Saturday, June 01, 2013


Unreasonable Doubt

Dr. Steven Novella has performed an amazing operation.

He has had an extended dialogue with Don McLeroy concerning the science of evolution while remaining unfailingly polite and calm. (Okay, maybe that's not amazing; maybe Novella is just a better person than I am.)

It began with an interview on May 11, 2013 with McLeroy in a podcast at The Skeptics' Guide To The Universe. Novella wrote four posts on the interview and his impression of McLeroy: Part I; Part II; Part III and Part IV.

McLeroy then responded to the four posts and Novella replied here.

One amusing aspect of that exchange is that McLeroy claims that Novella's four posts presented "only " seven or eight 'evidences' of evolution. McLeroy, who claims "[t]he evidentiary requirements to demonstrate evolution are immense," says he "rests his case" based on the paucity of the evidence presented. Novella correctly points out that McLeroy counts each link Novella supplied as one piece of evidence when, in fact, each contain many pieces of evidence.

I find this a fascinating interplay between the Fundamentalist predilection for "proof texts" and the trope (that I've never had much truck with) that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." McLeroy clearly regards the claims of evolutionary science to be "extraordinary." By what objective metric do we say he is wrong? On the other hand, he denies that the evidence for evolution is "extraordinary" and, again, by what objective metric do we say he is wrong? Personally, I think the evidence is extraordinary that the trope is wrong. As J. B. S. Haldane purportedly said, "my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." Talking about "extraordinary" claims and evidence is just as foolish for a scientist as a creationist.

[Climbing down off hobbyhorse]

The (purportedly) last exchange between Novella and McLeroy is here. Most telling is this from McLeroy:
We agree that historical sciences like evolution are "tested" by the evidence. My key insight from our discussion is we disagree about the amount of evidence needed to demonstrate evolution. I want to see significantly greater evidence than you do.

I admit that I do not have the time to read all the technical articles and read all the links you have referred to , but I do not admit that I am unable to judge the adequacy of the evidence evolutionists have presented for evolution. I have read the popular literature of highly acclaimed evolutionists; I have thought about how much evidence is required to demonstrate evolution. And, I have found it unconvincing.
In short, 'I don't need no steenkin facts, I've still got fingers to stuff knuckle deep in my ears; eyelids to screw tight shut and I still remember how to hum "Nearer My God to Thee" as loud as I can.'

It has been said before but bears repeating. Evolution has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt. It just has not been proven beyond unreasonable doubt.

By what objective metric do we say he is wrong?

Perhaps there is no completely objective metric, but why would one think there is one? Even in physics measurements are subject to all kinds of errors and uncontrolled effects.

One possible metric relates to how far away the claims are from everyday experience. We have no everyday experience of people rising from the dead, so any claims about such events must be subject to great scrutiny.

On the other hand, we do have everyday experience of offspring differing from parents, and so it is not much of an extrapolation from that to understand that great changes could occur over long periods of time.
Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that evidence is useless or that there is no metric as to what is good or bad evidence. What I'm saying is that the trope is facile. It is a slogan that often, I think, is used to to substitute for the heavy lifting of expounding the true weight of the evidence.
It just struck me that the legal expression uses the word "proof". Ordinarily, wouldn't "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" be a problematic expression - I'd say "establish" or even "demonstrate".

It is a hangover from former times but what we lawyers, then and now, mean is "evidence that demonstrates" some fact (as opposed to, for example, "evidence that is irrelevant").
What I'm saying is that the trope is facile

No more facile than anything that can be expressed in 5 words, and much more profound than most things that can be so expressed.
much more profound than most things that can be so expressed.

I'm sure McLeroy thinks so too.
I like the trope. McLeroy is clearly misusing it. We can observe evolution happening in real time, in the wild and in experiments. There is no way we can observe supernatural creation happening at all. It's clear which is the extraordinary claim.
There is no way we can observe supernatural creation happening
While I agree with your point, to be more precise about it, we don't know what it would look like: we can't tell the difference that creation or "intelligent design" makes. Even if it happened right before our eyes, who could tell? And its advocates are not interested in investigating that.

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