Friday, June 10, 2011

God's Quality Control 7.2

Here I continue my thoughts on Ray Comfort's 2008 book Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups. We've finished the introduction, so now we move on to the body of the book, question #1.

I'll go ahead and read the question, the answer and all of the follow-up comments, then come back for a closer look.

In what year did USA Today report: "Paleontologists have discovered a new skeleton in the closet of human ancestry that is likely to force science to revise, if not scrap, current theories of human origins"? (A) 2001 (B) 1991 (C) 1981

The answer is "A" - 2001. Now, the follow-up comments.

<Read comments>

Wow, that all sounds pretty serious. Let's cross our fingers and go back for a closer look.

You'll see as we go through these questions that most of them seem to follow this formula: multiple-choice question with indistinguishable choices, followed by an answer that makes you wonder what was the point of having a multiple-choice question in the first place. After looking at a few of these, I conclude that the purpose of this strange presentation is to highlight, as Ray describes it, "an evolutionary expert quietly admitting that he has no evidence." Let's see what the admission is, exactly: "Paleontologists have discovered a new skeleton that is likely to force science to revise, if not scrap, current theories of human origins." Well, that is a problem, isn't it? That we might have to scrap evolutionary theory? Well, it would be, that's not what it says. It says that we might have to scrap theories of human origins. Now if you're not steeped in the science, it might be hard to catch the subtlety here, so let's not draw any conclusions yet.

The first comment says that the find might "overturn the prevailing view that a single line of descent stretched through the early stages of human ancestry." Well, even that sounds a little technical. Let's see the conclusion of this comment, which is a little more obvious: "Lucy may not even be a direct human ancestor after all." Interesting, but it has no bearing on our confidence in evolutionary theory in general.

What does the second comment say? "Lucy was a chimpanzee. The 'evidence' for the transformation from ape to man is unconvincing." This point also might go over your head if you're not a science nerd, but the title of the article makes the point obvious: "Lucy: Evolution's Solitary Claim for Ape/Man". This article is talking strictly about the relationship between Lucy and us. It's not saying anything fundamental about evolutionary theory.

Neither of these comments is saying anything about scrapping evolutionary theory, or even revisiting the idea that we are apes descended from apes. They're just talking about scrapping the prevailing views concerning "the early stages of human ancestry." All they're talking about here is the details of the family tree that we share with the other primates. Neither one of these comments says anything incriminating.

This last comment surely will be our undoing: the evidence points away from Darwinism? I just don't know what to think. Let's look at the article.
"Evidence from fossils now points overwhelmingly away from the classical Darwinism which most Americans learned in high school: that new species evolve out of existing ones by the gradual accumulation of small changes. Increasingly, scientists now believe that species change little for millions of years and then evolve quickly."
Context certainly does seem to be important here. The part that Ray quotes seems to say that evolutionary theory itself is in crisis. In proper context, we can see that the author is not saying anything about evolutionary theory. He's saying that the changes in species are often sudden, contrary to the prevailing gradualist view at the time. He even goes on to say that "the new theories are intended to explain how evolution came about—not to supplant it as a principle."

Clearly, no quiet admissions of lack of evidence concerning evolutionary theory are apparent in any of this commentary. The question itself and the first two comments simply say nothing negative at all about any facet of science. The third comment was quote-mined and grossly misrepresented. Finally, let's look at the sources for all these excerpts: USA Today in 2001; The New York Times in 2001; Newsweek in 1980; CRS Quarterly. So even if any of these quotes did say something incriminating about evolutionary theory, we should be very careful not to grant them too much credence, given that the first three are popular press and the last one is the quarterly journal of the Creation Research Society. Not to mention that two of the articles were already seven years old when Ray published his book, and one of them almost thirty. An awful lot of knowledge can be gained since in three decades. Question #1 is empty. Perhaps our blind faith in evolutionary theory was shaken, but the shaking stopped as soon as we looked at the facts.

That's 7.2. Thanks for watching.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

God's Quality Control 7.1

Here I continue my thoughts on Ray Comfort's 2008 book Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups. Just in case you're tired of hearing the setup and you're eager to move on to the questions, I'll save you some time. I'll start digging into the questions in the next video, not this one. Feel free to skip this one if you're bored.

In the introduction to the book, Comfort briefly describes the advent of evolutionary theory, using the language we have come to expect: everything from nothing, Darwin's disillusionment, complexity, random processes, just a theory. We've all heard the corrections to such nonsense a zillion times; I have nothing to add. However, in a previous video I made a point about Darwin that I wish I had emphasized a bit more. In fact, I wish that I had shouted it from the rooftops. Now's my chance to revisit the point.

I've heard a few people mention this lately, but only a few. It should be on the minds of everyone involved in the discussion. The point is this: forget about Darwin. Pretend that he never existed. Or let him exist, but pretend that he was a reprobate, a pedophile, a guy who hired vagrants to sit in his car so he could use the carpool lane illegally. Let's say we hate him so much that we reject his ideas without even checking whether they were good ideas. Death to Darwinism!

Now consider: we've analyzed a lot of DNA in recent years. When we look at all of this analyzed DNA, we see a pattern of relationships that all but screams that all species, including humans, are related to each other; we have common ancestry. That one fact by itself is gigantic, but I'll add just one other: many, many species around the world have vestigial organs, vestigial structures, vestigial genes: just one of countless examples: the traces of eyes in eyeless cave-dwellers. A simple and elegant explanation of this phenomenon is that the life-forms we see today are descended from life-forms that were once very different, that eyeless cave-dwellers are descended from creatures that had eyes.

As I said, just our DNA knowledge by itself is huge, but when we compare the story we get from the DNA to the story we get from countless cases of vestigiality, the stories are the same. One need not have an in-depth understanding of scientific principles to realize how huge this is. We simply don't need Darwin. Our current science is based on these and a mountain of other well-known facts, not on any love of Darwin. The hero-worship you see on all the Darwin documentaries does not represent evolutionary biology in any way. It may represent the attitude toward Darwin held by some individuals, even by some scientists, but it does not influence the substance of their work or the edifice of evolutionary biology. Darwin is dead. His version of evolutionary theory is utterly irrelevant to any modern conversation. So when Ray (or anyone else) talks about Darwin, I'm going to ignore him. You should too; don't get bogged down talking about Darwin.

Near the end of the introduction, Ray says, "[D]espite more than fifty years of school children and television viewers being force-fed evolution," Americans still generally don't believe it. I don't really care about Ray's claims, and I don't really care how many people still believe that the world is flat. What I do care about in this statement is the mention of television. Television is not a reliable source of scientific knowledge. You might get something good from watching television; you might even find a broadcaster that you tend to trust, but the overall relationship between television and facts is extremely tenuous. Don't believe anything you hear on television unless you can find an independent source to substantiate the claims. One should always consider the source, regardless of the medium, but you won't go far wrong if you automatically disbelieve everything you hear on television.

One last point: Ray has some interesting thoughts on quote mining. He says that "every gold nugget is legitimately mined out of its context. No one seriously values the earth that encases the gold." Analogies are fun, but they're not guaranteed to be sound. This one is a bit weak, to say the least. There is a story about Abraham Lincoln; I haven't checked whether it's true, but even if not it works well as an illustration. Lincoln is said to have written a letter saying that he'd rather live under an emperor in Russia. Ray seems to think that a statement like this counts as a nugget, while anything Lincoln might have said before or after it counts as unrelated soil. Ray might want to say that Lincoln didn't want to live in the U.S. As the story goes, in the sentence just before Lincoln's surprising remark, he is complaining that his opponents seem to hold the view that all men are created equal except for blacks, foreigners, and Catholics. You have to decide for yourself whether Ray's nugget comment is valid.

That's 7.1. Thanks for watching.

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011

    God's Quality Control 7.0: Fairy Tale for Grownups

    In this series I'll discuss some of my thoughts on Ray Comfort's 2008 book Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups, which is subtitled "101 questions to shake believers' blind faith in the theory."

    Before I start, I invite you to join me in offering some condolences. On May 26, 2011, Ray tweeted that his mother had died. Maybe now is a good time for us to recall that although we hate what Ray is doing in the world, he is, in the end, a human being just like the rest of us, with the capacity to grieve and suffer. Ray, we're genuinely sorry for your loss and your pain, you and everyone else who will miss her.

    Now, let's talk about the two primary goals of this series. The first one is the obvious one: to perform my usual quality control services for the superstitionist community. The second goal, while less obvious, is the more important one, and hopefully will be useful to a wide audience regardless of metaphysical inclinations: I hope to demystify somewhat the concept of critical thinking. I get the impression that many of us don't really know what it means to think critically, and even more of us are frightened away from the idea because it sounds too complicated and seems to require too much specialized knowledge. I hope to show here that you need no specialized background, training, or specific knowledge in order to think critically. Further, I get the impression that many of us consider ourselves unqualified to think critically, because critical thinking seems like the domain of really smart people, and we tend to think of ourselves as not all that smart. I hope to show here that although some effort is required, the level of effort is not nearly so high as it may seem. You are smart enough. No, you'll probably never find yourself handing William Lane Craig's pseudo-philosophical ass to him, but you are definitely at least smart enough to follow a line of reasoning and determine whether it makes any sense or even warrants your attention.

    I plan to cover Comfort's points in detail. You guys let me know if it starts to seem like too much or too little. I have some thoughts for those of you who find the level of detail intimidating. Don't stress about it. There won't be a pop quiz at the end of the series. Just take in what you can and try to recognize the broad brushstrokes. You don't have to understand every last trifle in order to recognize sloppy thinking and faulty conclusions. Hopefully this video series will help to demonstrate that and maybe even add something to your set of critical thinking tools.

    The subtitle of the book is "101 questions to shake believers' blind faith in the theory." Let's talk about "blind faith." Why do I believe, for example, what I read in the June 2011 issue of Discover magazine: that there are about ten non-human microbes in your body for every human cell? Is it because I have some unconscious prejudice for swallowing whole everything I read in Discover magazine? No. Is it because the statement confirms my pre-existing biases? No. Why then? Because I have long experience with this magazine. What has my experience been? Almost every time I've explored any of the stories in this magazine—and over the years I've explored many—I've found them to be written by qualified, educated, knowledgeable scientists and science journalists, and supported by independent sources. I find that the topics discussed and the fact-claims made mesh harmoniously with topics and fact-claims that I've heard from other parts of the scientific community, even those engaged in only distantly related fields of research. I also find that my own hands-on experiences with the world, from throwing a baseball to washing the dishes to rubbing a balloon against my head until it stays there by itself, support (or at least fail to contradict) anything I've read in this magazine.

    But even personal experience isn't quite enough. As I've pointed out in other videos, personal experience can't always be trusted. In the extreme case, some people literally hallucinate. Obviously we can't trust hallucinations. But even in every day life, we as individuals get the facts wrong all the time. Our perceptions fails us, our memories fail us, our biases mislead us. It turns out that we unconsciously deal with these problems all the time, by comparing our individual experiences and perceptions to those of the people around us. Just think how you would react if you were in the middle of a conversation with someone who interrupts you to say hello to a person that you think isn't really there. You would automatically know that something is amiss.

    The scientific method is the formal version of comparing our experiences to those of the people around us. First, I deal with my perceptual weaknesses by performing experiments and observations repeatedly. Second, I deal with my bad memory by documenting my studies. Third, I deal with my biases by publishing my results, allowing other people to repeat my experiments and observations and compare their conclusions to mine.

    I've already said everything I can say to show that this way of thinking is not at all blind faith. If you disagree, you'll probably consider this video series a waste of time, and there probably is no way to have a reasonable conversation about it. Regardless of what superstitionists may think of it, and regardless of whether someone slaps the label of "blind faith" on it, the scientific method—whether employed casually and unconsciously, or formally and carefully—is the best we have ever found for understanding the world in which we find ourselves.

    That's 7.0. As always, I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts on this and all the videos in the series. Thanks for watching.