Monday, December 28, 2009
I recently gave another example of the Discovery Institute using Thomas Nagel's recommendation of Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell in the Times Literary Supplement for publicity purposes. In particular, Robert Crowther cited to an article at Lew Rockwell's libertarian site by David Gordon. A commenter, calling himself only "David," but writing as if he is Mr. Gordon, responded to the post and, on the presumption that he is Mr. Gordon, it is only fair to move his reply to the top of my blog.
First of all, here is the criticism I made of Mr. Gordon's article:
[A]s Gordon notes, Nagel doesn't claim knowledge of biology, much less theories of prebiotic chemical evolution. That simply raises the question why Nagel felt competent to pronounce Meyer's book to be a "detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin." Gordon's response that "Both Leiter and the chemist [Stephen Fletcher, Department of Chemistry, Loughborough University, who wrote a Letter to the Editor of the TLS] ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial."Here is "David's" reply in full:
But it is Gordon who misses the point. As Nagel was competent enough to recognize, Meyer's "argument" is a conceptual one, that "argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause." In short, Meyer is making a "just not so" argument, much like Behe's "irreducible complexity." Behe and Meyer are both claiming that, because they (supposedly) can't think of any way for some organ or structure to arise naturally, we should stop looking. A fully adequate response is "we can think of a way." And it doesn't matter if Meyer thinks prebiotic chemical evolution is "controversial." Neither Nagel nor, as far as I can tell, Gordon have the expertise to tell how accurate or honest Meyer's account is ... something of great importance, given the DI's penchant for quote mining and other dishonesty.
Nor is there any scientific reason to assume we won't find some other, presently unknown, route to the origin of DNA. Meyer is pushing an argument from ignorance that pales in comparison to the spectacular success science has racked up with the assumption -- methodological naturalism -- that natural phenomena, such as the chemistry of DNA, have natural explanations.
Which brings us to what Gordon calls "the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism." Really? Criticism is an attempt to block inquiry? That's a strange position for a libertarian to take. Not to mention that, since Gordon is criticizing Leiter and others who defend the scientific process, he must be attempting to block scientific inquiry.
If I missed the point, I don't think that it's in the way suggested here. In his TLS letter, Stephen Fletcher criticized Nagel for denying that natural selection can be used to explain the origin of DNA. Fletcher said that the RNA World model shows that natural selection exists in the pre-organic world. I am entirely incompetent to evaluate the truth of Fletcher's claim, and I made no attempt to do so. But Meyer has a chapter in his book criticizing the RNA World, to which Fletcher makes no reference. This suggested to me that he hadn't read the book. Had he done so, he would have said, "Meyer wrongly denies that the RNA World establishes the existence of natural selection in the pre-organic world", or the like.I still don't think David is getting the point. Whether or not Fletcher has read Meyer's book, Nagel was in no position to judge Meyer's account of the RNA World model and was apparently unaware that scientists don't think it is conceptually bankrupt, though some may not think it is well supported or prefer some other model (of which there are several). And yet Nagel (foolishly, in my opinion) expressed an opinion that Meyer has credibly argued that there is "no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause." Doing that in the popular press is not likely to spark truly academic debate on reductionism but is likely to mislead the vast majority of people who read his recommendation.
In similar fashion, Meyer discusses the claim made here that he is arguing from ignorance. But Mr. Pieret makes no reference to this. Once more, I am not concerned to defend Meyer, but rather to raise a question about the extent to which a critic is familiar with the book he purports to examine.
I certainly do not believe that criticism blocks inquiry; quite the contrary, criticism is essential. But it seems to me that the verbal assault on Nagel, a philosopher of great distinction, was excessive. Professor Leiter was certainly within his rights in assailing Nagel, from a libertarian standpoint, and I recognize that he feels strongly about the Discovery Institute. But I wish that he had expressed his views without disparaging Nagel.
I freely admit that I haven't read Meyer's book but I have great familiarity with the arguments Meyer and other Discovery Institute PR hacks make. It's not like this stuff is anything new.
I am glad that David will grant that Brian Leiter is not trying "to block inquiry" but, as a Ph.D. himself, I'm somewhat amused that he is surprised at the venom that can arise between academics.
Had Mr. Pieret read Meyer's book, he would know that Meyer does not argue that it is conceptually confused to claim that natural selection existed in the pre-DNA world. Rather, he thinks that it is extremely improbable that it occurred there. It seems implausible to take Nagel to be making a stronger claim about pre-biotic natural selection, i.e., conceptual incoherence, than the book he recommended did.
But was Nagel entitled to make a claim about the subject at all? He is not a biologist, but why should we assume that he is ignorant of the field? From my very limited understanding, I think that Mr.Pieret is exactly on target when he says "that scientists don't think it [the RNA World] is conceptually bankrupt, though some may not think it is well supported or prefer some other model (of which there are several)". Nagel apparently agrees with those scientists who don't accept the RNA World or other models that require pre-biotic natural selection. Why shouldn't he say so?
As Mr.Pieret says, Meyer argues that there is no credible prospect for a naturalistic account of the origin of life. But Nagel simply reports his view: he doesn't say that he agrees with it. He commits himself to no more than that the problem of life's origin is a "fiendishly difficult one."
Academic vitriol does not surprise me, but in this case it disappointed me.
Had Mr. Pieret read Meyer's book, he would know that Meyer does not argue that it is conceptually confused to claim that natural selection existed in the pre-DNA world. Rather, he thinks that it is extremely improbable that it occurred there.
I have read most of Meyer's book, and his probability arguments are what one would expect from an ID proponent, which is to say they make very shaky assumptions about the shape of the applicable probability distribution, the values in the numerators of fractions with which to estimate probabilities, and neglect of the role of non-chance factors, e.g., the potential roles of inorganic templates and/or catalysts. All that makes the probability statements specious.
Moreover, Meyer (and Nagel) is simply wrong. Evolution by natural selection requires very minimal initial conditions: (1) a fecund population of (2) imperfect replicators with (3) heritable variation. The hypothesized RNA world has those properties, as do some other proposed pre-DNA hypotheses, so natural selection could and would operate in at least some of those hypothesized pre-biotic contexts.
Nagel accepted (at least for the purposes of recommending Meyer's book) some pretty specious arguments, and one expects much better of him, to say the least.
I repeat, this is nothing new. Nor am I talking about "conceptual confusion." The argument ID advocates have made from the begining is that it is conceptually impossible (and/or so improbable as to be impossible -- which is the same thing) for evolution to work that there must be another explanation. The simple fact is, as I pointed out in my original post, the only counter, logically or scientifically, needed for such an argument is to show that there is a conceptual path for evolution to work that is either possible or for which the probability cannot be determined. Note that these are not the kind of "pobabilities" that can be statistically determined (since there is only one extant example) but are, instead, expressions of personal opinion. It should also be noted that dealing any particular hand of bridge is highly improbable but they continue to be dealt every day. In other words, so what if Meyer thinks it is "improbable"? Is Nagel also a secret expert in probabilities?
He is not a biologist, but why should we assume that he is ignorant of the field?
Why should we assume he is knowledgeable? He certainly didn't display it in the two paragraphs in the TLS and the fact that he wasn't an expert was the point of Fletcher's letter, since Nagel stated flat-out that evolution could not begin until life arose.
Lots of things are fiendishly difficult" for humans to understand. I can't grasp quantum mechanics. Does that mean anyone should posit that God is popping quarks in and out of existence? More importantly, should anyone, particularly not an expert in the field, lend his (justified) reputation to someone positing such an explanation?
Why should it disappoint anybody. They keep making fake calculations and using weasel words like "unguided" all the time. What the heck is "unguided" supposed to mean?
A couple of readers pointed out some time ago that there was another letter from Nagel to the TLS about his scandalous recommendation of the book by the Discovery [sic] Institute shill in which he made the astonishing admission that, "Like any layman who reads books on science [ed.--the book was published by the religion imprint of Harper Collins] for the general reader, I have to take the presentation of the data largely on trust" adding that "the book deserves a review from someone with the relevant scientific credentials." Given this admission that he was incompetent to evaluate the book, why did he recommend it in such a high-profile forum?)