Tuesday, August 30, 2011

God's Quality Control 7.4

Here I continue my thoughts on Ray Comfort's 2008 book Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups. Today, Ray will teach us about these important critical-thinking concepts:
  1. Keeping up with the times and basing one's conclusions on the latest data available.
  2. The self-correcting nature of science as opposed to the self-deluding nature of faith.
  3. Presenting arguments from unbiased commentators.
  4. Determining whether certain facts are actually supportive of one's argument.
  5. Finding reliable sources.
  6. And of course, quote-mining.
In Question #3, Ray quotes paleontologist David Kitts saying that "Evolution requires intermediate forms between species and paleontology does not provide them." Note that Kitts is not saying that there is no support at all for evolutionary theory; he's just saying that the fossil record is spotty. Well, guess what: in 1974, when Kitts made this statement, it was true. But a lot of science happened in the three-and-a-half decades between this statement and Ray's book. Kitt goes on to say that although some claim that the fossil record actually falsifies evolutionary theory, the claim has been debunked. Ray cites a couple of other, rather aged sources: P.G. Williamson in 1982 and D. Futuyma in 1983. He does mention Professor Ernst Mayr in his 2001 book What Evolution Is, but again, here, Ray is simply quote-mining. Mayr says in his book that the fossil record contains many gaps. Ray wants us to believe that Mayr is expressing his doubts about evolutionary theory. This is not true at all; the reason Mayr brings it up at all is so he can address the issue directly. He mentions just a few paragraphs later that there are some fossil lines that are "remarkably complete," including reptiles-to-mammals, mesonychids-to-whales, and Eohippus-to-modern-horses.

In Question #4, we hear about over-eager scientists mis-identifying fossils. What turned out to be a dolphin's rib was first thought to be a hominid clavicle. What turned out to be a pig's tooth was first thought to be a hominid tooth. We've been fooled by body parts from donkeys, too, not to mention the occasional deliberate hoax. What Ray leaves out of all these examples is that it was science that discovered and corrected all of these errors. The scientific method automatically tends toward self-correction. The scientific method is turbo-charged by the fact that many scientists absolutely love being the first person to make a discovery, especially if it demolishes the cherished beliefs of one's rivals. On the other hand, religion tends toward exacerbating errors, because there's just no way to test any faith-based claim. This tendency is turbo-charged by the fact that each and every one of the superstitious entirely fabricates his or her concept of "god" based on his or her way of seeing the world.

In Question #5, we get an earful from Sir Ernst Chain and author I. L. Cohen. These two seem quite opposed to the idea of life originating and evolving with no supernatural help, but let's not waste any time on the details of their assertions. Why? Because Ray's goal is to show us examples of scientists "quietly admitting" some uncomfortable truth, while Chain and Cohen are both clearly biased in favor of some supernatural element. Chain is quoted in a biography as saying, "We, the Jewish people, have been given a lasting code of ethical values in the divinely inspired laws and traditions of Judaism." So in addition to being superstitious, he explicitly worships the evil demon known as Yahweh. Cohen, while not quite the explicit advocate of Yahweh, still openly admits his bias that Nature does not have "the capacity for rearranging" nucleotides. If Ray wants to show us scientists quietly admitting some failure, that's one thing. It's another thing entirely for Ray to show us superstitious people advocating their superstitions while providing absolutely no support. There are plenty of other qualified scientists who practice superstition but accept the truth of evolutionary theory.

In Question #6, Ray reminds us that any statements made by scientists 20 or more years beforehand should be assessed in light of our current knowledge. He quotes several more scientists who expressed their dissatisfaction that at the time, we had far fewer fossils than we have now.

In Question #7, Ray teaches us about finding reliable sources, by giving us citations from Reader's Digest and Time Magazine. These are popular press, not peer-reviewed science journals. Don't believe anything unless you have prior good reasons, such as the publication having a good track record for honesty, and especially scientific accuracy. Perhaps the more important lesson we get from Question #7 is understanding whether a given set of facts has any bearing on the argument. Recall that Ray's goal is to explain to us that evolutionary theory is a fairy tale. In Question #7 the points he brings up are about archaeological discoveries that lend support to the ideas that King David was a real person and that the details of Jesus' alleged crucifixion are historically plausible. That's all. Ray gives us nothing saying that archaeology supports the bible's claims relative to evolutionary theory. In other words, these two points do not suggest anything about whether the bible is generally true, nor do they even hint at which parts of the bible are to be taken literally, even if true.

Finally, let's make sure we get an adequate dose of quote-mining: Dr. Edmund J. Ambrose, of the University of London, tells us that "there is nothing in the geological records that runs contrary to the view of conservative creationists." Naturally, Ray leaves out the very next sentence: "My own view is that this does not strengthen the creationists' arguments."

That's 7.4. Thanks for watching.

Monday, August 29, 2011

God's Quality Control 7.3

Here I continue my thoughts on Ray Comfort's 2008 book Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups. In this video we'll cover Question #2, in which Ray teaches us about two critical-thinking concepts. The first one is quote-mining, one of Ray's favorite methods. The second concept we'll learn from Ray today is that you need not be a brainiac in order to have a solid understanding of evolutionary theory and its relationship to Judeo-Christian mythology.

So here's Question #2: Who said it? "An honest man could only state that the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle." (A) Richard Dawkins (B) Francis Crick (C) Carl Sagan.

The answer is "B" - Francis Crick. Now, the follow-up comment.

<Read comment>

Now, back to the start for a closer look.

Ray's first lesson for us is about quote-mining. Let's consider Crick's statement: "An honest man could only state that the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle." Ray seems to be attempting to stress the point that one of the luminaries of biology uses the word "miracle" when discussing the origin of life. But Crick didn't mean to suggest anything supernatural, as you can see in his very next sentence: "But this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions." Some superstitionists, with their built-in anti-education, anti-intellectual mindset, read Crick's statement and decide that because it has too many big words and requires more thinking than their strait-jacketed minds can handle, Crick must be trying to weasel out of something. But let's look carefully at what he's saying.
[T]his should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions.
Let's take "a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions" and boil it down to "ordinary chemical reactions". Now the final clause of the sentence reads like this: "...it could not have started on the earth by ordinary chemical reactions." I find that too many negatives in a sentence make it difficult to understand, so let's state that without the negative: "...the origin of life on earth was directed by an intelligent entity." In case you're wondering why I say "intelligent entity" rather than some kind of "god," it's because Crick's statements are from his 1981 book Life Itself, Its Origin And Nature, in which he discusses the possibility that life was seeded on earth by extraterrestrials. It's very clear that he's not suggesting anything supernatural.

Moving ahead, let's change "this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe" to "I'm not saying that there are good reasons to believe".
I'm not saying that there are good reasons to believe that the origin of life on earth was directed by an intelligent entity.
Ray wants us to believe that Crick is "quietly admitting" some uncomfortable truth. This is clearly not the case.

Ray's second lesson for us is that you don't have to be a genius, or even a specialist, in order to understand evolutionary theory. Let's see what Ray is telling us. He quotes a paper by researchers Orgel and Joyce, of which the important bit seems to be this: "the de novo appearance of oligonucleotides on the primitive earth would have been a near miracle." It seems that Ray wants us to believe that Orgel and Joyce are "quietly admitting" that the origin of life is a "near-miracle." First, let's recall that evolutionary theory does not even attempt to say anything about the origins of life. This is just another red herring from the superstitionists. But that's an aside. The main lesson here starts with the word "oligonucleotides". If you don't know what the word means, that's excellent, as you don't need to know. Deep, technical details are for specialists, and you need not be a specialist in order to have a solid understanding of evolutionary theory. If you've read just one book about natural selection from your local bookstore, or even if you just paid attention when you learned about it in high school, you already know enough. And just for fun, ask yourself: does Ray really know what an oligonucleotide is? Did he really read the article? Would he have understood it if he'd actually read it?


Don't let the Ray Comforts of the world shut you down with jargon and esoteric details. Understand that when they do this, they are admitting that they have no support for their arguments, and are simply hoping to intimidate you into giving up.


That's 7.3. Thanks for watching.