Re: [asa] FYI: Arrogance, dogma and why science - not faith - is the new enemy of

From: David Campbell <pleuronaia@gmail.com>
Date: Wed Aug 15 2007 - 15:21:25 EDT

> >I do not have a high regard of the British press

It is true that newspapers are not very reliable as sources of
scientific information, although quality varies a good deal between
papers. Some are simply incompetent, like the time the Spartanburg
Herald-Journal ran the caption "Fossil discovery: From left, Joe
Carter, Brian Coffey, and Todd Pusey unearth a fossil reptile..." with
a picture of a Tyrannosaurus. (Joe said the picture was him before he
had his morning caffeine. Ironically, the reptile turned out to look
a little like Tyrannosaurus though much smaller, with bigger arms, and
closer to crocodiles than dinosaurs.) Others represent a credible
effort to report things, but rarely with adequate knowledge to assess
the claims.

I'd agree with much of the story except where it buys into intelligent
design (and out of date at that):

>The most conspicuous example of this is provided by Dawkins himself, who
breaks the rules of scientific evidence by seeking to claim that
Darwin's theory of evolution - which sought to explain how complex
organisms evolved through random natural selection - also accounts for
the origin of life itself.<

Dawkins is hardly a paragon of logic at many points. However, there's
nothing scientifically wrong with hypothesizing that natural selection
acting on variation in prebiotic organic chemistry led to the origin
of life. There are hints of how it could happen as well as
significant gaps in our knowledge, so it is plausible but far from
proven.

>...Indeed, if the origin of life were truly spontaneous, this would
constitute what religious people would call a miracle.<

C. S. Lewis argued that such ought not be called a miracle. It's a
semantic issue rather than a factual error, but it's unwise to claim
that all religious people think alike (just as "scientists say" is
highly problematic given the amount that, e.g., the average nuclear
physicist knows about invertebrate paleontology and vice versa).

> ...the findings of more than 50 years of DNA research - which have revealed the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life - have thrown into doubt the theory that life emerged spontaneously in a random universe.

These findings have given rise to a school of scientists promoting the
theory of Intelligent Design, which suggests that some force embodying
purpose and foresight lay behind the origin of the universe.<

Significant DNA sequencing is only 30 years old, though we had some
ideas of the complexity before that. Random is a problematic word.
Theologically Christians will reject the claim that the universe has
no sovereign guidance by God, but this does not entail a lack of
"randomness" such as that found in the formulas of quantum mechanics
or the humanly unpredictable course of events. The claim that DNA
research has caused doubts about the spontaneous origin of life is
questionable-it's far from clear that many have looked at biochemical
complexity and arrived at a different conclusion about life's origin
than they had coming in. The number of scientists promoting
Intelligent Design is relatively small, though of course how one
defines ID could greatly affect the count (extremes of anyone who
believes in some role for purposeful supernatural intelligence in the
process of creation versus anyone who thinks that everything said by
the Discovery Institute is true).

> While this theory is, of course, open to vigorous counter-argument, people
such as Prof Dawkins and others have gone to great lengths to stop it being
advanced at all, on the grounds that it denies scientific evidence such as
the fossil record and is therefore worthless.<

While much ID denies scientific evidence such as the fossil record and
is therefore scientifically worthless (worth for other purposes would
need to be assessed on other grounds), too much of the opposition by
Dawkins et al is on the grounds of rejecting the possibility of
religion. This in turn lends credibility (at least among the
sympathetic) to ID claims that they are being suppressed as part of an
anti-religious political agenda.

>Yet distinguished scientists have been hounded and their careers
jeopardised for arguing that the fossil record has got a giant hole in
it. Some 570 million years ago, in a period known as the Cambrian
Explosion, most forms of complex animal life emerged seemingly without
any evolutionary trail.<

There's been enough unreasonable hostility in cases such as Sternberg
and Guillermo to lend slight credibility, though distinguished
scientists is probably an overstatement (not to say that their work is
necessarily bad, just that I'd use "distinguished" rather sparingly.
However, the claim that the fossil record has a giant hole is untrue.
The Cambrian radiation at 544 million (the date was corrected over a
decade ago) has some evolutionary precursors in the Vendian faunas.
Notably, structurally primitive animals such as sponges and cnidarians
are aomng the earliest forms. Within the Cambrian itself, the first
forms are typically primitive and show evidence of evolutionary
connections. Molecular and anatomical data also point to connections
between phyla and lower categories. Not to mention the less explosive
patterns seen in other organisms; algae in particular having a long
and evolutionarily informative Precambrian record (fungi, bacteria,
etc. tending to be harder to tell much from fossils).

>... their scientific argument about the absence of evidence to
support the claim that life spontaneously created itself is being
stifled - on the totally perverse grounds that this argument does not
conform to the rules of science which require
evidence to support a theory.<

It's not necessarily perverse to claim that science requires
supporting evidence and that therefore the claim of inference from
lack of evidence is not entirely scientific, as long as one makes it
clear that such inference remains a valid option; it's just being
defined as an inference based on the failure of science rather than as
a scientific inference.

The arguments about the definition of science and ID as not truly
science do seem off the mark and often motivated philosophically
rather than scientifically. In reality, the reason ID doesn't belong
in science classes is because as currently practiced it is usually
scientifically wrong.

-- 
Dr. David Campbell
425 Scientific Collections
University of Alabama
"I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"
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Received on Wed Aug 15 15:21:49 2007

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