Posted by: Dan | February 7, 2008

Advice to the IDiots

Quote for the day, coming from an internet chat room (HT Café Philos: an internet café):

My advice to ID proponents: quit whining just because you haven’t been able to produce anything scientifically rigorous. If what you’re doing is science, then show me an equation. Show me a schematic of a novel detector or experiment. Show me some data. You can believe and talk about whatever you want as a private individual, but as a scientist, you either put up or shut up.

Not that this is anything remotely new. But there are so many IDiots still out there that it must be repeated from time to time. Full quote below the fold.

There is a very real phenomenon of prejudice within the scientific community towards ID. However, some prejudices are well founded. I think this prejudice comes from a number of traits prevalent in the ID movement:

1) Insistence on being taken seriously, despite a complete lack of quantitative predictions, proposals for how to test those predictions, or a single point of experimental data
2) A long history of distorting or misunderstanding the theory and supporting facts behind evolution
3) An admitted and documented political agenda

You specifically refer to scientists who simply say that the existence of an intelligent designer is possible. The problem is that most people who support ID are going far beyond that simple statement.

I agree with you that scientists who merely suggest the possibility of a designer should not be shunned, lose their jobs, etc. But if all you are saying is that an intelligent designer is possible, then as a scientist, I smile and say “That’s nice”. When a guy hands me a pamphlet about the “intrinsic gravity” of organisms which is full of newly-invented jargon and totally lacking in equations or experimental data, I smile and say “That’s nice”. The conversation is over. You don’t need a symposium or an article in the journal Nature to say that something is possible; that’s a waste of time. And you certainly don’t need to be paid $90K a year at a university to say it; that’s a waste of money, especially when your colleagues are using evolutionary “theory” to, for example, breed bacterial mutants that can be used to detect trace amounts of hazardous materials.

Science is tough. I was at a biophysics conference this weekend and there were many people there who worried that their research would not be taken seriously. These people had well-documented experiments, and mathematical models on their side. They explained in great detail what the outcome of an experiment should be if their hypothesis were true, and how this result compares to the predictions of alternative hypotheses. They drew conservative conclusions, usually making caveats like “it’s not yet conclusive…” or “we haven’t yet measured it this way…”

Yet, they were worried that their case (e.g., about the binding mechanism of some protein) just wasn’t convincing enough. Scientists are very, very critical. If you can’t make your ideas crystal clear, or if you don’t address all the possible objections to your research, people walk out of your lecture and they don’t even glance at your poster. After every single lecture, there was at least one question from the audience that called into question an assumption made, a method used, or a conclusion drawn. A great number of the people there were post-docs ultimately seeking a professorship with full funding and tenure. The vast majority of them will never get it.

If your work isn’t clear, rigorous, relevant, or supported by the data, you don’t get funded, you don’t get promoted, and you don’t get tenure. If you spend much of your time touting unsupported or unsupportable ideas, people ridicule those ideas, whether it’s ID or anything else.

My advice to ID proponents: quit whining just because you haven’t been able to produce anything scientifically rigorous. If what you’re doing is science, then show me an equation. Show me a schematic of a novel detector or experiment. Show me some data. You can believe and talk about whatever you want as a private individual, but as a scientist, you either put up or shut up.


To go along with that, here are links to some of the more contemptuous IDiocy out there:

Discovery Institute: More Surreal Than Salvador Dali
Cause, Effect, and Crying “Poor Me”: Day 3 of the Luskin Thing
O’Leary Proves that ID is Worthless to Scientists


Responses

  1. The trouble with ID is that it confuses natural science with theology. The natural sciences are concerned with discovering the properties of phenomena and the relationships between them. The business of theology is at a higher level of abstraction; that of metaphysical descriptions of the grand structure of reality as a whole. Meta-concepts of reality (theology and philosophy), ought to accept the findings of natural science unflinchingly and focus on coming up with interpretations that fit the facts as they are. A whole lot of unnecessary disputation would then be avoided, and religion might improve its credibility rating.

  2. You know, I really think that the push behind ID is to use the words of science without the substance.

    They think that they can baffle ’em with bullshit.

  3. John, you said: “Meta-concepts of reality (theology and philosophy), ought to accept the findings of natural science unflinchingly and focus on coming up with interpretations that fit the facts as they are.”

    The trouble seems to be that the findings of natural science appear to create a great deal of cognitive dissonance when they come into contact with the tenets of the Abrahamic religions. Science throws the core ‘facts’ of those faiths completely in the trash can, leaving believers to either accept that some aspects of their faith are outright wrong and wonder what aspects (if any) are correct, or construct ever more elaborate rationalizations. Under such circumstances, it is completely acceptable to their moral codes to fabricate their own reality, propaganda, etc., in order to defend their faith.

    tuibguy,
    Is it that they are trying to logically persuade others with bullshit, or that they succumb to rationalizing their worldview to themselves, indifferent to logic?

  4. Dan,

    As you alluded to, a lot of people are willing to go through all sorts of mental contortions to justify their adherence to religion. What’s your take on why they would do that?

  5. John,
    I’m not sure why they would do that – clearly I myself do not *consciously* do that, and it’s difficult for me to understand why someone would.

  6. Dan,

    I’m disappointed you don’t have a theory on the subject. :-D

  7. Ha! :-)

    Well, if I have to take a stance, the best I can come up with is to cite the general observation that religiosity appears to have been selected for. This is a ‘group selectionist’ view in evolutionary parlance – which is widely criticized by many biologists, and widely touted by anthropologists. (that’s hardly an explanation, I know, but I’m not sure that I could do group selection’s pros or cons due justice)

    Of course I also think that humans more easily tend towards emotion and superstition than towards reason and logic, all of us included. That is, we still have the primitive regions of the brain, in addition to our prodigious prefrontal lobe. Being a fan of Carl Sagan’s, I easily buy into his explanation in Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, although that book is already very much out of date.

    And then there’s Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran and William James, whose books appear insightful to me but perhaps over my head.

    But maybe I’m just hesitant to take a position myself on this, because I may not yet be recovering from the forced humility of adjusting to a new country, culture, language, etc… :-)

  8. Part of it, I think, has to do with what you learn first. This doesn’t mean that people don’t/can’t change their minds, but ideas/dogma presented at an early age often stay with people for most of their lives.

    When a teacher claims life on earth evolved while parents maintain the special creation of life by God, most children have an easy time deciding who to trust.

  9. Jacob,
    I agree – to some degree religious indoctrination acts like a meme or virus, and Dawkins has championed that idea quite well. It’s not the whole story, but it certainly is a major part to it.

  10. Dan and Jacob,

    This is a one-off “Sunday special”…

    Starting with an interesting quote from G.W. von Leibniz:

    “There is no obligation to believe, but only to investigate with utmost application.”

    See Leibniz: On the Obligation to Believe

    In the passage at the above link, Leibniz argues that people are not blameworthy for the beliefs (as such) that we hold, for (paraphrasing): the state of belief is an involuntary response toward whatever information we happen to have stored in our memory that causes us to so believe. On the other hand, he considers that we do have an obligation to engage in “the most meticulous investigation into reasons for believing. However this investigation is to be moderated in such a way that we should not ask of anyone a greater feat than what, by his personal situation and way of life, he is capable of.”

    ***

    Whatever people may believe, it is because their experience in life up to the present moment leads them to so believe.

    The person who gives priority to religious doctrines over scientific facts clearly is arriving at his/her position from a particular set of life experiences. Childhood indoctrination, as alluded to by Jacob, would be one of them. Whatever these experiences may be, they have given the person a set of priorities in the foreground of their awareness that seem more real to them and have more explanatory power for their personal situation, than do the pronouncements of scientists. As a simplistic example, perhaps the person finds the account of satan’s success in corrupting Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, to have vivid explanatory power (psychologically) as to why people sometimes behave badly and bad things happen. If science denies that the respective events could have ever actually occurred, then the person’s precious belief is undermined and the cognitive dissonance arises that Dan mentioned. The belief is precious and not given up easily because it has explanatory power for the person’s actual day to day existence, whereas scientific facts about the origins of mankind perhaps seem rather remote, abstract… implausible, from this perspective.

    The natural reaction of the mind for dealing with contradictory truths is to attempt to find a reconciliation or bridge between them. ID is a fairly sophisticated version of this process. It can be said of the proponents of this concept, that at least they are engaged in “investigation” with considerable “application”, even if one does not accept their conclusions (beliefs). Perhaps in their particular circumstances, that is the best that they are capable of. This thought might ameliorate frustration with them.

    Of course a large factor in the reinforcement of traditional religious belief is the social environment. There are huge communities in existence that have a vested interest in maintaining these beliefs, and members of these communities find that the “reality” created by peer pressure is overwhelming. Because of the social dimension, economic and political factors come into play, and much is said and written by leaders (influencing the rank and file), with motives that are less than pure dedication to the truth.

    ***

    The solution of many to the contradictions between religious doctrines and scientific findings is to throw out religion altogether. To my mind this is a big mistake. The essential truths expressed by religion are real, although stated in metaphorical and inexact language. The instinct to search for a reconciliation rather than a capitulation of religion to “scientific materialism” is rightly-directed, even if in the process of seeking such a reconciliation some of the speculations arising are dodgy. The ideal is a seamless world-view that incorporates religious insight alongside rigorous acceptance of scientific findings. Admittedly, there’s a long way to go before such a consensus is achieved!

    ***

    To explain religion by way of how it might have evolved (by group selection?), and how it is transmitted (by memes?), is only half the story. Like everything else that evolves, it exists to meet a need. A history of the evolution of the eye can tell us how we came to have eyes, but the explanation is incomplete if we fail to mention that eyes meet the need for perceiving light. If light did not exist, there would be no eyes. (BTW, this is an example of the validity of Aristotle’s “Final Cause”.) How can it be that a phenomenon so universal, rich, and perennial as religion, serves a trivial or illusory need? We ought to be fully mindful of the needs that are served by religion and take them into account, when designing our charters for a brave new world. The tenacity of religious believers in holding on to their seemingly irrational beliefs are a sign to skeptics that: “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamed of in your philosophy”.

  11. John,
    Very nice analysis, particularly the final paragraph!!! Some comments on that paragraph:

    Like everything else that evolves, it exists to meet a need. A history of the evolution of the eye can tell us how we came to have eyes, but the explanation is incomplete if we fail to mention that eyes meet the need for perceiving light. If light did not exist, there would be no eyes. (BTW, this is an example of the validity of Aristotle’s “Final Cause”.)

    In a sense. What is implicit here is that such things evolve towards something. That’s not how evolution works – instead, adaptations are opportunistic. The primitive one-cell photoreceptor in early metazoans did not evolve so that you and I could have eyes. Similarly, primitive religions did not develop 10,000 and more years ago so that we could have Christianity, Buddhism, or Baha’i today. The trend from early forms to later forms is thusly only recognizable a posteriori (after the fact). Moreover, we have to remember that current adaptations are not a “final function” in and of themselves; life, including its forms and functions, continues to change as environments and geographies themselves change.

    So you continue:

    We ought to be fully mindful of the needs that are served by religion and take them into account, when designing our charters for a brave new world.

    Absolutely, we need to be mindful and seek to understand the needs served by religion. But not just in the final state (that is, in today’s religions). This is where anthropology of religion comes in: To fully understand the functions, varieties, and mechanisms of transmission of religion today, we need to understand those aspects of all religions in their societies, past and present, past most especially. Only then can we fully understand and appreciate the origins of religion, as well as its conserved components and the uniqueness of one’s own religion (or lack thereof).

  12. John,
    Incidentally, I don’t mean to avoid the remainder of your comment – I simply find it agreeable enough to skip over. :-)

  13. Hmmm. All this genial agreement could get boring, huh? :) Back later, perhaps managing to come up with something more controversial!

  14. Well, if it’s stirring up conversation we’re after… ;-)

    Here’s one perspective (What we are) that I don’t find controversial at all, but theists might find bothersome. The suggestion therein is simply that we’re really only monkeys (okay, primates is the more appropriate word) who have attained just enough consciousness to do both amazing things and shockingly ridiculous things. From this perspective, religion is merely a byproduct of consciousness.

    So let’s recap, we have (a) social/group functions for religion; (b) memetic indoctrination as a means of propagating specific religions; (c) and byproducts of consciousness, as three explanations of religion that are not mutually exclusive. Any others?

  15. Dan,

    “Any others?”

    Being short of time right now, a brief and probably cryptic reply:

    Religion is to consciousness as is light to the eye.

  16. John,
    I thought I already explained how ‘final cause’ is an erroneous approach for studying biological (and therefore cultural) origins of something…

  17. Dan,

    I hope to come back round to that.

  18. Not to change the subject or backtrack, but Dawkins had this to say when he proposed the idea of religion as a meme, in his early book The Selfish Gene:

    What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.

    Here, I think Dawkins takes into account the merging factors – consciousness and existential angst; social functionalism and group selection; and learning tendencies themselves.

  19. Dan,

    In my amateurish folly, Aristotle’s “four causes” concept seems astute to me, although you’ve said in another post that only two of the four are relevant to modern science. The version of the four causes outlined under “Aristotle” in Wikipedia is more extensive and subtle than the outline in your post. I first came across them in this summation: “…the existence of everything depends upon four causes — the efficient cause, the matter, the form and the final cause. For example, this chair has a maker who is a carpenter, a substance which is wood, a form which is that of a chair, and a purpose which is that it is to be used as a seat.” (Abdu’l-Baha) What I take from this is that the existence of entities is sustained by a matrix of conditions. With respect to biological organisms, I see this as corresponding to the following:

    Efficient cause — previous event that launched it: the generation of the organism by reproduction from its parent/s

    The matter — the substances of which the organism is composed: flesh, bones, etc.

    The form — the order which gives the organism its particular identity as a fish, a bird, a primate, etc., as carried by its genetic structure

    The final cause — the properties of the ecological niche that the organism occupies and responds to in its adaptive efforts

    It appears obvious that any description of the matrix of life would be incomplete if leaving out any one of the above four elements.

    With respect to the example of the eye, although the steps by which it has evolved are innumerable, they have been forever “guided toward” light. The final cause of the eye (or at least an aspect of it), in the sense I see it, is light. Eyes exist as a result of the benefit to animals of being able to perceive light. This is an illustration of the scientific relevance of the concept of “final cause”. The formal cause also can’t be left out. Nothing can exist without a form, and the nature of forms is a rather abstruse subject that occupies the minds of mathematicians and philosophers.

    I have a lot more thoughts on the subject but I’m short of time to write them down.

    Regarding memes, being short of time I can only bluntly say, “so what?” The method by which religious ideas are transmitted (which is presumably the same method by which all ideas gain currency), is not relevant to the validity of the ideas.

    To give an account of the physical properties of a mirror tells us very little about the sun that is reflected in it. To describe the structure and operations of the eye tells us only a little about light. To account for religion without considering the realities it points to, is surely inadequate.

  20. John,
    I think that in my mind, I think that “Final Cause” is a reiteration of “Efficient Cause” though. I’ll have to think on that some more.

    However, you said:

    With respect to the example of the eye, although the steps by which it has evolved are innumerable, they have been forever “guided toward” light.

    Not quite. Natural selection, the mechanism by which progress (as we define it in hindsight) occurs, is not such a teleological process. In that sense, for explanatory purposes, this mechanism might be better called ‘natural elimination.’ Those early organisms without some sort of light sensor were out-competed by those with that characteristic, resulting in a pattern that appears as progress, but only in hindsight. Furthermore, this progress as we see it was not inevitable. Much of evolution is downward in terms of morphological complexity, rather than upward, and the notion of going steadily in any direction is empirically false.

    The critical part to all of this is that you’re describing something a posteriori. You’re describing a perceived pattern without any causal mechanism.

    And on the separate issue of memes:

    Regarding memes… The method by which religious ideas are transmitted (which is presumably the same method by which all ideas gain currency), is not relevant to the validity of the ideas.

    Almost, except I think I take it a step further. I presume that you’re suggesting that the ‘method by which religious ideas are transmitted’ is itself irrelevant, and therefore not a valid argument against religion. Yes, that’s true. But it’s also irrelevant as as an argument for religion. All this learning process is, is a method for uncritically passing along ideas.

    So you’re right in pointing out that the method of transmission is not itself an indicator of the (in)validity of any specific religious idea, but it IS an indicator of a tendency towards the propagation of uncritical thinking.

    Interestingly, I think that that explains very much about the passing along of information relating to religion – the validity of the information is subordinate to the function of believing. That is, without the critical evaluation of information, individuals no longer think for themselves, instead allowing the group (in this case religious) leaders to do the thinking for them.

  21. Thinking about Final Cause as a reiteration of Efficient Cause a bit more since yesterday, I think I worded that badly.

    Final Cause looks at the endpoint only, and only for a subset of the organisms that might potentially use eyes in a world filled with sunlight. That is, it takes the intermediates for granted, and does not explain why only animals have eyes, or why vertebrates have a blind spot and a significant tendency for retinal detachment, but a squid’s eyes, which provide equally sharp vision, do not have either problem. That is, the Final Cause is not only a a posteriori observation as I have said, it is very superficial, however intuitive it may be.

    Efficient cause, however, is ideally suited to any historical analysis. You put it very nicely: “Efficient cause — previous event that launched it: the generation of the organism by reproduction from its parent/s.” Similarly, with religions, you cannot fully understand the current state of any religion or idea without understanding the novelties introduced by that religion, distinguishing it from its predecessor/s. In a competing world, concepts, ideas, organisms, or anything abstract or physical of any appreciable complexity, cannot arise de novo, as Final Cause suggests.

    Of course that also requires that Material Cause be taken into account, which you separate as Form and Composition. But the idea that the eye exists so that we can see, or that Baha’i exists so that we may know “God and his manifestations” (i.e. that we may have religion), presumes much.

  22. Dan,

    A fully thought through response will have to wait until I have some spare time on Saturday or Sunday. (12 hours ahead of you!) However, a few ideas spring to mind right away.

    It seems I’m thinking of final cause a little differently from the way you describe it.

    “Final Cause looks at the endpoint only…”

    The idea of the “four causes” is not to look at any one cause in isolation, but to see entities as depending for their existence on a matrix of causes. Also, the approach to final cause that I’m suggesting is not exactly and directly of movement towards some theoretical endpoint in the distant future. The emergence of some now power or quality in an existing organism comes about when the mutation involved is fortuitous in terms of better adapting the organism to its environment. The final cause in a wider sense is the environmental conditions external to the organism. So, in the development of the eye, even though each step along the way might be “accidental” there is a constant factor operating which is the advantages conferred by the ability to perceive light. Each small step occurs because “the sun is shining today”, but because the sun shines every day, the movement of this particular faculty keeps on moving in the same direction. (If the organism, e.g. a mole or a bat, moves into an environment where light is not present, then sight atrophies.)

    Saying it again slightly differently, I’m thinking of final cause as something immediately present, but also constantly present, so that it always leads development on in the same general direction. It is undeniable that the properties of the environment contribute to the existence of organisms (in the particular form that they have). Moreover, the construction of e.g., the eye, cannot be explained without reference to the properties of light, such as those to do with refraction, focal length, etc.

    I am not suggesting that it was inevitable that animals would have eyes in the particular form that we see them today. This particular form is the result of many “accidents” on the long pathway of development. However, it appears inevitable that once life gets going, at least some living organisms are going to end up taking advantage of the benefits that accrue from being able to see. The squid does it one way, the mammal does it another way.

    In the field of religion I’m proposing that we look at the constant factors in the human environment that give rise to religion. I do believe there is a Supreme Intelligence behind all phenomena including religion, but not quite in the same way that you seem to be implying: a kind of puppet-master using the clay of the material world to make creatures of His design. Very roughly, I see the operation of the Supreme Intelligence in the laws and principles governing existence, rather than as a designer who mapped out every detail in advance.

    Sorry if this isn’t very clear. Will attempt a better description of my thoughts, later.

  23. Error: “now power or quality” should read “new power or quality”. Apologies for confusion arising.

  24. P.S. Mutations may be random, but the factors that determine their success or failure are not random. These determining factors may be seen as equivalent to the “final cause”.

  25. John,
    Okay – I’ll look forward to your further responses, and try to hold off adding more until then. In the meantime, thanks for the contributions!

  26. John,
    Just thinking about your comments on Final Cause a bit more, I’m still at a loss to see how your descriptions are of causative forces (that come before the effect, which is the development of a biological feature, or in this case, for the evolution of religion).

    That is to say, you’re describing what I alluded to earlier – the teleonomic rise of evolutionary progress. This is an observable pattern, as you say, but it is only apparent in hindsight (or a posteriori) and is thus not strictly involved in cause and effect.

  27. Dan,

    Maybe the word “cause” is misleading as to what I’m trying to say.

    The process of evolution is enabled by constants in the environment. For example, bird wings evolve as a result of there always being an atmosphere where birds can fly. The atmosphere is an essential part of the causative matrix for wings. Informally, we say, “birds have wings for the purpose of flying”. So “purpose” is shorthand for the property of being adapted to take advantage of a constant factor in the environment.

    Does this make my point any clearer?

  28. That sounds pretty clear to me. Thanks!


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