Wednesday, March 16, 2005


David Berlinski recently published this anti-evolution op-ed in The Wichita Eagle. Other writers have already performed the thankless task of ripping it to shreds (see in particular P. Z. Myers' thoughts on the subject here, as well as this fine counter op-ed form Michael Everhart, President of the Kansas Academy of Sciences.

Still, I can't resist throwing in my two cents.

Berlinski swears the he is not an ID proponent. Indeed, his article “Has Darwin Met His Match?” in the December 2002 issue of Commentarydoes a decent job of skewering the main claims of ID proponents. (It also contains a lot of inane criticisms of evolution, but we'll come to that later).

Despite this, he is perfectly happy to sit on the ID side in debates, he contributes elaborate mathematical papers to their anthologies, he publicly praises the work of people like Michael Behe and William Dembski, he parrots ID talking points in op-ed pieces, and he is perfectly happy to associate himself with the Discovery Institute.

Berlinski has fashioned a little niche for himself as a scientific gadfly. He has the scientific and literary ability (he holds a PhD in mathematics from Princeton University) to spew high-level nonsense, and he has proven himself willing to sing the song his right-wing benefactors want to hear. Specifically, he feels no shame in telling people that scientists are all mixed up about everything, and that they need a lot of clear-thinking common folk to set them straight.

Commentary has pretty much adopted him as their science guy, and he has published a steady stream of flapdoodle in their pages over the last decade. He started with “The Deniable Darwin” in which he used his bloated and pretentious writing-style to obscure the fact that he was merely repeating some of the hoariest anti-evolution cliches ever offered. Next came “Was There a Big Bang?&rdquo in the February 1998 issue. Three guesses what that one was about. More recently there have been articles about evolutionary psychology, and a truly bizarre one in which Berlinski attacked an obscure technical paper on eye evolution.

I say bizarre because Berlinski's argument would have been entirely meaningless to anyone who had not given a careful reading to the paper he was attacking, which is to say, to just about everyone who reads Commentary. It is safe to say that Commentary's editors hadn't the faintest idea whether there was any merit to Berlinski's claims (there weren't). So why did it get published? Because the editor's understood in some vague way that it was anti-evolution, and they like that sort of thing.

Since Berlinski makes his living as a writer and not as a scientist, these attacks of his are very cheap. No one expects him to enter a laboratory and emerge with the solution to an actual problem. You never get the impression from his articles that he is trying to direct scientists towards more fruitful avenues of research. Mostly you get the impression that he is someone who writes primarily to show the world how well he writes.

You also get the impression that he is someone who wants to be part of the fray, but does not want to do the hard work of earning his place at the table. He knows his articles will attract a handful of indignant letters from scientists, and that, by answering the letters, he can create the illusion that he is an important person.

He knows that the critical letters will be carefully edited for length. He also knows the critical letters will be balanced by an equal number of friendly letters. And if that's not enough of an advantage, he also knows that he will be given virtually unlimited space to respond. In such a forum, Berlinski can not lose.

All of this might be forgivable if Berlinski were actually making decent arguments in his articles. But he is not. To see that Berlinski doesn't really know what he is talking about, consider this statement from the 1997 Firing Line debate on evolution and creationism:

It is always easy to persuade yourself that you've understood something when you haven't understood a thing. The issue before us is not whether retroactively we can explain an adaptation, but whether we can draw that adaptation from general principles. That is what Darwinian theory cannot do. And this is the requirement of normal science.

That statement is so stupid it's hard to believe Berlinski was serious. Of course the issue is whether we can retroactively explain an adaptation! My goodness, hasn't the alleged inability of evolution to explain various complex structures been the main anti-evolution argument for the last 150 years? How did the blood clotting cascade evolve? The flagellum? Bird flight? The firing mechanism of the bombardier beetle? The human eye? The immune system? The immunity of the clown fish to the sea anemone? And on and on. Berlinski was sharing a debate platform that night with Michael Behe, who had just written a whole book criticizing evolutionists for not retroactively explaining various complex systems. Why didn't he turn to Behe and calmly inform him that he had missed the whole point?

The simple fact is that one major goal of evolution is to unravel events that happened in the past. That means retroactively explaining adaptations.

And it is not Darwin's fault that there is an inescapable element of chance in the evolution of a species over time. It is not a defect in evolutionary theory that it can not predict from general principles the specific adaptations that will arise in the course of evolution. Rather, it is a simple fact of nature that such predictions are not possible.

Berlinski also has some funny ideas about what constitutes normal science. He seems to think that it is large quantities of abstract mathematics that transforms a random discipline into a bona fide science. For example, in his November 2004 Commentary article “On the Origins of the Mind,” he excoriates evolutionary psychology for not making sufficient use of differential equations. And in the op-ed linked to above he writes:

The suggestion that Darwin's theory of evolution is like theories in the serious sciences -- quantum electrodynamics, say -- is grotesque. Quantum electrodynamics is accurate to 13 unyielding decimal places. Darwin's theory makes no tight quantitative predictions at all.

Of course, quantum electrodynamics studies simple things, like electromagnetic fields, whereas evolution studies complex things, like the changes in the gene pool of a species over vast periods of time. Scientists simply use the tools that are appropriate for the problems they face. Mathematics is very useful for describing simple, repeatable phenomena. It is less useful for describing complex, unpredictable phenomena.

The business about “thirteen unyielding decimal places” is a delightfully technical line to put before scientifically ignorant readers, but he knows perfectly well that it is a silly standard for judging scientific merit.

For example, to me it seems highly significant that with tens of millions of fossils described and cataloged, not one is out of place from an evolutionary standpoint. I think it's relevant that studies in comparative anatomy and genetics show just the patterns of similarities and differences that would be necessary for evolution to be a viable theory. I find it fascinating that every complex system studied in detail shows clear evidence not of being a pristine creation from nothing, but rather of having been cobbled together by natural selection.

Would Berlinski have us ignore all that becuase the predictions evolution makes are generally not couched in the language of mathematics?

In the end I mostly regard Berlinski with pity. He is a dishonest purveryor of ignorance, of course, and as such deserves all the scorn that he gets. But he is also someone who had the talent and werewithal to have a real career in mathematics, but instead chose to throw it all away in a series of cowardly hit-and-run attacks on his scientific betters. Somehow he reminds me of this scene from Rocky, in which Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) is arguing with his manager Mickey (played by Burgess Meredith):

STALLONE: ...Ya know, I been comin' here for six years, and for six years you been stickin' it to me. I wanna know how come.

MEREDITH: You don't wanna know!

STALLONE: Yeah, I wanna know how come!

MEREDITH: You wanna know?

STALLONE: I wanna know now!!

MEREDITH: Okay, I'm gonna tell ya! Cuz you had the talent to become a good fighter! And instead of that, you became a leg breaker for some cheap, second-rate loan shark!

STALLONE: ...It's a livin'.

MEREDITH: It's a waste o' life!

Let me give the final wrod to Ken Miller, who delivered my favorite smackdown of Berlinski in the aforementioned Firing Line Debate:

MILLER: However, recent studies of speciation--I am sorry to pick this specific species but it's relevant to your question--recent studies of speciation in sunflowers have shown conclusively that a news species can be established in terms of a speciation isolation mechanism with as few as ten genetic changes.

BERLINSKI: Yes, I have read the same science papers you have, but those are very close. A dog-like mammal and a whale are very far.

MILLER: Ah, that's right, and the other side of the room is very far away and it should not surprise you that I get there with one step at a time, and that's what we are talking about.



At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Joe said...

All the comments concerning Dembski's latest have all reminded me of the section of Carl Sagan's Cosmos in The Backbone of Night. Its the chapter where he discusses the origins of modern science on Iona with Democratus and friends, and then the contrast between them and "the mystics" led by Pythagorean thought. The mystics insisted that thoughts and reason (effectively mathematics) alone could discern the nature of the universe and that experiment was unnecessary.

Over time, in spite of the fact that they were correct more often, the scientific approach was increasingly banned and condemned, particularly by Plato and Aristotle, so that by the time the Romans came along science was almost stamped out in favor of philosophy and engineering.

Dembski is, by applying Sagan's definitions, a mystic. His maths alone hold the secret because he can't see past the maths to recognize that a logical progression is only correct if the axioms its founded on are correct.

Some axioms can only be founded by experiment and experience. Thought alone can not save a perfect execution of mathematical logic and precision from being totally wrong.

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