Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Disappointing Scott Adams

Scott Adams has always struck me as a witty satirist with an acute insight into corporate America. He has never, until now, struck me as someone who can’t do research worth a damn. I saw over on Pharyngula that Scott Adams had done a write-up on his blog about ID, and PZ’s response. After reading the entire article, I don’t think PZ went far enough. This dreck is unexcusable, especially from someone who’s made a career of pointing up the stupidity of others.

Intelligent Design, Part 1
First off, since this is Part 1, that means there’s going to be at least a Part 2, which implies that he as actually done some sort of research.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the debate over Darwinism versus Intelligent Design is that neither side understands the other side’s argument. Better yet, no one seems to understand their own side’s argument. But that doesn’t stop anyone from having a passionate opinion.
First off, what debate over Darwinism versus Intelligent Design? Is he talking about the scuffle between the ID pushing Discovery Institute and their ilk versus Theory of Evolution-supporting scientists everywhere? Darwinism is a term that dropped out of use in the scientific community many years ago, because it implies that scientists still accept everything Darwin said as accurate. That’s not right, because, as PZ pointed out, Darwin got inheritance wrong. What Darwin did was lay the groundwork for a century and a half of scientists to build on. Calling Evolution Darwinism is like calling physics Newtonism. Newton may have been influential, but he is hardly the be-all, end-all of physics.

And I object to the idea that we don’t understand the different sides of the argument. It’s pretty obvious that ID proponents have an agenda. One visit to the Discover Institute’s website will tell anyone that. And they make no bones about their agenda. “Evolution is wrong, therefore we must be right.” Look at the testimony of Discovery Institute Fellows Behe and Dembski at the Dover Panda Trial. Behe admits that to make Intelligent Design a science, you’d have to change the definition of science to such an extent that it would include astrology!

Hey, Scott, here’s a simple explanation of both sides. ID proponents want to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the universe with “Deity did it”, and you can decide for yourself what Deity they mean, be it the Raelians extraterrestrials or the Southern Baptists God. But ID is not science, never has been science, and never will be science. It makes no predicitions, etc. etc. ad infinitum ad nauseum. Theory of Evolution proponents use the Theory of Evolution to explain the world around them and to make (usually accurate) predictions about that world. No deities need apply. There is no real argument here. ID wants some attention, and scientists refuse to give it to them, because they’re hawking thinly disguised religion.

Can you refute that, Mr. Adams?

I’ve been doing lots of reading on the subject, trying to gather comic fodder. I fully expected to validate my preconceived notion that the Darwinists had a mountain of credible evidence and the Intelligent Design folks were creationist kooks disguising themselves as scientists. That’s the way the media paints it. I had no reason to believe otherwise. The truth is a lot more interesting. Allow me to set you straight. (Note: I’m not a believer in Intelligent Design, Creationism, Darwinism, free will, non-monetary compensation, or anything else I can’t eat if I try hard enough.)
Prove you’ve been doing research. Quote one Discover Institute article on ID. Give me one example of Richard Dawkins’ take on the idiocy of Michael Behe. From the depth of this article, it looks like you’re idea of research is watching Evolution Schmevolution week on The Daily Show.

As to your preconceived notions, well, Darwinists don’t have a mountain of evidence, but modern evolutionary biologists do, as do paleontologists, molecular biologists, etc. etc. The list is huge. To lump all those people under the heading of “Darwinist” is criminal. But at least your notion of ID kooks being creationists in disguise was pretty much accurate. And the “media” doesn’t paint this argument that way, at all. CNN bends over backwards to give the ID people their due. Fox News is, I’m sure, even worse, although I refuse to give Fox News the time of day. I have yet to see a “media” outlet that wasn’t science-based (i.e. SciAm or Nature) bash them.

The rest of this paragraph is just laughable. Please take a moment to laugh at the silly cartoon man. That’s what he wants, after all. To claim that he has “the truth” of the ID vs Evolution debate is hilarious. And to think that he can set us straight, when some of us have been following this issue for, literally, years, while he’s done a little light reading looking for comic fodder is insulting.

First of all, you’d be hard pressed to find a useful debate about Darwinism and Intelligent Design, of the sort that you could use to form your own opinion. I can’t find one, and I’ve looked. What you have instead is each side misrepresenting the other’s position and then making a good argument for why the misrepresentation is wrong. (If you don’t believe me, just watch the comments I get to this post.)
Umm, I thought he said earlier that there was a debate between Darwinism and ID? Anyway, I don’t use debates to form opinions. I look at facts. And if he can’t find any facts about ID and Evolution, then I would suggest he spends ten minutes on a website called Amazon.com. They have all kinds of amazing things, called books, that have mountains of information. I would suggest that Scotty-boy pick a couple up and actually learn something about the two sides of this issue.

As to the allegation that there are straw-man arguments being made by both sides, well, I refer you back to the fact that in the Dover Panda Trial, Dr. Michael Behe, a Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture Fellow, said that for ID to be considered science, the definition of science would have to be changed and expanded so that astrology would be considered science. Attacking that statement is no straw-man argument. That’s what I call a slam dunk.

To make things more complicated, both sides have good and bad arguments lumped into them. If you make a good argument on your side, I respond by attacking your bad argument instead. If it were a debate contest, both sides would lose.
What good argument has been put forth by ID proponents? Name one. I’ll admit that there have been times in the history of Evolution when hoaxes and frauds were perpetrated. But the nifty thing about those is that we have caught them. The review process makes it very hard to slip this kind of stuff by the scientific community any more. It happens, but it’s remarkably rare. As to the “if you make a good argument on your side”, well, that’s almost as bad as “We’re fighting the war over there so that we don’t have to fight it over here.” And if this were a debate contest, ID would be thrown out for not properly addressing the issue. ID isn’t science.

For example, Darwinists often argue that Intelligent Design can’t be true because we know the earth is over 10,000 years old. That would be a great argument, supported by every relevant branch of science, except that it has nothing to do with Intelligent Design.
Intelligent Design accepts an old earth and even accepts the fact that species probably evolved. They only question the “how.” Creationists have jumped on that bandwagon as a way to poke holes in Darwinism. The Creationists and the Intelligent Design folks have the same target (Darwin), but they don’t have the same argument. The average person who has a strong opinion on this topic doesn’t understand that distinction because the political agenda of the creationists makes things murky.

“Darwinists” might argue this. Scientists don’t argue it at all. Scientists say that ID has no predictive power and is not based on any evidence. That makes it bad science, or no science at all. As to the Creationists jumping on the bandwagon, well, I think the transcripts of the Dover Panda Trial do a pretty good job of showing how ID is really creationism warmed over. Of Pandas and People had a nice little rewrite in the mid-80’s replacing creationist lingo with ID language. That happened right after it was ruled that creationism can’t be taught in a science classroom. And the average person doesn’t have a strong opinion on this topic at all, because the average person hasn’t looked into it enough, much like Scott Adams himself. Also, if you don’t think the ID boys have a political agenda, then you’re living on the moon, man. Just look over at Discovery.org, and you’ll see what I mean.

On the other side, Intelligent Design advocates point out a number of flaws in the textbooks that teach Darwinism. Apparently both sides of the debate acknowledge that the evidence for evolution is sometimes overstated or distorted in the service of making it simpler to teach. If you add to that the outright errors (acknowledged by both sides), the history of fossil frauds, the subjectivity of classifying fossils, and the fact that all of the human-like fossils ever found can fit inside a small box, you have lots of easy targets for the opponents. (Relax. I’m not saying Darwinism is wrong. I’m saying both sides have lots of easy targets.)
I don’t what the hell he’s talking about in the part about overstatement and distortion of evidence here. I can’t find a citation or anything, after much googling. There are errors in textbooks and there is some subjectivitiy in classifying fossils. But textbook errors get corrected, usually in the next edition. And Cladism has made some serious inroads into the classification problem.

As to the hominid fossils fitting inside small box, well, PZ handles that one well on the statistics side. I’d just like to add that this little propaganda talking point would never make it into any kind of rational argument against evolution, and I don’t understand how someone who has “been doing lots of reading on the subject” could fall for it, unless his reading is a bit one-sided.

And for the last time, Darwinism IS wrong. Evolution, however, is not. And an easy target doesn’t make it a wrong target.

The other problem for people like me is that the “good” arguments on both sides are too complicated for me to understand. My fallback position in situations like this has always been to trust the experts – the scientists – of which more than 90%+ are sure that Darwin got it right.
I’d like to know what he calls a “good” argument from ID, which, I’d like to reiterate, ranks up there with astrology! “Trust the experts” is okay, if you’re too lazy to put the time and skull sweat into understanding an argument, though. Of course, if he doesn’t know enough about evolution to make a reasoned assessment, then what the hell is he doing writing this load of crap?

The Intelligent Design people have a not-so-kooky argument against the idea of trusting 90%+ of scientists. They point out that evolution is supported by different branches of science (paleontologists, microbiologists, etc.) and those folks are specialists who only understand their own field. That’s no problem, you think, because each scientist validates Darwinism from his or her own specialty, then they all compare notes, and everything fits. Right?
This is utter bullshit. PZ handles this well, too, but I have something to add. This paragraph shows how much different the corporate world is from the science world. In order to function in the science world, you have to understand things that are not, technically, part of your field. To be a good biologist, you have to understand the basics of chemistry, physics, geology, etc. To be a good paper-pusher, you just need to know how to push paper. Adams is equating the departments of a company to the fields of science. It’s bullshit and doesn’t work.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Intelligent Design people allege that some experts within each narrow field are NOT convinced that the evidence within their specialty is a slam-dunk support of Darwin. Each branch of science, they say, has pro-Darwinists who acknowledge that while they assume the other branches of science have more solid evidence for Darwinism, their own branch is lacking in that high level of certainty. In other words, the scientists are in a weird peer pressure, herd mentality loop where they think that the other guy must have the “good stuff.”
ID people do allege that. But allegations are not facts. Rumor is not truth. The truth is that most every field of science that touches on science does feel it has solid supporting evidence for evolution. The peer-review process alone would shoot this little conspiracy theory-esque bit of nonsense down. Read The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. He’s not the least bit unsure. And neither are his peer-reviewed fellow scientists. It’s all “good stuff”.

Is that possible? I have no way of knowing.
You could ask, Scott.

But let me give you a little analogy. One time in my corporate career I was assigned to lead a project to build a 10 million dollar technology laboratory. The project was based on the fact that “hundreds of our customers” wanted a place to test our technology before buying our products. I interviewed several managers who told me the same thing. Months into the project, I discovered that there was in fact only one customer who had once asked for that service, and he had been satisfied with another solution. The story of that one customer had been told and retold until everyone believed that someone else had direct knowledge of the hundreds of customers in need. If you guessed that we immediately stopped the project, you’ve never worked in a big company. We just changed our “reasons” and continued until funding got cut for unrelated budget reasons.
I’d be surprised if 90%+ of scientists are wrong about the evidence for Darwinism. But if you think it’s impossible, you’ve lived a sheltered life.
Once again, he compares science to the corporate world, and while there are some overlaps, his comparison is so full of holes it makes Swiss cheese look well-insulated. I leave it to the reader to find them for him or herself. You’re smart. I’m sure you can do it.

As to the idea that “90%+ of scientists” being wrong about evolution, well, sure it’s possible. That idea is built into the very fabric of scientific endeavor. That’s part of the problem with ID in general. It can’t be wrong, because once something is declared “Designed”, then there’s nowhere to go with it. Scientific dead end.

Scott Adams has seriously disappointed me in this. Apparently, a quick wit and writing talent doesn’t equate to being able to do serious research on a topic and come to a decent conclusion. But then, that’s not really surprising. I really hope he doesn’t embarrass himself further by writing “Intelligent Design Part 2”.


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