Dawkins' Gift to Kansas

Richard Dawkins has penned another good article on evolution. Read through it and we’ll discuss it on the flipside.

Dawkins makes a lot of very good points. First off is the way that creationists hijack the language of teaching to their own ends. Teleological thinking is generally shunned as a scientific method because it’s not useful, but concepts in science are often a lot easier to get across if teachers refer to enzymes or organelles being “designed” to do a particular function. To a creationist, this is tantamount to endorsing ID creationism.

To a scientist, doubt inspires investigation and can be used to intrigue an audience. To a creationist, it’s an admission of defeat. And don’t get me started on quote mining. Dawkins’ point about hijacking language is quite valid.

Similarly, Dawkins talks about the incorrect default explanation of design. That is, to a creationist, once one rules out a current understanding of science or evolution, it’s as good as proving design. This is an intrinsic failure of an eliminative method, like Dembski’s “Explanatory Filter.” (Suspect design, rule out chance; rule out science: design.)

I don’t want to gild Dawkins’ lily but he’s absolutely correct. Eliminative methods can be used in science, but not as evidence for something. Rather, eliminative methods are used in place of evidence - as a surrogate for positive reasons to consider one explanation over another.

An example would be Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is no good test but highly reliable post-mortem findings. What we do is suspect Alzheimer’s disease (a patient presents of likely age with a good history for Alzheimer’s dementia), rule out reversible causes (vitamin deficiencies, too much narcotics, etc.), and then we diagnose Alzheimer’s. For a population of people that fit this description, post-mortem examinations have been found to be (and are) extremely likely to verify the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, even in the absence of a really good clinical test for it or other positive evidence while the patient is alive.

But what if the patient in question was 30 years old? A 30 year old is incredibly unlikely to have Alzheimer’s disease. To get me to believe a patient like this had Alzheimer’s, I’d have to see a reliable brain biopsy that confirmed the diagnosis, and I’d do that only at the end of ruling out every form of temporary dementia (aka, delirium) I could think of. Even then, I’d be hesitant to settle on that diagnosis unless it was really my last option.

What’s going on here is that making any sort of eliminative argument in favor of a diagnosis, what we call the “wastebasket diagnosis,” is itself an occasion for consideration. You can’t just see dementia and diagnose Alzheimer’s by elimination: you’ve got to be smart about what gets the default, wastebasket status. The implications for untreated, reversible delirium in a young person are too terrible to not error on the side of vigilance. On the other hand, for a patient in the correct age group with a good history, you don’t want a million dollar workup to determine what is painfully obvious. Again, what gets default status is itself an occasion for consideration; it is a surrogate for good evidence, not good evidence itself.

Now consider evolution. Michael Behe used to claim the absence of whale transitional fossils as evidence in favor of design. Specifically,

Michael Behe wrote:

. . . (if) random evolution is true, there must have been a large number of transitional forms between the Mesonychid and the ancient whale. Where are they? It seems like quite a coincidence that of all the intermediate species that must have existed between the Mesonychidand whale, only species that are very similar to the end species have been found.

Notably, the year after he published his paper, not one, not two, but three whale transitional fossils were found.

Where Behe errored is in using design as his wastebasket diagnosis. Rule out current understandings of evolution or science and Behe chose to believe that design was the best explanation. What Behe should have done was recognize the brilliant history of evolution and science in terms of explaining away mysteries that used to be the work of God and credit future understandings of evolution and science as his wastebasket diagnosis. Then, he would have been less likely to make the mistake of diagnosing design inappropriately.

Finally, Dawkins points out that creationists have an unfortunate propensity to advocate for ignorance and confusion. I think I speak for everyone here at the Thumb when I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiment. As my recent essay Creationist Fears, Creationist Behaviors has hopefully convinced the reader, this is the whole point of intelligent design creationism: to confuse students about the validity of evolution or the methods of science.


EDIT: Ficksede badd spleing erurs an gramer.