Certitude and Bluff

In chapter 8 of Genesis and Genes I discussed the fact that occasionally, scientists present to the general public a picture of certainty that is entirely unwarranted. As an example, I referred to an op-ed in The Tennessean, published 25th March 2012, in which three academics implied that the origin of life on Earth is something that is well-understood. I responded by quoting the following authorities: 

  1. Massimo Pigliucci: “[I]t has to be true that we really don’t have a clue how life originated on Earth by natural means.”[1] Pigliucci was formerly a professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and holds doctorates in genetics, botany, and the philosophy of science. He is currently the chairman of the department of philosophy at City University of New York. He is a prominent international proponent of evolution and the author of several books.
  2. Science writer Gregg Easterbrook writing in Wired: “What creates life out of the inanimate compounds that make up living things? No one knows. How were the first organisms assembled? Nature hasn’t given us the slightest hint. If anything, the mystery has deepened over time.”[2]
  3. Harvard chemist George M. Whitesides, in accepting the highest award of the American Chemical Society: “The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea… On the basis of all the chemistry that I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable.”[3]
  4. Stuart Kauffman: “Anyone who tells you that he or she knows how life started on the earth some 3.45 billion years ago is a fool or a knave. Nobody knows.”[4] Kauffman is one of the most famous origin-of-life researchers in the world and a leading expert on self-organisational systems.
  5. Klaus Dose: “More than thirty years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on earth rather than to its solution. At present, all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance.”[5] Dose is also a world-famous researcher in the origin-of-life field.
  6. Francis Crick: “The origin of life seems almost to be a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.”[6] Yes, that Francis Crick. 

I have now come across an interesting paper by Professor Paul Davies that is relevant to the discussion. Davies is a world-famous physicist and author. He recently co-authored a short paper suggesting that life be viewed as a software package. In the introductory paragraph, Davies writes,

Darwin pointedly left out an account of how life first emerged, “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped. A century and a half later, scientists still remain largely in the dark about life’s origins. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the origin of life is one of the greatest unanswered questions in science. [Emphasis added].

 The entire paper can be read here.

Readers of The Tennessean, of course, would be unaware of the fact that they had been duped. Those who are not informed consumers of science – the vast majority of the public – tend to take the statements of scientists at face value. They have not been trained to distinguish between different realms of science, some of which are (much) less credible than others. 

References:

[1] Massimo Pigliucci, “Where Do We Come From? A Humbling Look at the Biology of Life’s Origin,” in Darwin Design and Public Education, eds. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003), page 196.

[2] Gregg Easterbrook, “Where did life come from?” Wired, page 108 (February, 2007).

[3] George M. Whitesides, “Revolutions in Chemistry: Priestly Medalist George M. Whitesides’ address”, Chemical and Engineering News, 85 (March 26, 2007): p. 12-17. The address can be read here:

http://ismagilovlab.uchicago.edu/GMW_address_priestley_medal.pdf.

Retrieved 22nd April 2012.

[4] At Home in the Universe, London, Viking, 1995, page 31.

[5] “The Origin of Life: More Questions than Answers”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1988, 13, page 348.

[6] Life Itself, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981, page 88.

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4 Responses to “Certitude and Bluff”

  1. Larry S Says:

    Do we not see from your list of six authorities, that there are a lot of scientists that don’t present uncertainty as certainty?
    Also I read danny’s comment on the previous post, do you not think he has a point?

    • Yoram Bogacz Says:

      I am a Talmudic scholar – I choose my words carefully and I mean precisely what I write. I wrote

      In chapter 8 of Genesis and Genes I discussed the fact that occasionally, scientists present to the general public a picture of certainty that is entirely unwarranted.

      My point is that occasionally, scientists present to the general public a picture of certainty that is entirely unwarranted – No more and no less. No point was being made about whether many or most scientists do this or that.

      One important theme that runs through Genesis and Genes is that only informed consumers of science can reliably assess claims made by scientists for their appropriate level of credibility. Knowing that occasionally, scientists present to the general public a picture of certainty that is entirely unwarranted is one element in becoming an informed consumer of science.

      As far as the comments made by Danny are concerned, I do not intend to reply at present, for these reasons:

      1. Some of his points have already been addressed on this website.
      2. Other points are addressed in Genesis and Genes.
      3. He makes sweeping claims which misrepresent my position. For example, Danny writes, “What I mean is this, you claim that the big bang, evolution, etc is against the fundamentals of Judaism, you also claim that the big bang theory, common descent and the like, are very flawed.” Nowhere do I write – in Genesis and Genes or on this website – that the Big Bang is against the fundamentals of Judaism.

      The point of writing a book like Genesis and Genes is to present clearly one’s position, so that that position should be the starting point for further discussion on this website. If I can avoid it, I prefer not to backtrack and correct misconceptions that should not have arisen in the first place about my position.
      Yoram Bogacz

  2. Origin of Life and Philosophical Outlook | Torah Explorer Says:

    […] https://torahexplorer.com/2013/01/15/certitude-and-bluff/ […]

  3. Moshe Says:

    I don’t think it’s quite accurate to call Gregg Easterbrook an “authority”. He’s just a smart science enthusiast.

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