06 August 2013

Should you bother with the science rebels?

Ol' Randal Rauser – never a dull moment with this guy. His recent essay details his reading of the 2010 book What Darwin Got Wrong, a book by a cognitive scientist (Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini) and a philosopher (Jerry Fodor) which caused a bit of a ruckus on its release and was panned, hard, by a spate of evolutionary biologists. But the book was latched onto by the intelligent design movement because the authors a) reject natural selection, and b) they're atheists. Randal is an intelligent design creationist, so, y'know, do the math.

I haven't read the book because, well, I can't think of any reason why I should. Randal Rauser disagrees with me, and had these sharp words for me:

See if you'd actually read the book you'd know that their arguments are drawn extensively from the biological literature.
But why bother when you've already outsourced your thinking to other chosen authorities.
Some "free thinker" you are.
Debates within the scientific community are nothing new, and this raises an interesting and possibly important question: is it enough to concede to the scientific consensus, or should we laypersons concern ourselves with internal scientific debates and/or the opinions of the marginal few who claim to have an argument (or a set of arguments) that will overthrow the scientific status quo?

The problem I have with reading a book like What Darwin Got Wrong is that, like Randal himself admits, the language is very technical and likely eludes lay-readership. When you don't quite grasp the nuances of what someone is talking about, it's easy to be fooled into thinking that they're really saying something profound.

I have, for example, read on various physics forums and blogs and number of lengthy dissertations by armchair physicists who claim to have solved the mystery of a quantum theory of gravity. Considering that this apparently eludes all academic physicists, that's a pretty big deal. But reading these dissertations, I cannot possibly decipher all the technical language and equations. It'd be easy to think that these people might be on to something. But the truth is that the scientific consensus exists for good reasons. With that in mind, I'd like to visit Randal's comment about my "chosen authorities".

Chosen authorities

My "chosen authorities", as Randal sneered, are working scientists who have extensive specialized education in their field of expertise, who actively pursue research, and whose ideas have been vetted by other scientists with similar credentials and experience. If you want to learn about cosmology, you could always go to the Leadership University website and read one of William Lane Craig's dissertations on the Hawking-Hartle No Boundary Proposal. But Craig isn't a physicist; he's a theologian. Would it not be vastly wiser to learn about cosmology from Hawking himself, or his many colleagues and peers at prestigious academic institutions all over the world who have advanced degrees in physics and do research in the field? People like Brian Greene, Brian Cox, Lisa Randall, Alan Guth, Sean Carroll, and Alexander Vilenkin? You'd be a fool to think that a theologian would make for a better source of such specialized knowledge than the experts trained and working in the field.

But here's the rub: let's say William Lane Craig, who fancies himself to be quite the sophisticated philosopher, really has some remarkable ideas about physics that could turn the field on its head. That's great! But you, the layperson, is not who Craig should be talking to; he should be talking to those experts in the field and having his ideas vetted just as they have. Focusing on the layperson is just a way to avoid proper academic discourse and gather a following of the well-meaning but ignorant village folk who lack the proper training to see through his charlatanism.

Randal's criticism of me is no different. Sure, I'm entirely open to the possibility that these two gents have an idea so profound that it's going to usurp 150 years of empirical research and undo the unifying theory of all modern biology. I just don't think it's very likely that if anyone is going to do that, it's going to be a philosopher and a cognitive scientist. But if their ideas are worth considering, they ought to be able to pursue research demonstrating it to be sound, such that their profound idea can be vetted by the scientific community at large. As it stands, it appears (from my reading of the discussions surrounding the book) that all they've done is construct hackneyed arguments rooted in their ignorance of the field.

Fans like Randal rail against the "Darwinian fundamentalists" who apparently refuse to consider their field usurped, but Randal fails to appreciate both the gravity of the situation and the hubris of the unqualified authors. The beauty of science is that, because ideas must be tested (and repeatedly so), the truth will win out, sooner or later. If these authors are truly sitting on a diamond, the scientific community (which is vastly broader than the few bloggers and authors who engage directly with the authors) will have no choice but to listen – the integrity of their research will depend on it. But given the authors' absence of the appropriate pedigree and the resounding criticism from working evolutionary biologists, it appears to be yet another case of a well-meaning but misguided fool, just like the armchair physicists on blogs and forums, thinking that a revolution in science is waiting on the cusp of their brilliance. I haven't closed my mind to the possibility they are right; I just think it's incredibly unlikely, and certainly not worth my limited free time to spend indulging a discussion that's better left to the experts.


The book What Darwin Got Wrong was essentially a more fleshed out version of an article entitled Why Pigs Don't Have Wings, which Fodor published in the London Review of Books. The article was met with fierce criticism (just scroll down), but that didn't faze Fodor in the slightest, and as Randal mentions even the book is now being published with responses to some of the early criticisms. The response of Fodor and Piattelli, parroted faithfully by Randal in his blog, is that these critics never even addressed the real argument. Quoth Randal:
Those without a solid background in both the philosophy of science and contemporary Darwinism will find it a difficult book (count me in that camp). I am placated, however, by the fact that many highly intelligent critics of the book failed to grapple with the argument. The appendix to the new edition has an extended reply to various errant criticisms by luminaries like Douglas Futuyama and Jerry Coyne.
Now, whatever you may think about the particular views of Dan Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Michael Ruse, Philip Kitcher and all the other distinguished critics who have utterly lampooned this book, we should all at least agree that they are very intelligent fellows. So, I wonder which is more likely – that this sophisticated and nuanced argument was simply so much so that it went over the heads of these gentleman who didn't simply express a disagreement but actually failed to comprehend and engage the core argument... or, that the ideas in the book are ill-formed and poorly articulated, and the authors are just resorting to semantics and goalpost-shifting to wriggle out of their embarrassing conundrum? The first review of the book on Amazon is telling:
And the chapter on natural selection itself? Nowhere was a clear statement of what natural selection actually is in the first place. In fact, it doesn't seem like they understand what it really is.

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