data is, and tell you what the data means. This is what the presenters did frequently throughout the talk. They took 'data' (I purposely use quotes.) and interpreted for the audience. The problem is that the presenters never put the data in context of our understanding of the universe. Regardless, one of their major theses was that the difference between creationists like them and biologists was simply one of interpretation. The presenters had no problem with the data (except for when they did i.e. fossils, dating, etc.), only with interpretation of the data. This is the background from which where my question originated.
At the beginning of your presentations you noted that observation and experimentation were tenets of the sciences (I know, I know). However, you failed to mention that the power of science comes from its ability to make predictions about the future that are accurate. Without this aspect of science, science is no more useful than religion or astrology (Yes, I know, but realize I had been sitting through an hour and a half of this shit, I earned this!). You noted that you believe much of the issue is due to differences in interpretation, but not the data. However, numerous cases you used throughout your talk are not differences in interpretation. For example, you argued that DNA and protein similarity can be interpreted from an evolutionary viewpoint, but also from a creationist viewpoint, because an intelligent designer (God of the bible) would use similar parts. However, this is an example of Monday morning quarterbacking, because the similarity of DNA and protein was a prediction of evolutionary theory. Before we had the methods to analyze these molecules, we predicted related organisms would have related DNA and protein. You also brought up the fossil Tiktaalik (and I thank the presenters for helping me get the pronounciation correct). This fossil was unknown, but based on evolutionary theory, Neil Shubin predicted when this fossil should occur in the record, went to rocks of this age, and was fortunate enough to find it. This was a prediction of evolutionary theory. Clearly evolutionary theory passes this aspect of science, making accurate predictions. My question to you is what predictions have creationism made that have subsequently been found to be true?
The sad part is they gave me answer. Want to know what it was? Junk DNA2. Fucking junk DNA. Now we were directed to not get into a back-and-forth with the presenters, and I understand why that was requested, to prevent others from having time to ask questions avoid making the presenters look like lying shitbags. However, I was willing to take on the mantel of asshole and loudly responded 'That's not true, junk DNA is not a tenet of evolutionary biology.'  

The presenters asked me why I said that. I restated that junk DNA is not a tenet of evolutionary theory, it is neither required nor omitted. In fact, we have long known that bacteria essentially lack junk DNA. (This is not a secret, so it makes me wonder why they think junk DNA is a tenet of evolutionary biology.) Regardless, it is not up to me to explain it because it was their thesis that junk DNA was a tenet of evolutionary theory, so it was up to them to demonstrate this was the case.

At this point the moderator intervened and said 'Well stasis' (the fact the some fossils look just like modern animals). This was one of the 100 or so Gish gallop points, but as far as I'm concerned is basically a 'why are there still monkeys?' argument. Sharks have not changed much, but many descendants of ancient sharks have changed. Many microbes are round and have been for ~4 billion years, that's the ultimate stasis! Yet look at how things have changed in many of their descendants!  Anyway at this point, I simply noted that stasis is not a good rebuttal, but that they did not want the meeting to turn into a debate. (Rightly so, remember in a he-said, she-said debate, truth loses.) Plus, I much preferred to wish my son good night and tell him I love him. 

1 This argument seems to come from a historian of science, not a paleontologist nor otherwise trained biologist. The idea that Lucy is male is not accepted in the field.

2Fuck you very much New scientist/ENCODE.


Bend said...

I like the question you didn't ask.

Anonymous said...

Should've asked the first one! I wish I'd been there to see this debacle firsthand.

Unknown said...

I admire your constitution. I couldn't take the crap for that long.