Saturday, October 03, 2009


By the Numbers

Okay. I have apparently been driving Nick Smyth to some level of distraction by not adhering to the rules of a 10th grade debate class exercise. So, let me go through his response to the criticisms of his original article at 3 Quarks Daily in order (but not in one fell swoop in consideration of my select group of readers). The first two criticisms Nick addresses are:

1. You do not need to define science in order to define pseudoscience (Richard Hoppe, John Pieret).

2. Science and pseudoscience are categorically different things. An essential feature of science is that its assertions are empirically refutable, and ID-creationism is not refutable or testable. The only parts of ID that are refutable are its assertions about evolution, and thus when we refute them we are only testing evolution, not ID (Nick Matzke).

The main thrust of Nick's first point is, apparently:

... no human being can reasonably be expected to accept the label "pseudo-scientist" when it is applied by a person who cannot define "science" as well.

I've already pointed out that it is exactly as true to say that no human being can be reasonably expected to accept the label "bollocks" for their sincerely and deeply held beliefs by a person who cannot define "truth." Nick, instead of trying to define "truth," appeals to "clear-cut, widely accepted logical rules," which I will address below.

In passing, I should just note that 1) Nick has placed this in the context of the law and how it should deal with question of creationism in science classes and 2) the courts are not interested in gaining the acceptance of any individual or group in the underlying logic of the law. We do not ask murderers if they "accept" that murder is wrong before putting them on trial and we do not ask "tax protesters" if they assent to the notion that government can demand that they pay taxes before we throw their asses in jail (ala Kent Hovind) for refusing to do so. Similarly, we need not ask creationists' assent that they are promoting religion in the guise of pseudoscience before banning their blather from public school science classes.

Nick's "solution" to the inability of creationists to understand and/or admit that they are doing "bad" science (as opposed to pseudoscience) is to explain it at length. As an example, Nick would have us point out that Dembski's "first and most crucial claim" -- that three forms of explanation -- design, chance, and natural law -- constitute a mutually exclusive and exhaustive list of types of explanation" -- is false because:

... we observe species of fruit flies changing over time in labs. How do we explain this? Why, by a combination of chance and natural law: by natural selection! Dembski's principle is refuted by a coherent explanation of an empirical phenomenon: it is refuted empirically.

Supposedly, this demonstrates:

ID and the sciences can be compared on the same sorts of scales, and that ID comes out the loser. How could two categorically different types of theories be compared? The very notion is absurd. Rather, they must share some crucial features, and this is why we should be skeptical of the categorical distinction itself.

I can also empirically investigate the claim by baseball players that baseballs can be made to "curve" as opposed to it being an optical illusion. Does that make baseball "science"? Simply because some claim is subject to empirical study doesn't make the activity that the claim arises from "science."

Next, hold that thought of Nick's about "natural law" in mind because later, in Nick's point 4, he will tell us that the concept of "natural" is "hopelessly obscure." If so, I cannot see how he can then use the concept of "natural law" to show that Dembski's claim is false ... other than by saying that "natural law" is undefinable. Conversely, if we can cogently talk about "natural law," we can cogently talk about "methodological naturalism," the core of which is that scientific explanations must appeal, at least at some level, to "natural law."

But for purposes of these two points, the problem is how we know Dembski's claim is false? After all, does the "microevolutionary" changes in fruit flies prove that "macroevolutionary" changes between species can be accomplished by chance and natural law? (Yes, I'm aware that such usage is bogus but that has never stopped creationists before.) In addition, as Nick tried to remind me (which neither I nor Judge Jones needed), simply demonstrating that something is not science is not demonstrating that it is religion. In the same way, simply demonstrating that Dembski is wrong does not prove that ID is false. Do we really need to produce empiric evidence against every argument made by IDers? Given the ubiquity of "irreducibly complex" structures and processes in organisms, it will be a long time before we can do that.

What is doing the heavy lifting here anyway? ... the empiric evidence or one of those "clear-cut, widely accepted logical rules" that Nick appeals to? ... in this case a version of the fallacy of the excluded middle. Even if it is the empiric evidence, then we have an epistemological rule "thou shalt not ignore the evidence" that is the real reason for judging Dembski's argument is bogus. But these rules are just what the ID movement fails to adhere to. As far as I know, no one in the movement has criticized Dembski on this point. This is clearly different from the practice of science where, to paraphrase philosopher of science David Hull, "Scientists rarely refute their own pet theories. But that's all right. Their fellow scientists will be happy to oblige."

Nick asserts that it is impossible to tell what pseudoscience is unless we can perfectly define science but, unless Nick can point to any science that tolerates logical fallacies or the denial of evidence, then we can say that any purported "science" that does those things is not science because it does not operate by at least part of the epistemology that all sciences share. Nick's project to enumerate those rules is perfectly fine but we need not wait until he succeeds (if he ever does) in order to say that some claims are not "science."

Nor do I think we can say that these rules Nick appeals to deliver "truth." For the most part, they help us to avoid obvious errors. But avoiding errors does not guarantee that you will arrive at "truth." You are more likely to be right than if you don't apply them but you can still wind up wrong. But telling people that their beliefs are false because they do not adhere to such rules is even more problematical than telling them that their beliefs are not science.

More later, as I get to it.


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