Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Would You Want This Guy On Your Side?

The following letter to the editor appeared in a small Virginia newspaper. Ordinarily I would ignore something so trifling, but the ID's over at Access Research Network were sufficiently impressed by it that they added a link to it in their news update. The letter was written by one Michael Shelton. So let's have a look at the sort of people the ID folks are happy to have represent them:


In his letter, Erik Misavage [“The scientific facts support theory of evolution,” Nov. 28] uses the same, tired defense of evolution when he stated, “The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in recent years is one example.” He then conveniently tells us that we just haven't figured it out yet.


I have not read Mr. Misavage's letter, but Shelton is off to a very bad start here. It's not so much that he's committed any grave scientific error (that comes later), as much as that the two sentences above don't really make sense. Referring to the “same, tired defense” is nonsensical without answering the question “same as what?” And in the last sentence it is not clear what, exactly, we haven't figured out yet.


Evolution a priori requires a mindless, purposeless, and strictly materialistic view. It assumes that no deity is required or exists. This requires faith.


Total nonsense, of course. Evolution does not even imply atheism, much less require it “a priori”. Modern evolutionary theory does say that you do not need to invoke a supernatural deity to explain how a relatively simple sort of life can transform itself, over long periods of time, into more complex sorts of life. It is silent on the question of whether God exists, or where those relatively simple sorts of life came from. And there is no faith involved in accepting evolution. You only have to be willing to follow the evidence.


The late paleontologist Dr. Colin Patterson posed the following question several times to different audiences: “Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing that is true?” At one meeting in Chicago, following a long silence, a member of the audience replied: “I do know one thing. It ought not to be taught in high school.”


Proof by out of context anecdote, a favorite tactic. I guess our reaction is supposed to be something like “Golly! Some guy in Chicago gave a snarky response to Colin Patterson during a Q&A? I guess evolution's a lot of nonsense after all!

I won't rehash here the various ways creationists have abused Colin Patterson's public appearances over the years. Feel free to go here for one example.


Creation, like evolution, is a matter of faith, but it correlates well with science. Using a strict scientific application, let's arbitrarily select a 320-unit protein chain. Only 20 of more than 100 amino acids are used in life.


Of course, the idea that accepting the correctness of evolutionary theory is a matter of faith is one of those comforting delusions creationists are so fond of promoting. I would also point out that the word “application” is misused here. I think he just means “example”.

An experienced creationist-watcher, upon reading those last two sentences, will suspect a bogus probability calculation is on its way. He will not be disappointed:


Our protein uses eight of those 20 amino acids. Using permutation statistics, we determine the probability of a decimal point followed by 29 zeros and the numeral 2 that our protein example has self-assembled itself.


I'll respond to that as soon as I figure out what it means. I think he is saying that the probability of this particular protein forming by chance alone is 2 times ten to the minus thitieth power, and that he arrived at that number by reasoning that there are twenty to the 320-th power ways for twenty amino acids to permute themselves in a chain 320 slots long.

Of course, that's the sort of ignorant application of probability theory that we try to clear up in the first two days of a course on the subject. Complex proteins do not arise as the result of amino acids colliding randomly with each other. But, again, more interesting to me is the poor way the argument is expressed. No one who actually understands this subject would use phrases like “Using permutation statisitcs” or “self-asembled itself”.


Biological science rests on the foundation of information theory to be properly understood. No rational process that resulted in the automatic, spontaneous development of information in matter has ever been observed.


And here, instead of “rational” he really means “naturalistic”. And, actually, the ability of natural selection to add information to the genome has been documented on numerous occasions. It is possible Shelton is thinking of the origin of life here, but outside of creationist fantasy-land the origin of life is a problem wholly spearate from evolution.


Too many coincidences, too many just-right things, too many just-so stories, for this all to be an accident. It's worldview against worldview.


Creationists are fond of portraying themselves as the ones with the common, everyday horse sense to see clearly what those beknighted, overeducated scientists have overlooked. I would also point out that the second sentece here does not follow in any reasonable way from the first.


Across different command centers, information must be applicable to any and all functions that tie the command centers together. The first and second laws of thermodynamics and the property of chirality (left-hand orientation versus right-hand orientation) of carbon-based amino acids work against Mr. Misavage's worldview.


This paragraph makes no sense at all. I often tell people that you can spot a scientific crank even if you do not know all the details of a particular branch of science. Throughout this letter Mr. Shelton has misused several bits of technical jargon without making any attempt to clarify what he meana. For example, most people reading this letter aren't going to have the slightest idea what “chirality” is, and Mr. Shelton's parenthetical remark is no help at all. Nor is there any attempt to explain how “the property of chirality” works against evolution. There is also no attempt to explain how the first and second laws of thermodynamics speak against evolution. And the first sentence, about information command centers and whatnot, is just gibberish.

Using jargon without really understanding what it means is SOP among cranks.


I recommend that the interested reader refer to the following books: Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe, Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, and The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution by A.E. Wilder-Smith.


Enough said.

The ID folks are perfectly happy to be represented by folks like this. Just lovely.

17 Comments:

At 7:14 AM, Blogger Neurode said...

As usual, Jason's critique contains more than its share of mistakes and red herrings. I offer five glaring examples.

Jason's first mistake is a failure to properly distinguish between evolution and Darwinism. Most modern variants of Darwinism share the premise that reproductive mutation is independent of fitness, an article of faith which ignores the linkage of these two processes by nature, which comprises a complex and yet-unfathomed web of dependencies. Evolution, generically equivalent to microevolution, speciation and other forms of biological change over time, does not entail this premise. Neither do genetic mechanisms and relationships, nor even suggestive coincidences in the fossil record.

This brings us to Jason's second (related) mistake, which is to assert that this premise in no way implies atheism. To posit the unqualified independence of two things, e.g. mutation and fitness, is ultimately to deny the existence of a connection between them, and serving as a connective agency with respect to nature at large is one of the functions traditionally ascribed to God. (Of course, one can split hairs about just how far the "independence" posited by Darwinism actually goes, but the failure of Darwinism to spell this out is a large part of the problem.)

Next, Jason accuses his target of using the term "rational" when he "really means 'naturalistic'". This, of course, amounts to arbitrarily drawing a semantic boundary between nature and any governing rational principle thereof. While Jason might take such a distinction for granted, this is hardly a logical necessity. So Jason is merely putting words into the mouth of another, and once again, is badly out of line.

Then Jason reports that he often tells people "that you can spot a scientific crank even if you do not know all the details of a particular branch of science." One can do this only if one is willing to use shallow, superficial, and ultimately meaningless indicators which need have little to do with content. More enlightened people tend to regard this sort of thing as a manifestation of intellectual laziness and bigotry.

Finally, Jason says that "The ID folks are perfectly happy to be represented by folks like this." Here, Jason's mistake is to misidentify a subset of ID folks as ID folks in general, which is clear from his use of the definite article.

Will these abuses never end? I fear that as long as Jason has access to an Internet connection, they will not.

 
At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Our protein uses eight of those 20 amino acids. Using permutation statistics, we determine the probability of a decimal point followed by 29 zeros and the numeral 2 that our protein example has self-assembled itself."

He should be using combinations, not permutations, unless he assumes that those 320 amino acids are the only amino acids in the world. Which he might as well, it's not like you could make his letter any stupider.

Steve
sbstory@ncsu.edu

 
At 9:41 AM, Blogger itisnt said...

"As usual, Jason's critique contains more than its share of mistakes and red herrings. I offer five glaring examples."
Finding the odd problems with Jason's critique is not going to change the fact that Michael Shelton's letter contained many errors and showed a lack of understanding.

"Jason's first mistake is a failure to properly distinguish between evolution and Darwinism."
Your critism is really weak as you do not give an example of where Jason made this mistake. Your critism seems to be that Jason did not use the word Darwinism. I fail to see why this is a mistake.

"Most modern variants of Darwinism share the premise that reproductive mutation is independent of fitness"
Why should it be assumed that mutation is dependant on fitness if this is not observed?

"This brings us to Jason's second (related) mistake, which is to assert that this premise in no way implies atheism. To posit the unqualified independence of two things, e.g. mutation and fitness, is ultimately to deny the existence of a connection between them, and serving as a connective agency with respect to nature at large is one of the functions traditionally ascribed to God."
A ridiculously large step to go from "unqualified independence of two things" to "implies atheism". You know thunder and lightning were once traditionally ascribed to God. Does that mean scientific explainations of thunder and lighting imply atheism?

"Next, Jason accuses his target of using the term "rational" when he "really means 'naturalistic'". This, of course, amounts to arbitrarily drawing a semantic boundary between nature and any governing rational principle thereof."
Trying to play games with it won't change that fact that it should have been "natural", not "rational". If a tutor was marking that paragraph, they would have put a line under the word and in red pen in the margin written "I think you mean natural".

"Then Jason reports that he often tells people "that you can spot a scientific crank even if you do not know all the details of a particular branch of science." One can do this only if one is willing to use shallow, superficial, and ultimately meaningless indicators which need have little to do with content"
Sorry but Jason is 100% correct.

A physicist may know nothing about the theory of evolution, but when confronted by an anti-evolutionist who makes basic errors over the 2nd law of thermodynamics they will quite rightly suspect they are not a reliable source of information concerning the theory of evolution either.

I notice that despite it being a large part of his critique, nowhere did you address Jason's argument against Micheals use of "permutation statistics". So can I assume you agree with him on that?

 
At 12:18 PM, Blogger Orac said...

It never ceases to amaze me how many logical fallacies, outright distortions, ad hominems, incorrect analogies, and complete misunderstandings of science, evidence, and the scientific method creationists can put into a single piece of writing. This is yet another example. The problem is, newspaper editors frequently publish letters like these without comment. Your response is so good, perhaps you should send a link to it to the Editor at that small Virginia newspaper. You never know. They might publish your response.

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger Neurode said...

Due to time limitations, I'll direct this response to just one of my fellow commentators, "itisnt".

1. "Your critism is really weak as you do not give an example of where Jason made this mistake. Your critism seems to be that Jason did not use the word Darwinism. I fail to see why this is a mistake."

[Then please direct your attention to the deliberate red herring in Jason's third paragraph, where he slyly inserts the phrase "modern evolutionary theory" in place of "Darwinism". Jason's point is that modern evolutionary theory is admirably silent about whether God or some other supernatural agency is involved in evolution, despite the contrary implications of mutation-fitness independence. Jason's assertion is technically correct regarding evolutionary theory in general, but only when the Darwinian independence criterion is eliminated, and only when "evolutionary theory" is broadened to include certain variants of ID. Obviously, this is not what Jason, an apparent hardcore Darwinist, means by "modern evolutionary theory".]

2. "Why should it be assumed that mutation is dependant on fitness if this is not observed?"

[But it IS observed. The Earth is completely populated by species whose major mutations have favored their survival (i.e., their fitness), any number of deleterious mutations notwithstanding. Darwinism has no a priori reason to expect favorable evolutionary pathways to exist in anything approaching their observed quantity and diversity, or to take them blithely for granted.]

3. "A ridiculously large step to go from 'unqualified independence of two things' to 'implies atheism'. You know thunder and lightning were once traditionally ascribed to God. Does that mean scientific explainations of thunder and lighting imply atheism?"

[Your analogy fails. Science does not try to pass off thunder and lightning as independent phenomena.]

4. "Trying to play games with it [the rational-natural distinction] won't change that fact that it should have been 'natural', not 'rational'. If a tutor was marking that paragraph, they would have put a line under the word and in red pen in the margin written 'I think you mean natural'."

[Then the tutor would be arbitrarily limiting the possible range of meaning of the paragraph in question without attempting to support or justify the limitation. Such a tutor should be dismissed.]

5. "Sorry but Jason is 100% correct." (about Jason's method for spotting scientific cranks)

[I'm sorry, but he is not. According to most of the "crank scales" floating around the web, many great scientific and philosophical innovators have qualified as cranks. It is not the place of the idlers who compose or apply these scales to attach such disparaging labels to better, more creative, and less inhibited minds than their own.]

6. "A physicist may know nothing about the theory of evolution, but when confronted by an anti-evolutionist who makes basic errors over the 2nd law of thermodynamics they will quite rightly suspect they are not a reliable source of information concerning the theory of evolution either."

[People can "suspect" whatever they like. But when they take their suspicions public, as Jason has done, a more exacting standard must be applied. Jason is, after all, denigrating another human being here - actually, an entire class of human beings - and the least he owes his victim(s) is due consideration of the intended meaning without diversionary nitpicking.]

7. "I notice that despite it being a large part of his critique, nowhere did you address Jason's argument against Micheals use of 'permutation statistics'. So can I assume you agree with him on that?"

[Every probability calculation is necessarily based on assumptions, e.g., the various constraints and symmetry assumptions which permit evolutionary biologists to assess the probabilities of various chemical and biological pathways. In this case, the assumptions made by Jason's target - I don't think he spelled them out - are a secondary issue, at least as far as I am concerned. Of primary importance to me are the mounting transgressions of the author of this blog, who habitually employs bad reasoning and shifty argumentation to the detriment of his selected opponents.]

 
At 4:51 PM, Blogger itisnt said...

------------------------------
Then please direct your attention to the deliberate
red herring in Jason's third paragraph, where he slyly inserts the phrase "modern evolutionary theory" in place of "Darwinism".
------------------------------

Surely you can put either in there and it is still true. That he used "modern evolutionary theory" rather than Darwinism is just more up to date. We aren't in the 1920's so why would he say "Darwinism"? I am really trying to look at how this move could be considered sly, but I simply cannot see it. I mean by all means correct me if I haven't understood this properly.

-----------------------------
Jason's point is that modern evolutionary theory is admirably silent about whether God or some other supernatural agency is involved in evolution, despite the contrary implications of mutation-fitness independence.
----------------------------
That isn't contrary.
The reason science only considers natural mechanisms and doesn't consider supernatural mechanisms, is not because its atheistic - it is because the scientific method cannot be used on the supernatural full stop. Supernatural hypotheses are scientifically untestable and so science can only work with natural hypotheses.

Even if you believe mutations leading up to man were influenced by divine power, this doesn't mean you cannot accept that the rest of the time they occured naturally in ways established by science - yes independant from fitness.

-----------------------------------
But it IS observed. The Earth is completely populated by species whose major mutations have favored their survival (i.e., their fitness), any number of deleterious mutations notwithstanding. Darwinism has no a priori reason to expect favorable evolutionary pathways to exist in anything approaching their observed quantity and diversity, or to take them blithely for granted
------------------------------------
Again - science can only work on the natural. The change in life over time which is observed has to be explained via natural mechanisms. Science can do nothing else. There is your apriori reason. The ToE is only the best *scientific* explaination for the observations, not absolute truth that everyone must accept.

------------------------------------
Your analogy fails. Science does not try to pass off thunder and lightning as independent phenomena
--------------------------------------
Okay well how about the growth of a seed into a tree? Science "says" that a seed turning into a tree is based on natural chemical deterministic rules, therefore denying the hand of God in the process. Is this atheistic as well?

----------------------------------------------
I'm sorry, but he is not. According to most of the "crank scales" floating around the web, many great scientific and philosophical innovators have qualified as cranks
-------------------------------------------
We are not talking about people who create complex ideas. We are talking about people who are trying to destroy complex ideas that already exists.
That is a fair enough goal, but such a person who makes a number of factual errors with basics of science is very likely to not understand the scientific theory they are attacking.
And someone who doesn't understand a scientific theory is not in a good position to attack it. In fact how a person can even reach the position of being sure a scientific theory is false without first understanding it is beyond me.

A person who attacks something without understanding it can be infuriating to those who do. This actually applies across the board to any subject not just science. Be it someone who is attacking a political stance without understanding it, or someone who is attacking a religion without understanding it. It happens so often that it can be labelled. Maybe you find it condencending to label such people as scientific cranks, but whatever label was chosen it wasn't going to be a positive one.

 
At 5:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still am unsure of why exactly Neurode is trying so hard to defend Shelton. Even I, a high school student, am able to see his confusion and misunderstandings.

-Richard

 
At 6:11 PM, Blogger Jason said...

itisnt-

Thanks for the defense. You are currently learning what I learned a few posts ago: that responding to Neurode is a hopeless task.

 
At 8:38 PM, Blogger itisnt said...

I didn't expect to convince him of anything, equally I am quite sure he didn't expect to convince me of anything. Really we are both the same but coming from different directions.

 
At 9:14 PM, Blogger Neurode said...

itisnt:

1. "Surely you can put either in there and it is still true."

No, you cannot. Others who share Jason's hard-line brand of Darwinism maintain that it rules out the involvement of what they call "supernatural entities" (including God). In fact, that's a tenet of philosophical naturalism, which is arguably implied by methodological naturalism.

2. "The reason science only considers natural mechanisms and doesn't consider supernatural mechanisms, is not because its atheistic - it is because the scientific method cannot be used on the supernatural full stop. Supernatural hypotheses are scientifically untestable and so science can only work with natural hypotheses."

But at this stage of the game, Darwinism is untestable as well. It can prove neither that its accepted mechanisms are sufficient to explain evolution, nor that other mechanisms can't exist, nor that they would have to be indetectable. Part of the problem is that methodological naturalism includes no consistent definition of "nature" or "natural mechanism". That's easy to demonstrate; vicious inconsistencies can readily be extracted from the standard definition used by most Darwinists.

3. "Even if you believe mutations leading up to man were influenced by divine power, this doesn't mean you cannot accept that the rest of the time they occured naturally in ways established by science - yes independant from fitness."

That's correct. Standard deterministic mechanisms are definitely involved in evolution. The problem is that some people are trying to maintain that they are exclusively involved, but cannot prove it, and are nevertheless trying to claim the moral and scientific high ground. Due to weaknesses in the standard definition of nature, neither can it be proven that other kinds of "natural mechanism" cannot exist, nor that these other kinds of natural mechanism cannot be empirically detected. (If it *can* be proven, then Darwinists need to do so right away, since it will immediately resolve this entire controversy in their favor.)

4. "Again - science can only work on the natural. The change in life over time which is observed has to be explained via natural mechanisms. Science can do nothing else. There is your apriori reason. The ToE is only the best *scientific* explaination for the observations, not absolute truth that everyone must accept."

And again, until Darwinists furnish a consistent, robust definition of "natural" and "scientific", these statements are quite meaningless. However, here's a pointer: science cannot be contained, and the word of anyone who tries to place convenient restrictions on nature should be regarded with the utmost suspicion.

5. "Okay well how about the growth of a seed into a tree? Science 'says' that a seed turning into a tree is based on natural chemical deterministic rules, therefore denying the hand of God in the process. Is this atheistic as well?"

Not necessarily, but potentially. The growth of a tree is not a self-contained process, but exquisitely sensitive to environmental interactions; therefore, it is potentially susceptible to biologically-amplified perturbations of a teleological (or what many Darwinists would questionably call a "supernatural") nature. Of course, it is not up to Darwinists to make a priori determinations on the teleological importance of a tree, or for that matter anything else.

6. "We are not talking about people who create complex ideas. We are talking about people who are trying to destroy complex ideas that already exists."

Teleology is a complex idea that many Darwinists have long been trying to destroy. Therefore, it is far from easy to impute destructive motives to only one side of this controversy.

7. "...such a person who makes a number of factual errors with basics of science is very likely to not understand the scientific theory they are attacking, and ... is not in a good position to attack it. In fact how a person can even reach the position of being sure a scientific theory is false without first understanding it is beyond me."

It's not my responsibility to answer for the supposed lapses of which others are accused. I'm merely saying that if one is going to publicly attack the viewpoint of another, then one needs to address the real meat of the issue, the entire gist of what one's opponent is saying. (By the way, some ID proponents are merely trying to prove Darwinism nonexclusive rather than completely false; they are trying to show not that Darwinism describes nothing correctly within its putative scope, but only that it fails to describe *everything* correctly. Since Darwinism is a "theory of the gaps" - I'm speaking, of course, of the many wide gaps in the phylogenetic histories and other chains of biological causation that Darwinism posits - this is not especially hard to do.

8. "A person who attacks something without understanding it can be infuriating to those who do. This actually applies across the board to any subject not just science. Be it someone who is attacking a political stance without understanding it, or someone who is attacking a religion without understanding it. It happens so often that it can be labelled. Maybe you find it condencending to label such people as scientific cranks, but whatever label was chosen it wasn't going to be a positive one."

As I say, Jason is particularly obnoxious in the tedious regularity with which he chooses pejorative, disrespectful labels for anyone with whom he disagrees on any substantive issue. You shouldn't be surprised that many people find such behavior both rude and exceedingly obnoxious; that's only to be expected. Personally, I find Jason a fascinating specimen for the way his desire to savage his opponents regularly gets the better of his judgment, despite what seems to be a decent level of intelligence. However, this makes me no less disapproving of his abusive tendencies, by means of which he intentionally misleads the unwary.

By the way, "itisnt", Jason has thanked you for chivalrously defending him. But this token of his appreciation is a double-edged sword, for you are now responsible for encouraging his rhetorical misbehavior. This may be precisely what you intended, or it may be something you have done unwittingly against your own moral proclivities. In any case, you have done nobody a favor, for those who impulsively engage in polemical savagery too often end up in sad situations as a result. Almost everyone with such tendencies eventually turns them inward, you know...it's a simple matter of psychological feedback.

In any event, Jason has specialized in the case files of too many others to be laboring under the delusion that his own case file is impervious to close scrutiny. Speaking for myself, my own scrutiny of Jason merely reflects my strong objections to the shoddy tactics that he and others routinely employ in this debate.

 
At 9:27 PM, Blogger John said...

"No one who actually understands this subject would use phrases like 'Using permutation statisitcs' or 'self-asembled itself'."

No one who actually understands English grammar would use a phrase like "self-asembled itself".

 
At 9:07 AM, Blogger itisnt said...

I'm fed up with arguing such twattish points Neurone. You win.

 
At 12:33 PM, Blogger Neurode said...

itisnt - I suppose you're aware that the phrasing of your last post is ungracious, sexist, and more than a little disgusting. But although one always hopes for good taste and good sportsmanship in one's opponents, they are known to occur somewhat less often among those embracing certain extreme viewpoints. Accordingly, you may consider your resignation accepted.

 
At 2:16 PM, Blogger itisnt said...

I am glad you noticed how I slyly used the word "twattish" in place of "pointless and irrelevant".

The only real concern I have is that I might have spelt it wrong by using a double 't'. What do you think oh semantic guru?

 
At 3:19 PM, Blogger Neurode said...

So there you have it, Jason - this is your audience. But you already knew that, didn't you.

 
At 11:04 PM, Blogger itisnt said...

I gave up on this silly charade neurode when I realised (after 3 posts admittedly) that you are arguing for the sake of arguing.

The only thing I cannot fathom is why you single out this evolution blog and not another, say the Panda's Thumb. Is it becuase you found this one first, or did you not realise there were others?

Jason rightly critised this Michael guy for arrograntly claiming authority over something he clearly did not understand. Not matter how you critise what Jason wrote, the fact remains that Michael Shelton made factual mistakes in public and this should be corrected.

Michael Shelton cites probabilities of proteins that have nothing to do with evolution and wrongly claims that the first and second law of thermodynamics go against evolution.

So if you are going to critise anyone for posting in public online - critise Michael Shelton.

 
At 9:53 AM, Blogger TheFallibleFiend said...

Good job, Jason. IDers and other creationists tend to hurl the most idiotic invective against evolution without any discernible understanding of the subject.

It's not just the run-of-the mill creationist like the fellow on whose letter you are commenting, but the fact that their "intelligentsia" are also confused.

They will accept the idiotic ramblings on "No Free Lunch" by William Dembski to be on par with those of David Wolpert! The gross misinterpretation of the second law promulgated by Tim Wallace is (in their view) sheer brilliance against the careful mathematics of Tom Schneider. The entire world is topsy-turvey in creation land.

So why would these geniuses link to such a stupid letter? The answer is obvious. Most people aren't going to read it as carefully as you did. They're not going to think about it. They're not going to ask the guy's credentials. They're just going to take it as one more "authority" speaking out against the absurdity of evolution.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home