Clueless in Wales

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Every once in a while you encounter something that is so blindly oblivious, so … well … so pig-ignorant (there’s no more delicate way to put it), that you can only wonder what the purveyor of that ignorance is using to think with. An extraordinary example is provided by a benighted piece on the Social Affairs Unit, a British site primarily devoted to conservative political, economic, and cultural affairs. Like their American counterparts, the SAU folks seem to feel that they must weigh in on scientific issues about which they are supremely uninformed. From David Hadley via Pharyngula, we are pointed to a ludicrously bad piece by an historian titled The Theory of Evolution: Just a Theory?. (You can see it coming, can’t you?)

I submitted a lengthy comment to the SAU board fisking some of the specific points in the piece, but since my submitted remarks were on the vitriolic side and comments are moderated there, it appears that it won’t be published. So I’ll comment more generally here on PT, preserving the vitriol. Sometimes a spade is a goddam spade, and politely calling it a “digging implement” fails to capture just how much of a goddam spade it is.

The piece is by William D. Rubinstein, a professor at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Rubinstein holds a Ph.D. in modern history from Johns Hopkins, and apparently is an authority on British history and on the Holocaust whose major recent work is The Myth of Rescue, which argues

In this revisionist history Rubinstein (History/Univ. of Wales, Aberystwyth) sets out to debunk as “illogical and ahistorical” the work of several established historians who raise the question of Allied culpability during the Holocaust.

Rubinstein is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He tells us that

… I think I have as much common sense as the next man and probably more in the way of an independent viewpoint than most.

So the guy is seemingly not a lightweight, and in his own opinion at least is a common-sensical independent thinker.

In his ‘just a theory’ posting Rubinstein uses an interesting phrase that tells us he’s largely unaware of actual evolutionary biology. He opens his essay by saying he has “a desultory interest in many fields beyond my specialty, including the mysteries of science.” “Desultory”, in the sense of ‘wavering, unsteady, erratic’, connotes no particularly well-grounded knowledge about evolutionary biology, suggesting that perhaps Professor Rubinstein is not the best man to pontificate in public about it. The remainder of his piece confirms that suggestion. Judging by the content of the essay, “desultory” is an overstatement. “Non-existent” is more accurate.

The piece consists mainly of a list of some of the most uninformed misconceptions about what evolutionary theory says that it has been my misfortune to read in one place, and I’ve read Morris, Gish, Slusher, Parker, Behe, Johnson, and Dembski, among others. Rubinstein literally has no clue about evolutionary theory. None. Consider some of what Rubinstein deems to be “deep implausibilities” of evolutionary theory:

Evolution appears to be plainly impossible. Animals cannot “evolve” into new and different species. If one breeds cats for a thousand generations, they will still be cats, won’t they? They simply will not “evolve” into cats which look like kangaroos and are genetically different from felis domesticus. It simply won’t happen.

Observed instances I, Observed Instances II, and a couple in progress, salamanders and Rhagoletis pomonella.

Moreover, no one expects “evolution” to occur. If your pet cat gave birth to a litter of kittens, one of which had two tails, you wouldn’t exclaim, “Aha! Here is the next stage of feline evolution!”

What can one say except “Say whaaat?”

Even more importantly, to the best of my knowledge no one has ever seen an example of genuine evolution, that is, of one species producing an offspring which was clearly of another, different species. … people have been looking for evidence of evolution for nearly 150 years, and scientists would certainly be sensitive to the emergence of any new species, with the evidential value this would have for proving Darwin right.

See above, observed instances.

There are actually no “missing links” in the fossil record, a fact which, I understand, is continuously swept under the rug.

Synapsids to mammals, among hundreds of examples.

New organs in living bodies must appear fully-formed at once or they can serve no biological purpose and confer no advantage upon that creature. On the other hand, the complexity of most organs would seem to make this impossible.

A quite good overview of eye evolution by a British undergraduate. It doesn’t take an advanced degree. A more technical paper on genetic control and the evolution of eye types.

That’s a selection from Rubinstein’s longer list, but it captures his level of knowledge: abysmally low. He appears to be reading from Phil Johnson’s playbook.

From those and other “implausibilities” Rubinstein concludes

I simply do not know what all of this means, although the best inference which might be drawn is that new species apparently “evolve” suddenly and fully-formed, a concept, known as “saltation”, which has been advocated in the past, and which was recently revived, at least in part, in the late Stephen J. Gould’s theory of “punctuated equilibrium”.

What? What it means is that Rubinstein is pig-ignorant of biology, is what it means. He has not the slightest clue, and passes off his clueless “best inference”, grounded on false premises, as a statement about evolutionary theory when in fact it’s a statement about his ignorance of the theory he egregiously misrepresents.

I am less interested in the specific errors, misrepresentations, and plain dumb crap in Rubinstein’s piece than I am in the question of how a presumably intelligent person could bring himself to publicly display such breathtaking ignorance, when the resources necessary to rectify that ignorance are as readily available to his readers as to himself. I am frankly puzzled. Does he really think his readers are as ignorant as he is and that they can’t (or won’t) do a tiny bit of reading on their own? (Don’t answer that!)

Rubinstein writes

One reason for the failure of scientists to challenge Evolution is that the whole subject is tainted and pervaded by the religion vs. science question, such that anyone who questions Evolution is automatically dismissed as a “Creationist” who believes in the literal truth of the Bible and who is seen as having an agenda of religious fundamentalism behind his doubts. Let me make clear, then, that I am not a religious fundamentalist.

Be assured that I do not dismiss Professor Rubinstein’s remarks about evolution as being inspired by creationism. I dismiss them because they display an appalling ignorance of the theory he purports to criticize. He flat out doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If a first-year undergraduate turned in a paper as riddled with errors as Rubinstein’s essay it would receive a failing grade, not because it criticizes the theory of evolution but because it does not display the slightest effort to accurately represent the theory being criticized.

I’m sorry. I can’t go on. Both my irony meter and my bullshit detector (bought on sale after the last election) have burned out. One seldom sees such arrant nonsense slathered around in public, produced by a man with “Professor” in front of his name and “FRHS” after it, outside of the post-modernist movement. It’s an indication of the depths to which education in the West has sunk. I am (almost) ashamed to have been a professor for 20 years once upon a time.

RBH

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Invitation accepted from Respectful Insolence on May 24, 2005 6:28 AM

Contained in the article was more "intelligent design" apologia, this time in response to Dr. Richard Hoppe's critique of the same mind-numbingly bad "criticism" of evolution written by historian Professor William D. Rubinstein... Read More

26 Comments

I say follow the money. I’d bet he got paid in some way to say this BS.

No, I dont think he got paid. After all, he is has a Ph.D. and is well published in his field. His employers would have demanded from him to do a better job. He did it for nothing, in an attack of hubris, because he felt he was clever, very clever, much cleverer than all those biologists.

“After all, he is has a Ph.D. and is well published in his field.”

lol. that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have accepted payment to do this.

“His employers would have demanded from him to do a better job”

er, you mean like Dembski?

all they need to do is “tow the party line”; they don’t need to say anything actually intelligent to jump on the “Intelligent” Design bandwagon.

There may be no “missing links” in the fossil record, but there are a hell of a lot of found links.

But, because he has a PhD & is a FRHS, you can bet that Creationists will cite this as an authoritative source. After all, he says exactly what they want to hear.

Ah, I’ll have to change my newsreader later and move the Social Affairs Unit blog from ‘Politics / Rightwing’ to ‘Wacky Creationist Idiots’. On behalf of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I apologise for this scientifically illiterate idiot. Only a few weeks ago, another bit of creationist idiocy went on in the British media: The Spectator published an article by Paul Johnson. It seems that conservative and right wing media outlets in the UK are slowly accepting creationist and IDist material for publication. Which is a shame since I always quite liked The Spectator.

If anyone needed to be reminded of the old adage, ‘Cobbler, stick to your last’, it’s this guy.

I judge antiscience claptrap by how often I must stand up and walk outside for a short reality break while reading. I abandonded Rubinstein on my third visit to the front yard having barely read past a few pages. What is most odd is how did he gather such a list of conventional creationist “challenges” without bothering to have read any science?

I can only recommend that Prof. Rubinstein doesn’t sit too still for too long. He runs the risk of being buried as he is already brain dead.

After a quick beer, I finished reading. I had been nearly done. But still, 4 short breaks and a beer just to read that? Maybe I have become too sensitive to the absence of fact and reason. I thought that frequent exposure would have desensitized me by now.

Doesn’t Paul Johnson always write for The Spectator?

Paul Johnson has always been a nutcase. He’s not called “Loonybins” for nothing, you know.

I’ll be damned. They’ve put up a slew of critical comments on the SAU blog, including the one I submitted. In fact, what I thought was a vitriolic comment that I submitted is among the tamer there! I gotta work on that, I guess.

RBH

Actually, it looks to me like the SAU is the usual echo chamber that one gets in UK politics. The fact that there are at least 25 times more comments on this topic than on any of the others there suggests that is the case. So, thanks for all you posting, but this is likely just a small UK outbreak that didnt need jumped on by everyone. But its fun to watch. ;)

On behalf of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I apologise for this scientifically illiterate idiot.

As do I.

Given the various IDiocies in the U.S. – in Pennsylvania and Kansas and elsewhere – y’all have nothing to apologize for. :)

RBH

SteveF: Yes, but in a recent edition he had an article whining about the oppression of Christian intellectuals by ‘Darwinian fundamentalists’ (far too rational, they show up the religious fundamentalists - I mean, you don’t find people standing in tube stations holding a leather bound Origin of Species preaching that you should accept your monkey heritage or else you’ll be sent to Kansas). As a libertarian kind who likes to keep up on the goings-ons in the Tory party, I occasionally pick up the Spectator. The last thing I expected was the words ‘Darwinian fundamentalism’ to be used. I have since stopped buying the magazine as part of my “cut any financial links with creationists” campaign (I only read - and scoff at - creationist books that are second hand or in the library - there’s no way I’m going to be paying Bill Dembski’s mortgage or buying another damn dinosaur model for Hovind or Ken Ham’s theme park).

I’m glad to see that bookshops, while making the initial error of putting Dembski and friends in Evolution have slowly moved them back in to General Science, then Philosophy. It’s only a short leap now to get them back to Theology where they truly deserve a place.

“I mean, you don’t find people standing in tube stations holding a leather bound Origin of Species preaching that you should accept your monkey heritage or else you’ll be sent to Kansas.”

ROFLMAO!

damnit, why not? that would be frickin hilarious to do! dress up in a monk costume and become an “origin-thumper”.

Judging by the content of the essay, “desultory” is an overstatement. “Non-existent” is more accurate.

‘Pretty much non-existant’ is how I habitually describe my knowledge of science generally and evolutionary biology specifically, but even I would have been able to strip that garbage down to its constiutuent parts and flush the scraps down the toilet. Awful.

Ok, the traffic on the SAU seems to have died down.

There seem to me to be two outstanding questions- “Why has the dear professor not had the balls to respond? and “Why don’t we pound him for a second round?”

i saw one response over there that suggested the good professor had no idea the kettle of fish he stirred up, based on some emails between the two.

I’ts possible he is trying to keep a low profile. Though, he really should consider retracting his statement at some point.

The comment in question says

“why the hysteria of the reaction” You must be in Europe. An unholy alliance has formed in th US between the political right and the Southern Baptist fundamentalists with creationism to be inserted in school curricula as a trade off for political support. Their latest ploy is to claim there is an alternative “scientific” theory to evolutioary biology, “Intelligent Design” (Google search this if you have time to waste). Mainstream biologists have been caught leaden-footed in the propaganda war and sometimes now can over-react. What infuriates them most is the allegation made by creationists that there is a scientific basis to ID that deserves being taught in state schools. Professor Rubinstein seems to have entered this controversy unwittingly, or so a brief email exchange would suggest. Posted by: Alan Fox at May 16, 2005 08:27 PM

I’d change one word in that comment: Professor Rubinstein entered the controversy witlessly, rather than unwittingly.

RBH

Here in Europe, ID is almost unheard of, as there are few Southern Baptist fundamentalists to promote it. It is possible that Professor Rubinstein genuinely was unaware of the controversy in the USA. I only heard about ID a few weeks ago after using the word Darwin in a post on a forum about English as a 2nd language and being trolled by someone urging me to see the light by reading the works of Dembski and Behe.It did not have the desired result as I find muself now addicted to Panda’s Thumb, especially your pet monkey. I did email Professor Rubinstein suggesting he should check out Panda’s Thumb and, when replying, he remarked that his previous article in SAU suggesting abolition of income tax only generated three replies, remarking “it shows you what gets under people’s skin”. We’re so smug over here. Only in America…

Anyone interested in taking up Bill Rubinstein’s challenge? See http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk[…]s/000427.php

and scroll to the end.

How bizarre. Rubinstein continues to flaunt his ignorance. Here’s his offer (shades of Kent Hovind!):

Secondly, I would be happy to donate say one hundred dollars or fifty pounds to charity if, by the end of ten years from now (May 2015) anyone can produce an example of evolution in the animal world which has occurred during that time span - that is, the appearance of a new species of animal, which does not exist today, but which is descended from an existing species. (Of course this must occur in the natural world - laboratory experiments are excluded). I readily admit that ten years is a ridiculously short period, but there are more than one million species of animal life and new species should be appearing all the time, surely. I would stipulate a much longer time frame - fifty or five hundred years - but won’t be around to monitor the results.

Yup. Hovind would be proud of him. Rubinstein seems still to be operating on his ‘cat gives birth to raccoon’ notion of speciation.

RBH

“I mean, you don’t find people standing in tube stations holding a leather bound Origin of Species preaching that you should accept your monkey heritage or else you’ll be sent to Kansas.”

I can imagine a crazy-eyed evolutionist running up to me in a crowded street, book in hand, and saying in a breathlessly fanatical tone, “Have you found the missing link? Here, take these pamphlets.”

A J. Bowen has commented on this piece, with little more knowledge than that displayed by Rubinstein in his original. By the time I got to read it, both Orac of Respectful Insolence and PZ Myers on Pharyngula had already dissected it, leaving me little to say but “Right on, guys!”

RBH

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on May 15, 2005 11:00 AM.

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