Re: [asa] historical versus experimental sciences

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Fri Aug 21 2009 - 14:09:25 EDT


In many cases, reformulation of a theory in the light of contrary evidence
is both possible and the responsible thing to do. But when the
reformulation involves postulating a currently unobservable and untestable
entity or mechanism, an entity or mechanism which was no part of the
original theory and is quite obviously being postulated only to rescue the
theory, not because any independent considerations have led the investigator
to think that such an entity or mechanism exists, eyebrows are rightly

Yes, Hebert is "allowed" to postulate a mechanism which explains the
apparent conflict between the data and the expectations of Darwinian theory.
But, as I showed with reference to the precise words of the conversation --
which I reproduced because I find that many people here have a cavalier
attitude toward the exact words that people (including Darwin) use -- at the
point of postulation, he acknowledged that he had no evidence, and only the
motivation of rescuing the theory to guide him. His motive was in fact a
compound one, to rescue the Darwinian theory and to make sure that
"creationism" could not get a foot in the door.

Does that make it impossible that such a mechanism exists? No. It might
turn out that one does, and that his speculation will be vindicated. But
let's be honest (as Hebert was honest in the interview) that (a) he was
speculating in a fact-free way; (b) his speculation was generated by the
desire to block a "creationist" inference from data which, by his own
admission, supported that inference.

Generally speaking, in science, fact-free speculations about entities and
mechanisms which *might* exist are not encouraged; *some* empirical tether
is expected of a proposal. I am no physicist, but I have read articles
quoting physicists who have criticized string theory and multiverse theory
on the grounds that they offer no prospect of empirical confirmation. And
normally when it is obvious that the investigator is trying to hang to a
theory at all costs, due to desires to sustain a certain broad view of the
world, that is discouraged, too. When Lysenko hung on to a crude form
Lamarckianism, in the face of contrary evidence, he was not admired by
scientists for it, because all of them knew that his motivation was to
sustain a view of biology favoured by the communist rulers of the Soviet
Union at the time. It was thought that he was putting loyalty to a certain
politics above loyalty to the cause of determining what was true about
nature. Similarly, the *first* duty of a biologist who is investigating
origins is *to find out what is true about nature*, not to make sure that he
comes up with a theory that excludes "creationism".

I am not saying, and have not said, that at the first sight of contrary
evidence, scientists should abandon their theories. Nor have I said that
neo-Darwinian theory should be abandoned because (if Hebert was right at the
time of the interview) there was some powerful evidence against it in the
mitochondrial DNA. All I have said is that Darwinians should be honest
enough to say: "Yes, this evidence is more consistent with the expectations
of design theory than with those of neo-Darwinism". But such words choke in
the throat of neo-Darwinists. They can never admit that even *some*
evidence favours the inference of design. Design has to be *all* wrong, and
neo-Darwinism has to be *all* right. This "never admit a mistake, never
admit any contrary evidence, never grant that your opponent has reason on
his side" attitude of the neo-Darwinists is unscientific, unacademic,
unphilosophical, irrational, and childish. That is why I found Hebert's
statement refreshing. Despite his obvious prejudices, he frankly admitted
that there was empirical evidence for design. You would never get such an
admission out of the ideologues at the NCSE.

In response to David Campbell and others, let me say that I am not endorsing
all the claims that Dr. Hebert has made for the accuracy of genetic
bar-coding in detecting new species and so on. I don't know enough about
how it works and what the pitfalls of the technique are. I was interested
only in demonstrating how external motivations clearly influence
neo-Darwinian handling of the evidence, and taking my proof from the mouth
of a neo-Darwinist as he talked freely with a science journalist. If the
neo-Darwinists here cannot acknowledge that I have shown this external
motivation, and if they cannot see why there is at least potentially a
danger to good and honest science when external motivation leads to the *ad
hoc* postulation of major complex mechanisms for which there is currently
zero empirical evidence, then there is nothing more to be said regarding my


----- Original Message -----
From: "Murray Hogg" <>
To: "ASA" <>
Sent: Friday, August 21, 2009 8:49 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] historical versus experimental sciences

> Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>> In other words, when the data seem to undermine the leading theory of
>> origins, its practitioners are allowed to postulate unknown,
>> undemonstrated mechanisms which operate in unspecifiable ways, in order
>> to save their theory, and are allowed to call such speculation
>> "scientific".
> Actually, it's the very essence of "scientific" that when data X seem to
> bring theory Y into question, you are allowed to postulate a reformulation
> of Y to take account of X.
> So I'm not sure where the problem lies.
> Isn't Hebert ALLOWED to postulate a mechanism by which a well grounded
> theory (neo-Darwinism) assimilates new data (mitochondrial DNA evidence)?
> Blessings,
> Murray
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Received on Fri Aug 21 14:10:39 2009

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