Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Will P. Z. Myers need to be tranquilized? More on scientific dogmatism

We are hearing some further cage rattling over in the higher ape section of the park, and it appears to be ... yes, it is. None other than P. Z. Myers, one of the more dominant males of the species scientificus dogmaticus (a species with characteristics similar to the howler monkey), is chattering and whooping over my comment that people who don't have expertise in science have no obligation to hold public positions on the age of the earth.

The extent of his excitement is evident from the following utterance our anthropological staff here at Vital Remnants have transcribed:
If you are a creationist who regularly complains about "Darwinists" and promotes intelligent design creationism, yet declaims at length that you are so abysmally ignorant that you can't even make up your mind whether to trust
elementary geology, then nothing you can say about any science is trustworthy. It's fine to admit that you are an empty-headed goober who hasn't bothered to look up any relevant science at all, but when you set up a soapbox and pontificate about the insupportability of "Darwinism" from your platform of self-admitted lack of knowledge, you've upgraded yourself from silly schlemiel to arrogant putz.
So despite the fact that I have stated I don't have a public position on the issue, Myers has labeled me a "creationist," despite the complicating factor that (and one has to employ a fairly complex intellectual procedure here to derive this, which consists of actually reading what I have said), I am not. I even went to the trouble, after I became concerned about the physical harm to themselves that could have resulted from the violent din among the Darwinists ensuing upon my remarks--and despite my better judgment--to indicate that it seemed to me the earth was very old.

And despite the fact that I have said repeatedly on this blog that I don't have a particular view on the particular theories of Intelligent Design that are now extant--other than to say that I think Aristotle was correct in thinking that natural things have an intrinsic formal and final cause, however that might work out developmentally--Myers says I "promote intelligent design creationism."

He then goes on (and here the logical syntax of his utterances get so confused that our simian linguistic staff have a little trouble following his thought patterns, such as they are) and says that I "can't even make up" my "mind" on these issues. Of course, I didn't say I hadn't make up my mind: I said I didn't think it was responsible to take a public position. But this is a distinction that is hard for the dogmatic members of his subspecies to mentally grasp. In fact, fine distinctions seem to be completely alien to their thought patterns. Perhaps in a few years their development will advance to a stage in which such distinctions will be understandable, but it could take some time.

Despite these mistakes on such simple facts--a result of not reading or understanding what I clearly stated--he asks us to believe him about all things scientific. Myers says he knows the age of the earth because he reads books, "even the simple books for the lay public — and they describe the evidence for the age of the earth." Well, let's hope he pays more attention to his books that he does to simple statements on weblogs.

In an intellectual maneuver characteristic of his subspecies, Myers defends dogmatism by relabeling it "pragmatism." It is pragmatic, Myers suggests, to make confident public declarations on matters in which you have no deep level of knowledge or expertise.

Now what you have to understand about Darwinists is that they too are evolving--right in front of us. Furthermore, their evolution has a peculiar cyclical pattern, with cycles repeating themselves in some cases in a matter of days. The observers here on our staff have noted the curious penchant for saying, on one day, that they are against appeals to authority because they are relics of an ignorant religious age, and then saying the very next day that the public at large should acquiesce to their authority because they "read books."

We are to trust people who say we should not trust people. We are to believe the dogma of people who are opposed to dogmatism. We are to trust the authority of people who are against appeals to authority. Our staff is still working on finding the exact mechanism that causes Darwinists to think this makes sense.

Finally, with his customary care and thoughtfulness, Myers criticizes my comment in which I simply posted a link to a site explaining how the age of the solar system just got changed again within the past year. I posted it, he says, in order to justify my "agnosticism on the age of the earth." Dogmatists can also apparently read minds. Actually, I posted it because the previous commenter had posted a link to another age of the earth site now rendered mistaken by new discoveries. I posted it without comment, but with the idea that the certainty of exact formulations of the earth's age (e.g. "4.5 billion years") are always precarious. In fact, explains the post, that formulation is now considered off by "a million years or more."

While Myers characterizes this discovery as essentially meaningless, the scientists who found it didn't characterize it that way:
One million years is still an eyeblink at this scale, representing the difference between 4.566 and 4.567, but this difference is important in understanding the infant solar system ...“The building blocks of planets all formed within the span of 10 million years at most,” says coauthor Meenakshi Wadhwa, also of Arizona State. “When you start to try to unravel the sequence of events within that 10 million years, it becomes important to resolve the time scales within a million years or less.”
Apparently, something important hangs on the difference. And one wonders what they would have said had the mistaken factor by which the earlier mistaken figure had been derived had been much larger, which it easily could have been. What other aspect of dating systems could be found mistaken in the future?

So which scientists are we to believe? The first scientist (Wadhwa) who is an expert in this area who uncovered the mistake, or the second scientist (Myers,) who claims to know and agree with the first scientist but seems to contradict what the first scientist actually says? I'm tempted to go with the first scientist on this one. He sounds a little less dogmatic to me than the second one.


24 comments:

Anonymous said...

My oh my, what a desperate attempt at digging yourself out of a whole of embarassment. The final paragraphs are particularly painful, You quote the scientist who has corrected the age of the earth and then completely misrepresent his position in a horrible effort at rescuing your respectability.

I quote from your quote:

'“When you start to try to unravel the sequence of events WITHIN THAT 10 MILLION YEARS, it becomes important to resolve the time scales within a million years or less.”' [emphasis mine]

You use that quote in an effort to support your claim that the changes in age estimates are significant and a valid excuse for your 'agnosticism' in this area - yet that is not at all what this scientist is saying and not at all what PZ Myers was pointing out to you - on the scale of 4.5 billion years, a change of 1 million years is indeed negligeble. It is only when you look at the scale of early planetary formation that this change becomes important. Thus, quoting this scientist in support of your embarassing claim that science isn't quite sure yet and therefore we shouldn't be taking a position is - at best - dishonest.

jre said...

Martin -- just stay down!

truthspeaker said...

He's not saying that you should believe him because he reads books, he's saying that you should read those books too.

You do not need a deep level of expertise to know the current scientific consensus on the age of the earth and how they arrived at it. You need a high school education. You need to be able to read a short book written at, at most, a 12th grade reading level. That's it. What Myers is saying is that there is no excuse for your ignorance, and especially not for Rand Paul's since he went to medical school and is running for public office.

We most certainly do not want you to revert to some authority. We expect you to use your brain and your education to find the answer to this very easy question on your own. The fact that you find this an unreasonable request says volumes about what is wrong with the United States.

Ed L. said...

The first rule when you find yourself in a hole . . . stop digging.

KyCobb said...

Albert Mohler said this about the age of the earth:

"Secondly–and very quickly–if I’m asked why does the universe look so old, I have to say it looks old because it bears testimony to the affects of sin. And testimony of the judgment of God. It bears the effects of the catastrophe of the flood and catastrophes innumerable thereafter. I would suggest to you that the world looks old because as Paul says in Romans chapter 8 it is groaning. And in its groaning it does look old. It gives us empirical evidence of the reality of sin."

According to Martin, unless we are part of the small number of scientific elite who can actually date rocks themselves, we have to accord Mohler's opinion that the earth is 6,000 years old based on nothing more than his interpretation of the Bible the same respect as evidence backed science.

Anonymous said...

From the recent book _Idiot America_:
“there are two sides to every question, they both must be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkeyneck preacher out of Christ's Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an "expert" and therefore, an "elitist." Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable.”

Anonymous said...

Ok, so if you consider yourself ignorant in these subjects and doesn't hold an opinion since you are not an expert and also, supposedly, not a creationist, then why do you draw a line separating you and the "Darwinists"? You are clearly showing that you are not a darwinist (as in the title of your post"Should scientists demand that others act unscientifically? Further proof that Darwinists are dogmatists") and you say "people who hold to Darwinism". How do you know you don't hold to darwinism? Did you study any other competing theory for the evolution of species? And it is just ridiculous the last example of dishonest retoric, where you say that one scientist is wrong in relation to the age of the earth since he claims certainty but there are studies disagreeing (by a factor of 0,001% to be clear).

Also in the subject of dishonesty or maybe severe/fatal misunderstanding scientist and science are not dogmatic, what happens is that, and this is something that all the evolution-deniers should put in their minds: science describes and explains reality, and reality doesn't change or bend to peoples opinion, so if there is good, compelling evidence for something being a certain way we should not be saying it may or may not be that way just because we cannot be 100% sure. The doubt must be cast by compelling evidence pointing to a contrary theory. Our minds, cognition and behavior are housed and controled by our brains, does anyone need to be a neurologist to atest to the truth of this? And is it fair for a "non specialist" to say that that statement is dogmatic? I don't think so.

Not that Martin said...

We are to trust people who say we should not trust people.

No, Martin, we are to trust people who say we should not ONLY trust people.

Imagine 2 people make the same factual claim, and you reasonably reply "why should I believe you?" Person A says "don't take my word for it, here's how you can go and check for yourself". Person B says "because I said so." Even if we know nothing else about them, Person A is already more credible simply by virtue of that reply.

Anonymous said...

By your definition of dogmatism, we, all of us, are dogmatists in almost every single aspect of our lives.

Myers is right... what you are describing is pragmatism, because otherwise we couldn't function.

Our entire history is one of building upon others work. If every single person had to start over, without the knowledge of others, we'd still be in the same place we started.

One person simply cannot know and experience everything. So of course we must rely on others. The way we do that is by a set a rational and verifiable criteria. Science.

There is no "scientific authority", only scientific process. I don't believe someone because they wear a lab coat. I believe them because they can demonstrate the validity of a particular claim, knowing full well as new knowledge emerges that claim can become nullified or modified. It's how we make progress.

Free Lunch said...

The scientific method may only be pretty good at giving us an approximation of what is correct, but it is very good at discovering when claims are wrong.

Newton offered a good approximation about how mechanics worked. Even though we can say he was "wrong" in some sense, he was accurate enough that most engineering can be safely and reliably done using his methods today. On the other hand, Velikovsky was just wrong and his mistakes have been easily demonstrated.

The claims made by those who have tried to turn Genesis into a science textbook have also been shown to be wrong by the scientific evidence. Even if you don't want to hazard a guess about the age of the earth to the last percent for whatever reason, you can say with confidence that the scientific evidence shows that the earth is not young. You can say with confidence that those who insist on a supposedly literal reading of Genesis have been proven wrong in their claims, just as Velikovsky was.

Thomas said...

You all seem to be missing the point. The argument is not that the approximate age of the earth is unknowable in principle, or even that modern science hasn't come up with fairly reliable estimates. The argument is just that one doesn't have a particular moral obligation to do the sort of research necessary to publicly advocate a particular view on the subject, any more than one has a moral obligation to understand quantum chromodynamics. This is entirely different from a strong agnosticism that would say no-one can understand the subject matter enough to hold a position on it.

The point is that "Darwinists" (not those who hold to the biological theory, but those who take the biological theory to have some metaphysical significance) seem to think that one has some kind of moral obligation to take a public stance on the issue. As George W. Bush said: you're with us or your with our enemies. It's more like an aggressively evangelical religion: not only is it wrong to advocate an incorrect view on the subject, but it's wrong to not advocate the correct view.

My suspicion is that this is because for some the theory of Darwinism has become the doctrine which encompasses all the meaning of human life, rather than just a theory of biology. That is, for some, it has becomes something of a religious dogma.

This doesn't need to be the case. I accept common descent and natural selection and don't hold to either "creationism" or intelligent design theory, but I don't demand that those who don't advocate any particular view on the subject do the work required to understand it. Neither do most of the working biologists who taught me during my undergraduate education. It's one thing if one publicly advocates ID or creationism, but simply not taking a position doesn't make one a creationist.

Free Lunch said...

Thomas,

It might be quite refreshing for a politician to say that they don't know enough about a subject to form an opinion about it -- but only if they then deferred to the experts who had done the work and had developed an informed opinion.

It takes more than a little hubris to say that you haven't bothered to learn what the scientists know while still implying that you think that they are wrong or, at least, that a religious doctrine that has been shown to be wrong by the physical evidence might still be true.

Because of that, I have to disagree with your thesis that there is no moral obligation here. It is an obligation to support knowledge against ignorance and teachings that rely on ignorance. It probably doesn't matter that much in the short to medium run that there are folks like the Discovery Institute spreading falsehoods about biology or even that there are people who choose to keep quiet about those falsehoods, but what about the climate change deniers who have convinced a lot of citizens that we shouldn't do anything about the massive amounts of carbon dioxide we have been releasing into the atmosphere? What about their unsubstantiated allegation that there's too much of a question to make a sensible decision about it? Will our grandchildren thank those of us who let the lobbyists for the coal and gas & oil industries spread their falsehoods unchecked? Will they be happy with the changes in our environment that result from this?

Thomas said...

"It takes more than a little hubris to say that you haven't bothered to learn what the scientists know while still implying that you think that they are wrong or, at least, that a religious doctrine that has been shown to be wrong by the physical evidence might still be true."

So does that mean that politicians must take a position on string theory? Or that they must defer to scientists on the subject?

Scientists have been wrong before, and there's no reason one has to take any position one way or the other unless one is responsible for curricular requirements or something similar.

Joe_Agnost said...

Thomas wrote: "Scientists have been wrong before, and there's no reason one has to take any position one way or the other unless one is responsible for curricular requirements or something similar."

while this is somewhat true, I think there are degrees to this.

Something as UNcontroversial as the age of the earth should not require much thought in answering - there are no scientists out there that doubt the age isn't ~4.6 Ga. Something like string theory might be too deep for a non-scientific politician to decide on.

Would you be Ok if Rand had answered "I'm not an expert, I don't know" when asked if the earth is flat?? The age of the earth being ~about~ 4.6 Ga is as controversial as the earth not being flat is.

Art said...

Scientists have been wrong before, and there's no reason one has to take any position one way or the other unless one is responsible for curricular requirements or something similar.

Thomas, are you implying or suggesting that Senator Paul should recuse himself from deliberations and votes on matters that pertain to education policy (or science policy, for that matter)?

Paul may accept that the earth is old, and hedged because he didn't want to alienate the fringe element that is his support base. This would make him, oh, a politician, not much different from Conway or any other vote seeker who prefers not to have to say anything about anything. If he's really no different from Conway, I want to know.

Or he may hold to a young age for the earth. This would make him uninformed and ignorant, in my estimation not qualified to serve as my senator.

I for one would like to know which of these is the case. Information is always desirable when it comes to voting.

Free Lunch said...

So does that mean that politicians must take a position on string theory? Or that they must defer to scientists on the subject?

No on taking a position. Yes on deferring. Mocking specialists is very popular in American politics, but it makes no sense to do so. Few politicians understand science, even the ones with professional degrees in medicine (which does not make them scientists). Why wouldn't they defer to those who understand the problem?

Scientists have been wrong before,

When they have to start on a new area research without any evidence to speak of, eg luminiferous aether, scientists will sometimes be wrong. Of course they tend to be very good at changing their minds when the tests of their hypothesis show that the hypothesis is invalid.

and there's no reason one has to take any position one way or the other unless one is responsible for curricular requirements or something similar.

Congress has decided that it wants to meddle in local schools. Since they insist on doing that, they have a duty to learn about what they want to see done. A senator who cannot tell you something that is an essential discovery of geology is not fit to tell people how to teach.

Evan Oliver said...

Several people above have made the statement that the age of the earth is not controversial. Among those in their camp who accept (without proof) that a fish can evolve into a bird, and believe that different colored layers in polar ice count as years, I admit it is not controversial. However, among all scientists, and other researchers it most certainly is. The the dating methods are known to give widly varying results and in some cases to contradict themselves. The age of the earth is controversial, just not among people who agree, and by your definition, only those who agree are educatd enough to disagree.

Thomas said...

Art,

I wouldn't want any politician to base choices on something that is false or highly unlikely. Paul doesn't think the federal government should be involved in education at all, so I doubt that will be an issue.

Joe_Agnost said...

@Evan Oliver

You say many outrageous things in your latest comment - and notably none of them are backed up with evidence.

"Among those in their camp who accept (without proof) that a fish can evolve into a bird"

Strictly speaking you are correct. There isn't any "proof". There are mounds and mounds of ~evidence~ to back that birds ~did~ evolve from fish (we all did). "Proof" is left to mathematicians - scientists deal with "evidence", there is a difference.

"among all scientists, and other researchers it (the age of the earth) most certainly is (controvertial)."

Here is where you need to list some of these "scientists, and other researchers" to be believable.

"The the dating methods are known to give widly varying results and in some cases to contradict themselves."

Again, it would go a long way in making you look ~less~ ignorant if you would back this up with examples.

There are no ~credible~ (that's going to throw you!) scientists that would disagree with an age of about 4.6 Ga for the earth. None.

Free Lunch said...

Evan Oliver,

Please give specific examples to support your claims.

By the way, no scientists claim that "a fish can evolve into a bird". Organisms do not evolve, populations evolve over time. There is a common ancestor of birds and fish (and mammals, including humans). There is a great deal of evidence, including the evidence that exists within your body.

Free Lunch said...

Paul doesn't think the federal government should be involved in education at all, so I doubt that will be an issue.

How does that work? Do you really think that he will recuse himself in any education debate because he doesn't want the feds involved? Would you expect a pacifist to say nothing about the Defense Department budget?

jre said...


... and believe that different colored layers in polar ice count as years ...



Actually, the most convenient annual marker is the change in the ratio (known as D18O) of the two most common isotopes of oxygen, O18 and O16. Because water containing the heavier O18 is harder to evaporate and easier to condense, water vapor in the atmosphere is preferentially depleted of O18 by rainfall in the tropics, lowering the D18O of snow falling at higher latitudes. The seasonal variation of D18O is a prominent signal, making it easy to distinguish between one year's layer of ice and the next.


No, please -- I'm happy to help.


Oh, and I think you're a little confused about the fish and bird thing, but we'll leave that for later.

Thomas said...

Free Lunch,

What do you mean, how does that work? Education is an area traditionally and (still primarily) run by the states. Curricular development is not much of an issue at the federal level, and it's quite reasonable to think the issue should be left up to the states altogether.

The funding of scientific research is probably another matter.

Free Lunch said...

Thomas,

Didn't you pay attention to Bush's major federal initiative into local education? The federal government has a lot to say about K-12, more than they had before. Sure the federal courts have been very good about protecting schools from religious intrusion (Kitzmiller being the most recent example), but I don't know what Paul would want to do. He doesn't seem like a fan of education.