Sep 18 2009

Naive About Science

SGU listener Ben Lurvey sent me a link to this blog post by economist Eric Falkenstein. I have to say, this had my irony meter going to 11, so I thought I would have some fun with Mr. Falkenstein. The fact that he specifically criticized the SGU may also have something to do with my attention.

Falkenstein laments that “nonscientists (are) naive about science.” This is sometimes true, but not always. I also know some scientists who are naive about science.  But certainly the degree of scientific understanding tends to be much greater among working scientists than the lay public. Falkenstein specifically complains about science journalists who “when these journalists digress from a specific subject, to science in general they are extremely naive or duplicitous.”

I have myself been highly critical of sloppy science journalism – but I don’t think it is limited to “science in general” – I think it is often atrocious even when dealing with a narrow topic. Sloppy journalism is sloppy journalism. Falkenstein then gets to the SGU:

If you go to The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, you invariably hear a bunch of caricatures of those who disagree with conventional wisdom on science—most of which truly are quacks, but not always—and they pedantically emphasize how these alternative views are ‘not science’: they have beliefs that do not have peer-reviewed tests supporting a falsifiable hypothesis.

Let me translate – the SGU does a generally good job describing science and attacking pseudoscience, but I take exception when they attack my sacred cows so I must find some excuse to dismiss their criticism.

I am always open to constructive criticism, it is often an excellent path to self-improvement, and I frequently emphasize that knowledge is a journey and not a destination. But I don’t have to accept unfair criticism lying down. Notice how Falkenstein dismisses our criticism as “caricatures” and minimizes the criticism of pseudoscience as going against “conventional wisdom.” I think listeners of the SGU will recognize that, rather, we specifically criticize poor arguments that either rely upon false premises, unjustified assumptions, incomplete data, or logical fallacies. Dismissing specific criticisms of logic and evidence as if they were non-specific dismissals of the unconventional is right out of the true-believer playbook.

He further dismisses our criticism of non-science as “pedantic.” Anyone with a working knowledge of science understands that attention to detail and precision is not “pedantry” – it is essential. Also, just to clarify, we do not criticize all true-belief as non-science; some of it is just very bad science. We are careful (pedantic?) to make that distinction.

But here is where you might want to unplug your irony meters less they overload – Falkenstein criticizes us and others for being journalists who do not understand science, and then he proceeds to naively butcher science in his examples. I guess we are meant to believe that journalists are naive about science but economists have a broad scientific expertise. I would also point out to Mr. Falkenstein (not that it really matters) that I am in fact a scientist, clinician, and educator – but not a journalist.

Since I have been highly critical of bad science journalism myself, let me clarify my position. I do not think a journalist has to be a scientist or an expert to do good science journalism. Rather, I would say that the quality of the science journalism is proportional to the overall scientific knowledge and savvy of the journalist. Also, in this context there are two broad kinds of science reporting – distilling our current understanding of a topic oneself, and reporting the distillation of others – presumed experts. In other words, sometimes journalists rely upon their own understanding of a topic, and sometimes they simply report what the experts say (and in practice most pieces are a blend of both, but these are distinct skill sets).

Carl Zimmer is an excellent example of a journalist and writer who is not a scientist but who does a fantastic job of reporting science. He clearly gets it.

Falkenstein makes a hack job of several examples of what he thinks are scientists glossing over our lack of understanding, but my favorite is when he turns to evolution:

Take the ‘evidence’ for evolution, which has been assumed overwhelming by conventional scientific opinion for over a century, and see how tendentious it is. Darwin thought his best evidence was Haeckel’s drawings that suggested ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that species closer to our uber-ancestors look more like early embryos, species higher in the evolutionary tree like late embryos. We know know those drawings were frauds, and this line of reasoning is a dead end. Karl Popper gave as an example of the analytical power of evolution the existence of darker moths in industrial environments, and this example was prominent in textbooks for decades. But the signature pictures of the dark moth on the pollution-darkened tree were invariably stuck there with a pin, and not relevant to speciation. Or Darwin’s famous finch beaks, that were longer when there was less food–these turned out to be temporary phenomenon, and there is no trend in finch beaks that suggests this phenomenon leads to speciation.

Yikes! It looks like Falkenstein thinks he understands evolution better than working scientists because he read some secondary hostile texts about it (i.e. creationist nonsense).

First, Falkenstein has a creationst-like obsession with Darwin. Here is a note to evolution-deniers – modern evolutionary theory began with Darwin, it did not END with Darwin. Who cares what the state of evidence was in Darwin’s time – we have 150 years of advances behind us now. How about some more contemporary examples of evidence for evolution.

Falkenstein also butchers each example. Haeckel’s drawings were made after Origin of the Species was published. It was not, and more importantly is not, a major piece of evidence for evolution. And yes, Haeckel’s drawings were exaggerated, as was the notion of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, which is now rejected in the classic form proposed by Haeckel. I also have to point out that there is no “higher” on the evolutionary tree – using that term instantly brands one as naive about modern evolutionary thought.

The notion, however, that embryological development reflects, to some degree, the evolutionary (phylogenetic) past of an organism is rock-solid science. The bones that currently make up the mammalian inner ear are the same bones that once resided in the reptilian jaw. There is nice fossil evidence of this transition. Further, these bones originate in the tissue that gives rise to the jaw and migrate to the inner ear during embryological development. This is just one example of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo), which is actually a robust field of science replete with stunning evidence for evolution. To dismiss this based upon Haeckel’s drawings is equivalent to dismissing all of the fossil evidence because of Piltdown man.

Then we have the dark moth example – as industrialization darkened the trees of England the peppered moth, which was light colored, soon shifted to the darker moths predominating. This, in fact, occurred – even if the photos taken to illustrate it were staged. The photos were not the scientific evidence.

And finally he turns to Darwin’s finches (studiously avoiding any evidence from the last half century or so), and here Falkenstein misses the point of the finches entirely. Yes, it is true that within species of finches the beak sizes varied with the environment, but this change was cyclical and not directional. This demonstrates that natural selection can have an effect on population genetics, but by itself does not demonstrate speciation – but neither is it presented as evidence for speciation.

Rather, what Darwin cleverly observed is that the finches of the Galapagos actually existed in many species, with different beak designs adapted to different food sources. In other parts of the world these same niches were filled by different types of birds, but on the Galapagos they were all filled by finches. Why, it is as if an ancestor finch migrated to the Galapagos and then evolved to fill all the available niches for small birds, adapting their beaks and other feature to fit those niches, while still remaining recognizably finches.

And to be clear – this was an observation that led to the hypothesis of evolution. It is not, by itself, evidence for evolution or the mechanism of evolution.

That’s Falkenstein’s summary of the evidence for evolution – a naive and distorted hack job, likely lifted from a creationist text. Absent is any discussion of the actual modern evidence for evolution – including myriad transitional forms, evidence for mutation creating adaptive variation, natural selection, changes in allele frequency, and even speciation.

Falkenstein continues:

Darwin anticipated finding all sorts of intermediate forms in evolution, but these are the exception, not the rule. Indeed, Gould’s punctuated equilibrium theory was first seen as untrue, but then, a minor change in emphasis that Darwin’s theory allowed all the time. There is much effort to show Darwin did not reject sudden changes, but clearly the Origin of Species emphasized the smaller steps. One can argue that ‘sudden’ in geological time is long in generations, but nonetheless, it’s a major change in emphasis. The scientists like to whitewash these debates because they are scared to death of looking uncertain to Bible thumpers.

Oh boy. Actually, every fossil species is a transitional or intermediate form. These are not the exception at all. And there are plenty of beautifully transitional species between major extant groups – fish and tetrapods, reptiles and mammals, dinosaurs and birds, apes and humans, terrestrial mammals and whales, and many more. To dismiss all this evidence as the exception is hopelessly misinformed.

This is a good time to point out that the NESS is building a topic-specific reference site, and I am starting with creationism/intelligent design. This is an open-ended work in progress, but you can already see there a nice listing of recent books that go over the actual modern evidence for every aspect of evolution, and a list of some key research papers with specific evidence.

Regarding his last point – again the Darwin obsession – this is just silly. Where is the “much effort” to portray Darwin as anything but a gradualist? Sure, Darwin may have allowed for some geologically sudden events, but primarily he was a gradualist. And again, who cares. We have modified our understanding of the tempo and pacing of evolution based upon 150 years of evidence. Try to catch up.

It gets worse:

The smoking gun for evolution from common descent is speciation, not local adaptation and differentiation of populations. There is no smoking gun.

Wrong and wrong. Common descent has many smoking guns. The genetic evidence is a smoking gun – it displays a hierarchical pattern of relatedness that is a dead ringer for common descent. Developmental biology is a smoking gun of common descent. The fossil record is a smoking gun of common descent. Speciation is just one line of evidence – not the line of evidence.

And – there is evidence for speciation. Here is a definitive treatment at

There is so much more naive nonsense in his post, but I want to focus on one more point:

In all these cases, science mainly is about explanation, not prediction, and practitioners exhibit much more precision and confidence than is objectively warranted.

The other examples he gave included dark matter, planet formation, cosmology, and finance. I’ll give him a pass on finance since that does seem to be his area of knowledge, and it is definitely not mine. But for the others he is being, well, naive. In these cases science is not just about explanation. That may be the beginning of a hypothesis, but it is not sufficient to close the loop and make a discipline a genuine science.

Keeping with the evolution example, Falkenstein seems unaware that evolutionary theory (again, which started as a new explanatory hypothesis) has survived over a century of making predictions that turned out to be true. Evolution has survived countless potential falsifications that never materialized. Sure, scientists were surprised by evidence that forced them to revise our understanding of evolution – but nothing which called into question the basic theory of evolution itself.

There are no mammals in Cambrian fossil strata. Fossils occur in a temporal and morphological sequence that is compatible with common descent (when there are countless patterns that are incompatible with common descent). The pattern of base pairs in genes and amino acids in proteins across species also follows a pattern of common descent, but there are many many more potential patterns that would have been flat-out incompatible with evolution.

Evolutionary theory predicted that we would find Tiktaalik, and we did. It predicted that we should find morphologically transitional species, and we have steadily been doing so. Sure, we haven’t found all of them – that is trivially and predictably true – but we keep finding more and more, even where and “when” (geologically) we predict they should be.

In short, Falkenstein is an economist who thinks he is a scientist. This is not to say that economics is not a science, but apparently you can function as an economist without understanding science. Just as you can function as a physician without understanding science.

That Falkenstein makes as the centerpiece of his article criticism of others for being naive about the nature of science is extreme irony, as he then proceeds to display profound naivete about the nature of science and the status of the specific sciences he addresses.

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