Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Folk Science and Self Deception

SF Matheson of Quintessence of Dust had an interesting post up last week about what he terms "folk science".
Months ago, I was worrying about how to characterize creationist statements that are untrue or misleading. The claims in question are not merely false (mistakes of various kinds can generate falsehood) and are not statements of opinion with which I disagree. They are claims that are demonstrably false but have been asserted by people who are certain (or likely) to know this. In other words, they bear the marks of duplicity. I said:
As a Christian, I am scandalized and sickened by nearly all creationist commentary on evolution. But I'm not a misanthrope, and so I find it hard to believe that so many people could be so overtly dishonest.
So I proposed the term 'folk science' as a way to refer to belief-supporting statements that sound scientific but do not seek to communicate scientific truth. I have two goals in my practice of using this phrase: 1) I recognize folk science as a particular type of argumentation, and I want to be able to accurately identify it as such; and 2) I want to create space within which I can identify falsehood, and especially falsehood that seeks to mislead, without making unwarranted accusations.
Part of the problem that Matheson is trying to grapple with is that, as a Christian who knows something about science, reading creationist or ID "science" often leaves you wondering how such egregious errors or ommissions could be passed off so blithely if not through clear intent to deceive. Matheson is hesitant to use the word "lying", because he suspects that these people are not being intentionally dishonest. And yet, many of them are at least moderately well educated in their fields and are peddling interpretations and claims which can be disproved with only a few minutes worth of research with decent sources.

If these people aren't lying, and they're stating things so obviously wrong, what exactly is going on?

I think the root problem here is that very often when dealing with issues surrounding evolution, creationism/ID apologists are coming to the table with a preconceived answer and simply looking for evidence to support that answer. With creationism, the answer is biblically derived. With ID, it's built into the "if we can throw doubt on how a system evolved, that proves it was designed" false dichotomy which is at the root of the whole ID claim.

Either way, however, the apologist has a structure already clearly built in his head for which he merely has to pick up a few supportied pieces of evidence -- rather like the undergraduate paper-writer who first writes his text and then does some "research" in order to pull in three footnotes per paragraph supporting his thesis.

Of course, practitioners of all disciplines are subject to this affliction. If one is searching history for proof that the Church is a force or repression or that women are smarter than men or that all of Western knowledge was stollen from Africa, one of course finds it. A sufficient degree of certainty as to result allows one to only notice the evidence the supports your thesis, and to discard everything else as either irrelevant or probably the result of one's ideological opponents dishonesty.

Apparent dishonesty of the sort that Matheson highlights among creationsts (if you want to see examples of just a few howlers, click through to his article above, he's quite concrete) is, thus, a result not of an explicit attempt to decieve, but rather of a set of preconceived notions so strongly held do that one can easily deceive oneself -- finding only supporting evidence and ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

My own favorite anecdote in this regard (and my apologies if I've trotted this out here before -- I fear I may well have) dates from my time at Steubenville, when I found myself in debate with a part time Classics lecturer who'd written several articles for Catholic magazines advocating Intelligent Design theory. (He's since gone on to become a fellow at the Discovery Institute and a prolific writer.) He asserted that the fossil record contained absolutely no evidence for evolution, and refered, if memory serves, to gaps like that between whales and their land-dwelling ancestors. Species were always so different, he asserted, it was impossible to imagine one was descended from another.

I pointed out that in less exciting (and far more frequently preserved) species such as mollusks, the sequential species in the fossil record were so closely and clearly similar that the species divisions seemed almost arbitrary. Without missing a beat he responded, "Maybe, but no one cares about mollusks."

At the time, this struck me as a clear disregard for facts and an interest only in scoring rhetorical wins based on the famous "gaps", and there may well have been some of that involved, but looking back based on Matheson's take (and a the calmness of past years) I think it was more simply that the whale gap fit with the worldview he was already totally committed to, and since the mollusks didn't, he assumed that they must not be very important.


CMinor said... one cares about mollusks.


I'm tempted to do it up in cross-stitch.

Darwin said...

I'm tempted to do it up in cross-stitch.

Oh! With a little mollusk in one corner with a tear?

That would indeed be priceless. Is there any way I can beg or bribe you to do it?

Geoffrey said...

I don't disagree that species, over time, spawn new species. However, I think G.K. Chesterton said it best in his essay, "Doubts About Darwinism."

Again, let me repeat, I have no problem with the natural course of things, as laid out in the beginning, spawning new species from old ones.

Now, ultimately, all Christians are "creationists." Indeed, God creates all things from nothing, ex nihilo. God sustains all processes, and holds everything in existence. Indeed, God is pure actuality, with everything sharing in His reality as best it can.

In a certain sense then, not only is everything intelligently designed, it is part of a Universal Intelligence, apart from which nothing exists. Christians believe intelligence came before matter.

So, if you want to avoid confusing Christians during your criticisms of ID theory, please refine your terminology, and revise your approach. Sometimes, critics of ID theory, even Christian ones, sound as if they are denying the existence of a Designer, and of all design in the universe.

Now, my objections to our currently modified Darwinian theory of evolution are the same as those of Chesterton.

ID theory is not science. It's bad theology. I accept that tenet. However, things really and truly are intelligently designed. Science isn't the way to go about discovering that, though.

On the other hand, I remain completely agnostic about our current theory of evolution. I see pros and cons to it, but I think it's destined to die and be replaced by a more convincing theory. Namely, a theory that can explain:

"For any child or man with his eyes open, I imagine, there is no creature that really calls for an answer, like a living riddle, so clearly as the bat. But if you will call up the Darwinian vision, of thousands of intermediary creatures with webbed feet that are not yet wings, their survival will seem incredible. A mouse can run, and survive; and a flitter-mouse can fly, and survive. But a creature that cannot yet fly, and can no longer run, ought obviously to have perished, by the very Darwinian doctrine which has to assume that he survived."

Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife said...

Could someone point me to a good book about evolution written from a Catholic perspective? I am trying to understand all the issues involved with it and still am coming up with only Darwinism or Creationism. Help, where is the "middle ground"?

Geoffrey said...

"Help, where is the 'middle ground'?"

The middle ground is at:





Dig around in there some where, in all those books, and in the writings of G.K. Chesterton, and you'll find the middle ground (which is a bit lonely, by the way, and it really shouldn't be).

But, be prepared to do some serious work and soul searching.

Geoffrey said...

The book recommended in this essay is also good:

Darwin said...


Terminology is a tricky thing, and doubly so on a contentious subject.

My general policy is to use words in their most commonly used sense in order to avoid confusion, especially since in the blog medium I'm never sure if I'm dealing with the same readers all the time or a constantly shifting mix.

As such, I tend to use "creationism" to refer to "creation science" generally and to both "young earth creationism" and "progressive creationism" in specific. I take it that in that popular sense, most people are familiar with the term "creationism" as referring to the belief that each species is separately created and that species do not in fact descend from one another.

When referring to "Intelligent Design", I'm usually referring pretty specifically to the brand of "origins research" being written about by the Discover Institute, which generally speaking involves asserting that some combination of irreducible complexity and specified complexity proves that specific features could not have evolved but rather were specifically designed, whole, by some sort of designer -- generally taken to be God.

Now, as you say, as Christians we believe that God is the creator of all the universe and that he actively wills all things into existence, so in a certain sense of the terms we are all both creationists and believers in intelligent design. Benedict XVI rightly observed a year back that the idea of a conflict between the ideas of creation and evolution is an absurdity.

However, in deference to the current American discussion of these issues, I tend to go on and use these terms as is most common usage. (And because one needs to have some sort of term for these schools of thought.)

Of course, the frustrating this about this whole debate is that I often find myself "siding" with views that are most promoted by some rather unpleasant folks. (Though I think I can rightly say I give the Dawkinses and PZ Myerses of the world their share of criticism for their abysmal philosophical abilities.) Nonetheless, so far as I can tell in my position as an interested layman in the field, the modern biological theory of evolution presents the best current description of the history of life on earth, so I tend to defend it and its compatibility with Catholic doctrine.

Anonymous said...

Fundamentally, I don't get the whole problem with ID, and I'm surprised Christians critique it as much as they do. Is it because it smells deist? I think (from the limited amount of it I've seen) that ID offers very fair critiques of orthodox Darwinism. To wit, I just can't wrap my head around how raw materialist natural selection could ever produce what we have -- especially things like sexual reproduction. How could that come about? I just don't get it.

Geoffrey said...


Thank you for commenting on several very important points.

However, you have not yet addressed my objections to the feasibility of our current evolutionary theory, as outlined in my first post, especially in my quotes from G.K. Chesterton.

Darwin said...

Sorry, I hadn't realized that was one of your primary questions.

First off, much though I enjoy Chesterton, I think it's worth noting that he was writing about this 90 years ago. The change in our knowledge about biology (especially in some very key areas of genetics) have been incredible in the mean time, and much of this has served to move us from a "did evolution occur" situation to a "evolution clearly occurred, but how" one.

In regards to development being beneficial at all incremental steps, this is actually one of the major emphases of the modern "directionless" formulations of evolutionary theory. Early formulations of evolutionary theory (including at Chesterton's time) tended to have a back-doored concept of teleology built in with no particular explanation for its presence. People believed strongly that evolution was naturally progressive, and so no one thought much about the need to explain why "higher" features would evolve.

Dawkins summarized the more modern approach well in saying that no explanation of feature development can make any sense if it does not explain how half an eye is better than no eye.

Now bats to remain to a great extent a mystery, and a big one: one in five mammals is a bat. They're a pretty ancient mystery, with their split off from any other mammals (as measured by genetic divergence) appearing to be at least 50 million years ago. So I don't have an answer to the question in the sense of "here's how it happened", though I can certainly say that evolutionary scientists are looking for exactly the sort of answer that Chesterton asked for.

However, I think the thing to keep in mind her is that evolution, like any scientific system, is not an answer so much as a process framework. Now, I'd say the process of looking for the type of explanations that evolution seeks has up to this point been pretty successful in explaining a lot of thing in regards to biology, so I'm quite content to assume that continuing to look for that type of explanation will eventually answer the remaining questions, such as bats.

It almost seems to me that GK is saying that there's no point in granting the method validity until it's successfully answered all questions -- and if that's the case than it strikes me as a somewhat impractical approach.

Geoffrey said...

"It almost seems to me that GK is saying that there's no point in granting the method validity until it's successfully answered all questions -- and if that's the case than it strikes me as a somewhat impractical approach."

Well, I think what Chesterton is saying is that a theory shouldn't claim to explain everything until it actually has. For instance, in another place, Chesterton says:

"What is the real truth, what really happened in the variations of creatures, must have been something which has not yet suggested itself to the imagination
of man. I for one should be very much surprised if that truth, when discovered, did not contain at least a large element of evolution. But even that surprise is possible where everything is possible, except what has been proven to be impossible."

This is from one of Chesterton's other essays on evolution:

I agree with the darkness he mentions. Speaking from the perspective of mathematics, I think the evolution of one species into a radically different species might just be a logically determined unsolvable problem, akin to the theoretical "Halting Problem."

As confusing and baffling as this might be, science can't prove everything, and we've already proved it can't, indeed, in mathematical terms. Thus, I still remain completely agnostic as to whether we can even come up with an explanation for the bat's development.

By the way, I'm not bringing this up as an argument for God or "ID" theory. I'm merely saying that I'll believe one species evolved into another, in accord with our current theory, once I see it. Again, I'm almost certain that old species have gradually spawned new ones, however, this is an intuitional, not a scientific, certainty. Species look similar, even in some instances at the genetic level. Thus, I believe they are related. I am not convinced that our current theory is capable of explaining, in purely empirical terms, how they are related.

Now, our current theory of evolution is a wonderful theory to have, under certain circumstances. It helps us fight disease, both pathogen related diseases and genetic defects. We're certainly onto "something," but if we don't watch ourselves, our pride will certainly knock us back off this "something."

Darwin said...

One of the things to keep in mind is that our concept of species is based, in large part, on seeing only a single snapshot out of history. When one starts talking about one species developing out of another species, one is talking, to a great extent, about a human-imposed difference as far as where we draw the line.

As for whether or not "evolution" can explain "everything", that of course depends on one's definitions of everything and evolution!

Clearly, even if we had a complete account of the ancestry of all creatures, from parent to offspring, throughout history, our knowledge would be only descriptive. Science is incapable of providing us with many of the sorts of knowledge we're most interested in.

As for whether or not some scientific theory beyond evolution will be needed to explain biological descent -- in a sense it's a moot question since the definition of "evolution" has been consistently updated throughout the last 150 years to deal with new means and methods of biological change.

Geoffrey said...

"As for whether or not some scientific theory beyond evolution will be needed to explain biological descent -- in a sense it's a moot question since the definition of "evolution" has been consistently updated throughout the last 150 years to deal with new means and methods of biological change."

Correct, which is why I keep referring to our "current" theory of evolution.

I don't think we've even got a tiny fragment of the final theory down. Their may come a day when our current theory of evolution will be viewed as we view Newtonian Mechanics. In fact, I'm confident there will be such a day.

Our "current" theory has fundamental flaws. We need a better one.

And no, that better one is NOT "ID" theory. "ID" theory, as I have maintained previously, is NOT science. It's bad theology.

Geoffrey said...

"One of the things to keep in mind is that our concept of species is based, in large part, on seeing only a single snapshot out of history."

That is the entire crux of my complaint. That's my point. I'm viewing all creatures as a continuum, and that continuum has to pass through points it simply doesn't seem capable of passing through. I see a mouse with webbed feet that can't yet fly, but can no longer run. And that's where the continuum jams.

Even Stephen J. Gould saw this jam. Why do you think he recommended punctuated equilibrium? The question is, what makes punctuated equilibrium tick? Why mutant now, and not later, or later, and not now? Why remain stable for a long time and then jump? Is radiation increase in outer space involved? I don't have a clue.

Hence, my conundrum.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says,

I think Matheson has it exactly backwards. There's nothing wrong with scientists having preconceived ideas and/or trying to fit the evidence to these ideas. Far from being anti-scientific, this is how real live flesh and blood scientists (as opposed to the idealized scientists of myth) actually work. The problem is not that creationists have a point of view. It's that they ignore evidence, or present it in a misleading way, etc. One can say that they aren't consciously aware that they are doing this, but the fact that someone is engaged in self-deception doesn't mean he isn't engaged in deception.