A Further Response to Jason

Following the post A Response to Jason, I received another communication from Jason. It is reproduced below, with my responses.

Jason:

Thanks for spending the time to respond on this critical issue. However there are many places where I strongly disagree. For the sake of (partial) brevity I won’t address every point you made but only the ones I believe are central to the debate.

You explain how there have been many scientific revolutions in science and imply evolution could be next. I very highly recommend the essay ‘The relativity of wrong’ by Isaac Asimov (http://hermiene.net/essays-trans/relativity_of_wrong.html or a summary at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tcOi9a3-B0). It deals with this issue by explaining that science is /convergent/ and errors made by science keep getting smaller and smaller not the other way around. Therefore it is unjustified to say science is an unstable discipline. (After the controversy regarding Uranus and the Ulcers would you honestly say it is plausible for scientists to now tell us that Uranus doesn’t exist and Ulcers are not at all caused by bacteria? (It took about 50 years for Darwin to surpass scientific scrutiny and finally become vindicated)) Evolution is almost certainly wrong in some minor way but to say it is completely wrong is unwarranted and, I believe, results from a misguided understanding of the history of /empirically/ based science.

My Response:

There are two distinct points here, and they should not be confused. The first point is that scientists “are human beings, subject to all the weaknesses, foibles and failings of other human beings”, as I put it in Genesis and Genes. Scientific research is so removed from the day-to-day life of ordinary citizens that the average person has a massively distorted view of how contemporary science is done. In Genesis and Genes I quote the physicist and philosopher Sir John Polkinghorne who writes that “Many people have in their minds a picture of how science proceeds which is altogether too simple. This misleading caricature portrays scientific discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive experiments… In actual fact… the reality is more complex and more interesting than that.”

It is necessary to correct this caricature before proceeding to arguments about cosmology and evolution. One cannot adequately analyse these important subjects as long as one harbours illusions about scientists and how science works. This is where the cases of Uranus and Dr. Robin Warren come into the picture. Uranus is a classic case of wearing theoretical spectacles behind the eyes. When you expect to see five planets, five planets is what you will see. As two distinguished philosophers of science put it, “In a sense, the old saying ‘seeing is believing’ should be supplemented by another, ‘believing is seeing.’” Scientists see things through particular paradigms, and that often colours their judgment. [Physics, the Human Adventure, Gerald Holton and Stephen G. Brush, Rutgers University Press, 2005, page 282].

The example of Dr. Warren [and, more recently, Professor Daniel Schechtman, discussed briefly in a review of Genesis and Genes in The Algemeiner, here] introduces the reader to the fact that:

  1. The entire scientific community can be wrong. Consensus is no guarantee in science, even in the realm of repeatable, observable and limited science.
  2. When the reigning paradigm is challenged, the response is often ridicule, professional isolation, and mockery.

All of this is only tangentially related to the concept of scientific revolutions. Nonetheless, as I explained above, it is a necessary prelude to a meaningful discussion about controversial scientific research.

In summary: Jason asks, “After the controversy regarding Uranus and the [discovery by Dr. Warren of the cause of] ulcers, would you honestly say it is plausible for scientists to now tell us that Uranus doesn’t exist and ulcers are not at all caused by bacteria?” Answer: No, but that’s not the point. These are examples – and Genesis and Genes contains lots more – of components in the process of becoming an informed consumer of science. If you don’t understand how science works, your assessment of various scientific results will be unrealistic. Every generation has its own Uranus and Dr Warren, and you will be ill-equipped to assess the evidence unless you have become an informed consumer of science.

The second point is that science is dynamic, and scientific results are subject to change in significant ways. [I have never written that science is “an unstable discipline”.]

Consider, as an analogy, the idea of political change. Political changes happen along a spectrum, from incremental to revolutionary. On one extreme, many instances of political change can be described as organic and continuous e.g. the re-election of Barack Obama as president of the USA. At the other extreme, you have cataclysms that occur very infrequently, but have enormous consequences, like the French Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution. In between, you will find an enormous variety of political change, and it will be difficult to define exactly what type of change constitutes a revolution. As a South African, I can assure you that the transformation from Apartheid to democracy was revolutionary, although not quite as revolutionary as was the French Revolution. You could add hundreds of examples from history to this brief sample – the Mexican revolution, the Arab Spring, the invasion of ancient Egypt by the Sea Peoples – and slot them on the continuum according to some scheme that ranks the change in terms of various factors – the amount of bloodshed involved; whether a permanent change of regime occurred; international impact etc.

Philosophers of science do much the same with paradigm shifts in science. In science, too, there are many incremental changes – a new measurement of the speed of light to an accuracy of twelve decimal points, say – but also revolutionary changes, with lots of results falling in between.

One of the key resources in this regard, which I quote a number of times in Genesis and Genes, is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This book is regularly featured in lists of the 100 most important books – not scientific books, books – published in the 20th century. In great detail, Kuhn, who is widely considered to be one of the most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century, analyses precisely the question that Jason and I are discussing. Asimov may disagree, but professional philosophers of science like Kuhn maintain a position that is much less rosy than Asimov would have you believe. My research in the history of science leads me to concur with Kuhn. One example of a revolution in science is the transformation from the eternal universe model to Big Bang cosmology. Most contemporary readers take the Big Bang for granted; there is hardly a teenager around who doesn’t know that the universe began this way. But that’s an opinion born of ignorance. Big Bang cosmology is a new kid on the block. As recently as the 1960s, it was dismissed as religious claptrap by leading astronomers and cosmologists [an excellent resource is Simon Singh’s Big Bang, Harper Collins, here]. Big Bang cosmology supplanted a tradition going back as far as Aristotle that the universe was eternal, a tradition embraced by the entire scientific community until very recently. The transformation from eternal universe to created universe [whatever form that creation took] involved a gigantic change in worldview and has enormous implications, both in science and in philosophy.

My advice: read Genesis and Genes. It analyses these issues in great detail.

Jason:

Allow me to explain, on one foot, what I believe to be the argument for evolution: Imagine I were to claim South African English and American English are unrelated languages and do not share a common ancestor, how would you answer me? Presumably you would point to the fact that languages can be directly observed to change incrementally over short periods of time, the enumerable [sic] ancient manuscripts and the fact that there are many striking similarities between the two languages. I don’t think linguists not being able to explain everything about this change and not knowing /exactly/ how it took place doesn’t in any way detract from this /patently/ obvious truth. Life is based on DNA and DNA is a language. Why should life and DNA be any different?

My Response:

This is an excellent example of what, in biology, would amount to micro-evolution. Small, intra-species events are common and entirely uncontroversial. The fact that an ancestral species of finch, for example, could evolve into thirteen varieties (as has happened on the Galapagos Islands) is unsurprising, and perfectly explainable on the basis of standard evolutionary theory. Just as I have no problem with the hypothesis that the Indo-European languages descended with modification from some ancient proto-language, so too I have no problem with seeing how thirteen varieties of finch descend from one ancestral pair of birds.

But this is a far cry from macro-evolution. Macro-evolution is the appearance of completely novel biological structures and body plans. According to evolutionary biologists, at some point in Earth’s history, there were only one-celled organisms around; at some point much later on, there were organisms with wings, lungs, brains, echo-location systems, nervous systems, fangs and a myriad other organs and body plans. The English/American analogy breaks down completely here.

What evolutionary biologists do at this point is appeal to extreme extrapolation. If Natural Selection is capable of producing the tiny changes that we see in cases like Darwin’s Finches, then it must be able to produce the gigantic changes needed to go from one-celled organisms to the fantastic array of life we see today. There is no basis in logic or evidence for that conclusion. In Genesis and Genes, I quote numerous authorities who articulate this simple but profound point. For example, in 2001, evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll wrote in Nature:

“A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger-scale changes evident over longer periods of life’s history (macroevolution).” [Sean B. Carroll, The Big Picture, Nature 409 (2001): 669.]

To assume that macro-evolution is micro-evolution writ large has no basis in logic. You may as well say that because you saw someone walking from the living room to the kitchen, then it must be possible to walk from here to Mars.

My advice: read Genesis and Genes. I devoted almost an entire chapter to the subject of micro-evolution and macro-evolution, and argued in far greater detail than I can do here.

Jason:

“But as we move along the spectrum of scientific results, particularly towards claims about events that are forever shrouded in the mists of time or space, inaccessible to direct observation and measurement, not corroborated by experiment, never to be repeated and harbouring profound philosophical implications, one’s scepticism should increase exponentially.”

Following from Dan’s original comment and your response, surely the above quote applies to religion as well? How is that I can directly observe G-d? You can point to the argument from tradition, but is this argument not an extrapolation into the past (i.e similar to the evidence for common descent)? If you assert your statement was only intended for science, can you please explain why you draw such a stark dichotomy between religious ideology and scientific findings?

I don’t understand how one can be such an extreme skeptic when it comes to evolution and doesn’t simultaneously deny religion. It is often said the concept of common descent is a threat to religion and therefore we should reject common descent. However I think just the opposite: Common descent’s great probability (whether one accepts it or not) combined with the assertion of common descent being false and being incompatible with religion will only cause some to reject the latter in favour of /atheistic/ evolution.

Thanks

My response:

Genesis and Genes is devoted to one subject. It guides its readers in becoming informed consumers of science and capable interpreters of scientific evidence, particularly in the fields of biology and cosmology. Even to accomplish this modest goal, I had to abridge what would have been a 5000-page book into 400 odd pages in order to make it accessible to the public. Why should anyone expect that in the same book I should also argue for the truth of Judaism? Do you expect every text on cosmology to include a disquisition on the author’s theology? Andrei Linde and Alan Guth would certainly disagree with you.

There is no contradiction in being a sceptic and investigating certain systems of thought and concluding that some are more reliable than others. Having spent years investigating Judaism, I came to the conclusion that the evidence of its truth is compelling. I cannot say the same for evolutionary biology. But Genesis and Genes (and this website) deals with one aspect of the story. Compartmentalising is an essential component of rational thought.

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4 Responses to “A Further Response to Jason”

  1. Jason Says:

    Sorry that I’ve taken so long to respond. I think you never fully appreciated my argument because I never explained myself fully and clearly regarding this subtle, yet crucial, point (so please bear with me).

    As far as I see it, a set of theories within a ‘paradigm’ are models of reality, and just like all models, they are good at making predictions /within/ the constraints of the data they are based upon. Therefore we should expect ‘old’ theories (form before the ’paradigm shift’) to make accurate predictions when dealing with what /was/ observed in the past. While I agree that the /mechanics/ and the /extrapolations/ beyond the ‘data set’ of the ‘new’ set of theories compared to the ‘old’ ones /are/ radically different, in terms of interpolation /within/ the evidence that /was/ presented to the ‘old’ theories, there is a direct /correspondence/ between the two (literally in the case of quantum mechanics vs classical mechanics (i.e. the correspondence principle)). In short, any empirically based (i.e. based on the data mentioned above) set of theories in a ‘paradigm’ may never, in a /general/ sense, reveal the true state of the universe, but on a /localised/ level they /can/ and /will/ serve this purpose.

    For example, even in the seemingly immutable field of mathematics, Euclid assumed that parallel lines /never/ intersect. However, during the 19th century, Bolyai and Lobachevski demonstrated this wasn’t the case and ushered in the new field of non-Euclidian geometry. They therefore provided ‘counter-examples’ to Euclid’s fifth postulate. However did this /falsify/ Euclid and relegate him to obscurity? Absolutely not! His work is /still/ taught to every student in school. The reason for this is that the data ‘fed’ into Euclid’s model was that which took place on a flat plane. Since we still need to deal with flat planes, Euclid’s model /still/ works in predicting and understanding phenomena on a flat plane. Sure, the actual /mechanics/ and /general/ implications of non-Euclidian geometry are /radically/ different from Euclidian geometry, but the /’interpolative’/ predictions are /not/. In other words (in terms of prediction and understanding), Euclidian geometry is a /special case/ of the more general non-Euclidian geometry. I think very similar logic applies to any set of apparently competing theories: a steady-state universe vs. an expanding one, a flat earth vs. a ‘round’ one, creationism vs. evolution… Again, to emphasise this critical point, in terms of /generalised/ consequences, successive theories /are/ radically different. However in terms of /familiar/ ‘local territory’, they are, for all practical purposes, /equivalent/.

    I think it is important to realise that Kuhn’s model of scientific development is likewise not completely immutable (by virtue of his own argument). In a similar way as described above, I view Asimov’s theory of scientific development as a /refinement/ of Kuhn’s model. Therefore Kuhn’s model may not be /wrong/ (in the sense described above), but only never took the /’interpolative’ functional/ ability of successive theories into account (this isn’t circular reasoning. I provide evidence above for Asimov’s model and now show how it can have a ‘correspondence’ with Kuhn’s model). Kuhn’s model may have, itself, failed to take into account the subtle difference between the mechanics of a theory together with its generalised implications and its ‘interpolative’ /predictions/. Considering that Asimov had, quite literally, an encyclopaedic knowledge of science and its history (perhaps its future as well?)( http://www.amazon.com/Asimovs-Biographical-Encyclopedia-Science-Technology/dp/0385177712/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1355949241&sr=1-1&keywords=asimov+encyclopedia), I think his model should be given very serious consideration.

    Applied to the evolution debate, creation is /still/ a good model (in the sense of predictive ability) for looking at animals observed during our lifetime. We don’t expect an elephant in the zoo to give birth to a calf with wings! However when dealing with life far beyond the timescale of our lifetime (i.e. what wasn’t observed when the creation model was made), this model breaks down and we have to resort to Neo-Darwinian evolution. Now you may ask what next? Will the next theory after Neo-Darwinian evolution /falsify/ it? Sure it may imply radically different implications when dealing with matters beyond its ‘turf’ (perhaps to do with the beginning of life itself), but I don’t think there is any reason to think it will, in any way, mitigate its predictive power when dealing with the fossil record or even why chickens have the DNA for making teeth (and can sometimes even grow them! ( http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/atavism-embryology-development-and-evolution-843)).
    Furthermore, scientists certainly are obstinate in accepting radical ideas. However, I don’t think there are too many instances where a radical idea has managed to surpass scathing criticism and ridicule from dogmatic scientists and was subsequently shown to generalise very poorly (in the sense described above). Since common descent managed to do this, should it not be grouped in the same (‘most probably generally predictive’) category as statistical thermodynamics (which, arguably, drove Boltzmann to suicide) or heliocentrism (which got Galileo locked up)? (i.e. these models /still/ predict a great deal to this day) I understand this is not the point you wished to make. I view it, rather, as an attempted rebuttal of your interpretation of the many great ‘scientific upheavals’ leading us to the conclusion that the scientific consensus regarding evolution could easily be wrong. As a /broad/ generalisation, the scientific consensus definitely could be wrong. However, I propose, that when it comes /specifically/ to theories which have surpassed the extremely selective filter of overwhelming opposition and harsh criticism /they/ are /most/ trustworthy (common descent being the (foremost?) case in point).

    You have to agree that all life shares a common origin due to the great similarities in the proteins and genetic structure of all life on earth. Now you could say this common origin is G-d during the creation as explained /prima facie/ in Genesis. However, if you assume this position (i.e. Genesis being literally true), I think you would have to draw very ‘high order epicycles’ to explain how some trees are older than the deluge (e.g. the tree Methuselah is ~4845 years old (by counting its rings) when the flood occurred ~4117 years ago) and where the fossils (which detail an evolutionary process) come from. Maimonides had no problem in conceding the Sages could err in scientific matters (‘Guide’ 3:14). He made no attempt to ‘bend over backwards’ when empirical evidence led him to a certain conclusion. Therefore if the /most/ plausible explanation of the evidence is that of common descent being true, why can’t we accept it?

  2. Matt Says:

    Hi, just for the record and for the benefit of your readers, I would like to address the Nature article you posted by Carol.

    I have to ask if you read the article? I must ask, because the message of the article is not at all what you claim it to be and -if anything- quite the opposite.

    Let me present your readers with the conclusion of the article:

    “The ‘big picture’ of evolution continues to grow, with diverse disciplines addressing biological mechanisms across many levels of organization (molecules, organisms, populations) and timescales. The subdivision of evolution into two scales no longer reflects our understanding of the unity and diversity of evolutionary mechanisms. However, more important than redefining macroevolution is recognizing that discipline- or scale-bound considerations of only one component of evolution, or of solely extrinsic or intrinsic mechanisms, are inadequate, Long-standing boundaries between evolutionary disciplines are dissolving, to allow richer concepts of evolution to emerge.”

    • Yoram Bogacz Says:

      See my comment on narrative gloss in the post A Further Response to Matt.

      • Matt Says:

        Your claims of “narrative gloss” seems only to apply selectively to those quotes that are inconvenient to *your* narrative.

        I should also note that the article is an editorial and so the whole thing is “narrative gloss” in the sense that he is expressing his point of view. If you disagree with that point of view, then don’t quote mine it to portray it as something it is not.

        I chose to quote the concluding paragraph because it is more representative of the message of the article in context.

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