Discovery Institute Attack on Cosmos Provides a Teaching Moment of Its Own

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si-JulAug2014.jpg I’ve a brief new article in the new Skeptical Inquirer (July/August 2014) regarding Casey Luskin’s botched attack on the second episode of Cosmos. Here it follows - your comments are welcomed.

Fox TV’s Seth McFarlane has joined with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow and collaborator, to continue Sagan’s marvelous Cosmos series of decades ago. The new series is a splendid blend of homage to Sagan’s original one with dazzling new graphics–and new discoveries.

The second episode of the series, first broadcast March 16, 2014, covered evolution and natural selection. (Link) As expected, creationists were furious. The main promoter of “intelligent design,” Seattle’s Discovery Institute, has run several anti-Cosmos blogs on its Evolution News and Views (ENV) website.

In their zeal to attack Tyson and the Cosmos series, however, the Discovery Institute has created a stunning example of the straw man logical fallacy. This fallacy is so named because it involves attacking one’s opponent not by an honest dissection of his or her actual views but by attacking a caricature, a distorted misrepresentation of those views. The Discovery Institute’s attack on the evolution episode of Cosmos was a particularly egregious example of this fallacy–a straw man for the ages, as it were.

The Institute’s Casey Luskin dashed off a post on the morning after the second episode aired. The post was titled “Cosmos Episode 2: ‘Mindless Evolution’ Has All the Answers–If You Don’t Think About It Too Deeply” (Link). Luskin quotes Tyson’s comment comparing artificial to natural selection and proceeds to argue that Tyson believes that evolution can produce anything:

Cosmos Episode 2 structures its argument much as Charles Darwin did in the Origin of Species. The opening scenes discuss how human breeders artificially selected many different dog breeds from wolf-like ancestors, including many popular breeds that “were created in only the last few centuries.” The argument is simple–and it’s the same one Darwin made: “If artificial selection can work such profound changes in only 10 to 15 thousand years, what can natural selection do operating over billions of years?” The answer, I recall Tyson saying, is most “anything” [emphasis added]. Just as he did in Episode 1, Tyson has overstated his case. The great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr explains precisely why Tyson is wrong: “Some enthusiasts have claimed that natural selection can do anything. This is not true [emphasis in original]. Even though ‘natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation even the slightest,’ as Darwin (1859:84) has stated, it is nevertheless evident that there are definite limits to the effectiveness of selection”. …

If Tyson had indeed said that natural selection can do anything, Luskin would have been entirely correct to point out that the claim has been thoroughly refuted by mainstream biologists such as Mayr. The problem is that Tyson said nothing of the sort. Here’s what Tyson really said about what “natural selection can do operating over billions of years”:

The answer is: all the beauty and diversity of life.

In other words, Tyson was saying that selection plus mutation explains the stunning diversity of life on our planet–warts and all. He never said that natural selection can do anything, and later in the episode he gave a great example of how selection plus mutation is strongly limited by historic contingency. In a lengthy segment on the evolution of complex structures such as eyes, about thirty minutes later in the episode, Tyson points out that eyes evolved under water and that fish have exquisite vision. This allows them to focus on things right in front of their faces and in dim light, unlike land animals (including humans). Because of refraction, however, our wet eyes distort light from the dry air, and we’ve never quite recovered from losing our ideal aquatic vision. As Tyson said:

When we left the water, why didn’t nature just “start over again,” and evolve us a new set of eyes that were optimal for seeing in the air? Nature doesn’t work that way. Evolution reshapes existing structures over generations, adapting them with small changes. It can’t just go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.

Of course, that’s not even remotely like Luskin’s ludicrous accusation that Tyson thinks natural selection over time can do “most anything.” The same morning it appeared, someone persuaded Luskin to correct the words he’d put into Tyson’s mouth, but Luskin added new verbiage just after that to further his still-false claim that Tyson actually does believe that natural selection can do “most anything.” The revised comment by Luskin now reads

The answer, Tyson tells us, is “all the beauty and diversity of life.” In other words, Tyson wants you to believe that natural selection provides all the answers for everything since life arose [emphasis added]. Just as he did in Episode 1, Tyson has overstated his case. …

In both versions of his post (pre- and post-correction), Luskin vigorously repeated his colossal straw man argument: “Tyson’s main argument that selection and mutation can evolve anything [emphasis added] focuses on the evolution of the eye. Here, he attacks intelligent design by name. …”

In addition to a spectacular example of the straw man fallacy, the affair provides insight into the dangers of pseudoscience. If only Luskin had decided to simply watch the show and give Tyson a chance to explain the case for evolution, he would never have made such a serious error. Instead, Luskin had no time for actual comprehension of what was being said; he was far too busy looking for talking points on which to condemn Tyson, Cosmos, and evolution. Luskin was so busy constructing his hit piece he wasn’t even aware that Tyson was vigorously agreeing with Mayr: evolution can’t do just anything. It’s a perfect illustration of the mindset of a pseudo scientist.

Dave Thomas, a physicist and mathematician, is president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is currently a scientist/programmer at IRIS/PASSCAL in Socorro, New Mexico, and also teaches classes in physics, psychology, and critical thinking at New Mexico Tech. He is a recipient of the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of Darwin Award.

15 Comments

Strawmen are all they have.

They patrol with buckets of carefully collected spittle, reading to douse any matches that might threaten their precious scarecrow arguments.

The beauty of Luskin’s strawman attack is that he avoids dealing with the fact that life has indeed been highly constrained, and not in ways that any normal designer is, let alone the omniscient “designer” of the descent of the testes (from, essentially, their ancestral positions) and of P. falciparum.

Evolutionary constraints and possibilities deal with these issues superbly. Design explains nothing. Luskin explains nothing.

Glen Davidson

“In addition to a spectacular example of the straw man fallacy, the affair provides insight into the dangers of pseudoscience. If only Luskin had decided to simply watch the show and give Tyson a chance to explain the case for evolution, he would never have made such a serious error.”

This is why these guys as so ignorant. They actually go out of their way to avoid any opportunity to learn anything. Even when they make a living by criticizing science, they never bother to actually learn any of it. They know what they are arguing against.

Our resident troll Floyd even admitted that he had not watched the series and didn’t intend to. That tells you all you need to know about Floyd. He isn’t interested in learning anything and probably couldn’t even if he tried.

DS said:

Our resident troll Floyd even admitted that he had not watched the series and didn’t intend to. That tells you all you need to know about Floyd. He isn’t interested in learning anything and probably couldn’t even if he tried.

Since retirement in 1994 I’ve had quite a lot of time on my hands and, according to my wife, have spent far too much time on what was sort of one of my hobbies of mine from early teens, the Origins of Man.

Which of course entailed just as much interest in “Origins” en bloc, with creationism as a side show.

It is s sad show, it might even be classified as depressing and inducive of despair at the attitude displayed by creationists.

My main objection is just their unwilligness, even opposition to learning. Learning what science itself says and have said and still says, from an ever expanding universe of knowledge, from even before Darwin, Wallace, and Origins.

That is such a contrast to my own experience and attitude:

At 13, I decided to sort out what looked like both an enigma and a controversy: the scientific view of the world and the worldview of the Bible. So I ‘studied’ both science and religions,(of course not only the Bible!)

Since I also studied psychology I was able to see the obvious parallels between core aspects of religions and the results of the study of the human psyche (including my own). Knowledge was the key to “liberation”, I think I have a sufficient understanding of the dichotomy between a material and a “world of spirit”.

Floyd’s refusal to even watch a tv documentary would be like a revelation – if we didn’t already know how closed his mind is. He is afraid, he is frightened by the prospect of learning antyhing that migh make him doubt his personal preference and modus operandi: it is all about his personal interpretation of the Bible. He is of course silent on the doubts and insecurity that accompany an attitude like his.

Therefore, his purpose of showing up at PT is to lecture us on his faith, not to learn anything that might threaten his faith. “We” are a threat to him and our sinful attitude is a guarantee we will end down in hell. He is here to bolster his faith and to save our souls.

So what good will scientific knowledge do to him? Only make him more miserable than he already is.

Some creationsists are professional liars, they may be excused for having to make a living. A honest job may not always be an attractive alternative. Others are honest but ignorant, the results are about the same. And an elect few have enough reason left enabling them to break the bond.

P.S. I am in the habit of googling words I am not secure in the use of and ‘elect’ brought me here. Just sayin’.

Rolf said:

Floyd’s refusal to even watch a tv documentary would be like a revelation – if we didn’t already know how closed his mind is. He is afraid, he is frightened by the prospect of learning antyhing that migh make him doubt his personal preference and modus operandi: it is all about his personal interpretation of the Bible. He is of course silent on the doubts and insecurity that accompany an attitude like his.

Therefore, his purpose of showing up at PT is to lecture us on his faith, not to learn anything that might threaten his faith. “We” are a threat to him and our sinful attitude is a guarantee we will end down in hell. He is here to bolster his faith and to save our souls.

And the natural reaction to this extroardinarily-honed avoidance is to wonder what he’s protecting himself from, at such expense. Suspicions arise that perhaps he’s shielding his conscience from acknowledging some Very Bad Beliefs he harbors and justifies with the mantle of Godly decree. Perhaps he secretly feels that his attitudes towards other people are not at all fair or ethical, and shields himself from acknowledging their evil by hiding behind the excuse that this is not HIS prejudices but God’s, and therefore it can’t really be wrong. Perhaps that’s why many skeptics and cynics are quick to assign all kinds of moral failings and ugly belief systems onto Creationists and other denialists. It doesn’t help that we’re usually exposed to the most duplicitous among them, the professional ideologues and demagogues who often make quite a bit of money from shoring up the psychic bulwark of the masses.

But I think in most cases it’s more about emotional investment and a sense of security in the face of doubt rather than staving off guilt over some kind of secret sins. It’s a very Authoritarian behavior, and Authoritarians are not automatically bad people who feel ashamed about being bad. It’s just a personality archetype that exists naturally in a large segment of the human population. A common way for brains to be wired or thought patterns to be set in that isn’t really tied to any underlying guilt or ethical faults.

That’s my view of it, and one of the reasons I don’t really engage in all the taunting of the deluded or dishonest trolls around here. Once you start to see them as victims of the limitations of their own innate personalities it kind of loses its appeal.

Aw, come on, guys! Don’t pile on the poor little Attack Gerbil. He’s not bad, he’s just drawn that way. If the Gerb wrote an honest review the Tooters would kick his keister out of that dingy 2nd floor (over a gym in Seattle) cubicle faster than you could say “Nixplanatory Filter.” Then what would he do? Dishonest work doesn’t grow on trees you know.

Catching Casey Luskin (or the Dishonesty Institute) in a lie is easier than shooting fish in a barrel. And as has been noted, lies are all they have.

(Somewhat off topic, but has anybody seen Meyer’s Facebook page, which is exultant that Meyer’s “Doubt” has received an award from the uber-fundagelical WORLD magazine?)

I neverv watched it but watched the attack and defence commentary. It was truly a welcome and hilarious example of the desperation of the establishment to twist a show on SCIENCE into a attack on the modern creationist assault. Almost every episode was propaganda against the publics skepticism of evolutionism etc etc and a attempt to paint creationists as bad people hurting civilization. The Cartoon guy admitted a major motivation was rising creationism. Anuways this network should now allow a rebuttal, and a better series, from creationists. Or at least a few episodes. The accused have the right to defend themselves. Explain evolution to the the people and indeed the idea of simple selection on mutations creating the glory of biology will lose them by more millions. I understand organized creationism got a lot of mileage and laughs out of this series. It didn’t settle anything by a cosmic mile.

Yup, evolution is just about to lose. Big time. Any day year century now.

So, another troll who didn’t even bother to watch the show and still tries to criticize it.

Robert Byers said:

I neverv watched it but watched the attack and defence commentary. It was truly a welcome and hilarious example of the desperation of the establishment to twist a show on SCIENCE into a attack on the modern creationist assault. Almost every episode was propaganda against the publics skepticism of evolutionism etc etc and a attempt to paint creationists as bad people hurting civilization. The Cartoon guy admitted a major motivation was rising creationism. Anuways this network should now allow a rebuttal, and a better series, from creationists. Or at least a few episodes. The accused have the right to defend themselves. Explain evolution to the the people and indeed the idea of simple selection on mutations creating the glory of biology will lose them by more millions. I understand organized creationism got a lot of mileage and laughs out of this series. It didn’t settle anything by a cosmic mile.

If all you saw of Cosmos was the short AiG summary of each episode, then all you read were lies. Watch the shows. They are quite entertaining, very easy to follow, and well worth your time.

I’ve done my best to study religion(s) to determine their proper position among competing ideas. How can I have an opinion on a subject I don’t understand, haven’t even made a honest attempt at understanding? Closing my eyes to the subject, a conscious effort NOT to learn anything about the subject on the premise that the subject must be wrong, so why should I bother?

Honestly, Floyd and Robert, you both are ignorant and have decided to stay ignorant, ignoring all suggestions that there are things to be learned about the world.

In stark contrast to Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries. They made valuable contributions to human knowledge and science because they studied nature and did their best to learn nature’s ways because the traditional, religiously derived explanations didn’t fit the facts. That’s what Galileo, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and many more did, and revolutionised our understanding, in opposition to dogmatic religion.

Why cant’ you be honest for a second and come right out and reveal your reasons for closing your mind and eyes to 200 years of science aside from your obvious dislike?

There’s no excuse for ignorance and you stand out as a couple of idiots with your attitudes.

You don’t talk from an authority of knowledge but from the delusion of ignorance.

Ignorance is curable; stupidity is forever.

Here is a honest question for both of you: Are you ignorant or stupid?

Perhaps they are ignorant of their stupidity.

And if ignorance is bliss, why are they so unhappy?

Henry J said:

And if ignorance is bliss, why are they so unhappy?

Because others do not share nor worship their sentiments concerning (deliberate) ignorance.

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This page contains a single entry by Dave Thomas published on June 18, 2014 6:55 AM.

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