Re: [asa] historical versus experimental sciences

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Fri Aug 21 2009 - 22:00:32 EDT


Your response illustrates exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned
a cavalier attitude toward the exact wording of statements. At several
points you have ignored or misrepresented exactly what Paul Hebert said, or
what I said.

Regarding the points that I was raising, I transcribed Hebert's exact words,
plus accurate paraphrases of the reporter's questions, and I expected that
you would follow the transcript, plus my analysis, before criticizing my
comments. (I also provided the link to the original article.)

First of all, I never asserted that Hebert had no evidence for evolution,
for neo-Darwinism, or for a mitochondrial DNA bottleneck (in humans). Read
what I wrote carefully.

Second, I specified exactly the point on which Hebert, when asked for
evidence or explanation, admitted that he had none. He speculated about the
existence of an evolutionary "scouring mechanism" which operated regularly.
When asked directly how the mechanism would work, he said that it was at
this point a "scientific mystery". In plain English, he didn't know.

Third, I acknowledged in my original comment to David Campbell that it was
not clear what Hebert meant by "creationism". But even if he meant "young
earth creationism", and even if much of young earth creationism is
"obviously false", as you say, it remains true that *on the point in
question*, which is the genetic "spread" within species and between species,
the evidence for young earth creationism is no different than what it would
be for old earth creationism or for many ID proponents. The data raises a
more general question than YEC versus Darwinism. It raises the difference
in prediction between design models generally and Darwinian ones.

Fourth, I did not "denigrate" Hebert. I compared him favorably with the
NCSE people, and praised him for his honesty at more than one point. I said
that he had an *a priori* prejudice against admitting design, which is
*true*. Making a true statement is not "denigration".

Fifth, I did not go after Darwinians *for being Darwinians*, but *for
denying or suppressing or blithely dismissing the existence of serious
contrary evidence*. And I *exempted* Hebert on that point. I did not
include him among the Darwinians guilty of that.

Sixth, I did not claim that Hebert's work supported my position. (See your
last sentence.) I grant that there might be perfectly good scientific
explanations to account for Hebert's results that do not entail accepting a
design inference. However, Hebert offered no such explanations. Instead,
he offered a mysterious undocumented mechanism. Thus, my remarks were
focused not on showing that Hebert's mitochondrial DNA work proves design,
but on establishing that it was *an a priori commitment against design* that
caused him to propose an imaginary mechanism about which he could offer no
details. Hebert postulated a scouring mechanism *because he did not wish
the design hypothesis to be true*. It would be nice if you, David Campbell,
and others would simply admit that Hebert was in fact nursing this *a
priori* commitment. I don't even care if you agree with his *a priori*
commitment (I expect most TEs do). I just want an admission that the *a
priori* commitment exists. That is a minimum condition of honest
intellectual debate, that all sides frankly admit their assumptions.

The fact that Hebert was responding to a journalist rather than writing
professionally is irrelevant. Of course a response to a journalist will be
often be *simpler* than what one would write in a professional journal. But
a response of "I don't know how such a mechanism would work" comes out the
same in popular science or in technical jargon. And Hebert was plainly
admitting that he didn't know how such a mechanism would work.

As for your suggestion that it is *my* duty to go out and "devise some means
of testing the hypothesis", i.e., Hebert's speculation ("hypothesis" being
too strong a word to dignify the intellectual status of Hebert's
suggestion), it most certainly is not. It is Hebert's responsibility to
propose the means of testing his own speculations. Do you think it is up to
the *opponents* of the "multiverse theory" to find means of testing it?
Surely it is not. It is the responsibility of those who believe in
multiverses to do so. The scientific world is competely justified in
carrying on as if multiverses do not exist, until the multiverse people
provide empirical reasons for believing in the existence of such other
universes. And the biological world is completely justified in carrying on
as if there were no "scouring mechanism", if all the Hebert can say about it
is that it's a "scientific mystery".

I find it continually annoying that Darwinians so frequently offer ad hoc
speculations, flimsy hypotheses, etc., and then demand that the world
disprove them. Science does not work that way. Scientists don't dream up
causes off the top of their heads, with no idea of possible mechanisms, no
supporting data, etc., and then defiantly ask the scientific world to
disprove them. A hypothesis in science is not just a speculation or a
"bright idea". A hypothesis is a proposed cause or mechanism of sufficient
intellectual precision that it can be worked up into a testable form. It
requires mental sweat and some detail work to turn a "bright idea" into a
testable proposal. Dreaming up an unspecified "scouring mechanism" is not
hypothesis formation. It is irresponsible wish fulfillment.

I come back to your manner of reading. (To be fair, let me say that I have
not usually found you to be an unreasonable critic or discussion partner,
but a rather good one, and my objections here are solely to your remarks in
your latest post.) You are not alone on this list in not reading my words,
or the words of others, carefully. Many people here have made statements
about the views of Darwin (without having read him, or having read him only
superficially), which I have had to take pains to refute by pasting actual
statements from Darwin onto the list. I have also caught people
misrepresenting Behe's notion of irreducible complexity, and have had to
quote exact passages from him that his critics here have not bothered to
read or look up. Someone else here recently implied that Linnaeus may have
believed in common descent, or at least was not opposed to it, without
bothering to provide primary texts of Linnaeus or even direct quotations
from scholars whose specialty is Linnaeus. There is much that is
sub-scholarly in the discussions here. Of course, there is also some very
good scholarship posted here (I could name Ted Davis and George Murphy among
many others). But the sub-scholarly modes of reading, listening, quoting,
arguing, etc. do from time to time vex me.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Murray Hogg" <>
To: "ASA" <>
Sent: Friday, August 21, 2009 4:16 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] historical versus experimental sciences

> Cameron,
> It seems to me you make two claims in the below;
> The first is that Hebert has no evidence for his speculations - but I
> think that's a wildly reckless assertion. Hebert is a professional
> biologist, after all, and I think one should assume that he speculates
> against a comprehensive background knowledge of the data. I would also
> suggest that he could readily cite evidence in support of evolution in
> particular, and neo-Darwinism in particular. And he certainly has evidence
> that there is a mitochondrial DNA bottleneck. Putting that all together,
> it's clear to me that his speculations arise precisely because of the
> existence of evidence rather than in the utter absence of same.
> The second is that Herbert's speculations are interpreted within the
> context of a theory. But with apologies for a curt response, this is not a
> particularly breath-taking observation and I don't frankly know whether
> "so what?" or "tu quoque!" is the more fitting response. I do know that it
> causes me some bemusement that you consider such a practice somehow
> improper within the context of the sciences. What's more, to then critique
> Heberts speculations on the grounds that they are not testable - well, I
> can only say that a very large part of the art of scientific investigation
> is having the creativity to devise means to test speculative hypotheses.
> The strongest criticism one can legitimately make against Hebert's
> speculations is that there are AS YET no means to test them. The proper
> response to which situation is not to accuse Hebert of impropriety, but to
> go and devise some means of testing the hypothesis.
> On top of that, I would make the following responses to a couple of your
> other remarks;
> In regards to a purported "cavalier attitude" to the exact wording of
> people's statements - Herbert was responding to the questions of a
> journalist in an interview, for goodness sake, not formulating
> propositions for a journal article in analytic philosophy. Personally, I
> don't know Hebert, so I don't know how carefully he chooses his words. But
> I do suspect that you're investing Hebert's words with way too much
> significance.
> In respects of the philosophical burden you place upon Hebert's
> concessions regarding "creationism" let me say that the failure to ask
> what is meant by the term in this context is no trivial matter -
> especially when you're accusing others of "a cavalier attitude to exact
> wording". You claim, essentially, that Herbert is trying to slam the door
> on the metaphorical divine foot, but how do you know that Hebert has
> anything such thing in mind? Perhaps by "creationism" he means "young
> earth creationism" and his reticence to be "honest" with the mitochondrial
> DNA evidence is precisely because, on face value, it implies something so
> obviously false that there MUST be an alternate explanation.
> Now, that might be seen as an implausible judgement - but if anybody is
> entitled to make it, it's the professional biologist and I don't think
> s/he needs to prove the case to the layman's satisfaction. Actually, it's
> particularly ironic that at one and the same time Hebert is considered
> honest and competent enough to make the observation that "mitochondrial
> DNA bottlenecks are a problem for current formulations of neo-Darwinism"
> but is neither honest nor competent enough to assess this as an anomaly,
> nor to propose a mechanism by which such an anomaly might be explained.
> If at the end of the day, all you are asking is for neo-Darwinists to be
> honest about the contrary evidence then my response is that you're being
> grossly unfair. Hebert DID acknowledge that the mitochondrial DNA is more
> consistent with a "creationist" paradigm than a neo-Darwinist one. And he
> is clearly of the view that neo-Darwinian theory as it stands does not
> fully take account of the evidence. So I don't precisely understand the
> tenor of your objection - I certainly don't understand your denigration of
> Hebert in particular or of neo-Darwinists in general. Nor do I understand
> why you would think Hebert's case actually evidences the position you seem
> to me to be advocating.
> Blessings,
> Murray
> Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>> Murray:
>> 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 raised.
>> 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 example.
>> Cameron.
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Received on Fri Aug 21 22:01:49 2009

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