Nov 21 2008

Uncommon IDiocy at Uncommon Descent

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Comments: 22

I occasionally take down nonsense from the Evolution News & Views propaganda blog of the Discovery Institute, but I have been neglecting Uncommon Descent, a blog “serving the Intelligent Design community.” – i.e another propaganda blog for ID.

But recently, in two blog posts by Denyse O’Leary, they have taken on methodological naturalism and commented specifically on my blog, so a response is in order.  O’Leary is a Toronto-based journalist, and her style reflects both a lack of a scientific background and the worst aspects of polemic journalism.

In the first post you get a good sense of O’Leary’s tone right from the first paragraph:

Over at Neurologica blog, Steve Novella speculates about non-materialist neuroscience, about which he seems to have learned from New Scientist and the Discovery Institute’s News and Views blog. (I would have read books myself, but hey.)

You can see that this is all spin.  First, my blog post was not technically speculation – I was making specific logical arguments. It’s no surprise, however, that O’Leary did not recognize them as arguments because she never really answers any of my arguments. In fact her writing is not honest discourse. It is not about examining the logic and evidence of claims, but rather she is simply sniping at anything she can.

She then assumes, without any justification, that my only sources of information are the New Scientist and the DI blog – even though I linked to multiple other sources in those very blog, not to mention my other blogs posts on the topic that I also referenced. O’Leary seems to be one of those people who does not want to be confused by the facts.

But her snide remark about preferring to read books is revealingly naive. First, you often cannot link to accessible book text from a blog post. Online articles are convenient blog references because readers can follow the links to continue their reading if they wish.  But even worse is her ignorance of the fact that practicing scientists almost exclusively rely on articles, not books, to keep up to date. Books are for students still trying to learn the basics (and are almost always obsolete by the time they are in print). Once you are in practice, you shift almost exclusively over to recently published articles. Books are relegated to occasional reference. (Not that I’m against books – I am constantly reading books, mostly popular science books.)

She then takes on my claim that the ID strategy of “academic freedom” is a deception, writing:

A man capable of thinking that a bid for academic freedom is a “deception” in a society where academic freedom is widely* under attack is himself the best argument for Ben Stein’s academic freedom drive.

Of course, she entirely missed my point (whether deliberately just so she could attack a straw man, or out of her own genuine misunderstanding is even money).  I never said that academic freedom itself is not a legitimate issue or that there are no threats to academic freedom on campuses. Rather – the ID movement’s use of the issue of academic freedom is a deception, a false flag operation. They don’t really care about academic freedom, they only care about inserting their ideology into science classrooms and campuses.

This is obvious because what they actually attack are legitimate measures to ensure some quality standard on campuses. Of course they cannot admit this, because doing so is admitting that ID does not meet the minimal standards of science. But they are deceptive in not even acknowledging that that is the position of their critics. They would rather attack a straw man, as O’Leary does.

To support her contention that academic freedom is a real issue (again, I never said that it wasn’t), O’Leary quotes from an organization known as the National Association of Scholars, who have as one of their agendas opposing “violation of academic freedom” and warn that:

“We recognize that graduate students and untenured faculty members run a risk if they join an organization that is famous for challenging campus orthodoxies.”

But citing support from NAS is actually just more evidence for my contention that this is a deception on the part of ID proponents. It also is evidence that O’Leary is a very sloppy journalist who did a very superficial reading of NAS – or she simply does not care about accuracy as long as she can make an apparent point.

NAS states on their site that:

NAS was founded in 1987, soon after Allan Bloom’s surprise best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind, alerted Americans to the ravages wrought by illiberal ideologies on campus.

And if you read through their issues and articles they are concerned with post-modernism taking over the humanities, speech codes on campus, subverting academic merit to diversity, and using higher education to advance a political or ideological agenda. These issues are mostly tangential to the evolution/ID debate, and in fact if anything are against the ID movement which seeks to use higher education to advance an ideological agenda.

The only mention I could find of ID was on their forums, which do not contain official content. I even called the NAS to speak to a representative. However, there was no one available to speak with me (I got the feeling they don’t get many phone calls). If I do get through to them I will write an addendum with what they say.

Her other blog post, Methodological naturalism: If that’s the way forward, … let’s go sideways, was even more of a hack job. She begins by addressing my recent blog post on naturalism, but does not give any evidence of actually having read or understood it. In response she writes:

Methodological naturalism is usually described as meaning that science can consider only natural causes. But by itself that doesn’t mean anything because we don’t know everything that is in nature. For example, if – as Rupert Sheldrake thinks – some animals can demonstrate telepathy, then telepathy is a natural cause. And so?

Her final conclusion was very close to my starting premise. She ignores my actual discussion of this issue, including my primary conclusion that methodological naturalism is NOT about any a-priori list of what is included in nature, but about what can be investigated with scientific methods.

I guess that was too tough an issue for her to tackle, so instead she goes off on a tired old tangent – altruism.

She relates a story of a woman who purchased a home on foreclosure auction just to give it back to the poor woman who lost it. She then gives us her false dichotomy/straw man double-whammy of logical fallacies:

Now, a “methodological naturalist” would

(1) try to find a chimpanzee who does something similar and make up a story that explains how that behaviour was naturally selected for in primates

or (since that might take a while)

(2) assign a selfish motive for Mock that is consistent with survival of the fittest.

Please! The public debate on evolution and altruism is decades beyond O’Leary’s childish formulation. She really should read more of those books she favors.  Or, she could go to and type “altruism” into the search box. The first hit comes up with this summary of the standard evolutionary response to the altruism challenge. That is – she could do that if she had any genuine intellectual curiosity or desire to understand the other side. The first sentence reads:

The claim ignores what happens when organisms live socially. In fact, much about morals can be explained by evolution. Since humans are social animals and they benefit from interactions with others, natural selection should favor behavior that allows us to better get along with others.

Actually, this article is a bit outdated – as I said, this is an old debate, and an area of active research.  But this hits the key concept – humans are social animals. We evolved a complex interplay of morals and emotions that make it possible to live in a society. That includes the emotion of empathy – most humans actually care about other people, we feel bad when others suffer.

And yes, altruism is well documented among our close primate cousins.  This finding is not necessary to formulate an evolutionary explanation for altruism, but it does fit with other lines of evidence suggesting recent common descent among humans and apes.

There is still debate going on regarding some of the finer details of human behavior with regard to altruism, reciprocity, justice, social status, and other related concepts. It’s actually a very interesting area of research, of which O’Leary displays not even basic familiarity.

Her point seems to be the argument from ignorance – that because evolution cannot explain altruism, it must be due to magic (a non-materialist explanation of the mind). As I pointed out – this is a false premise. But even if true, it would just be a logical fallacy, based upon the current inability to explain an apparent anomaly.

The implication, however, is that it is impossible for evolution to explain altruism. But this claim is based on a complete misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and gross ignorance of the current theories and research of evolutionary biologists. So it is more of an argument from personal ignorance.

She also leaps two steps into the woo from this argument based upon her own personal ignorance – not only is evolution impossible, but so is a materialist explanation for the mind.

She really struggles to justify her leaps of logic. She finally settles upon this:

The problem is that such an account, while useful, fails to support a key false belief underlying methodological naturalism: That humans are really the 98% chimpanzee and cannot in principle have motives absent in chimpanzees. Apart from that false belief, no one would bother trying to find an exotic explanation for Mock’s behaviour.

Really – methodological natural is premised on the assumption that humans cannot have motives not found in chimpanzees?  I would like to see that reference. Where could she possibly be getting such an absurd idea? She only references the fact that humans and chimps share 98% of our DNA (actually, recent data puts the figure around 95-96%). That humans and chimps share most of our DNA is a pretty well-established fact at this point, even while the precise figure is being debated. So what?

Actually, that few percent of DNA can make a huge difference. Small changes in regulatory sequences can have vast implications for the mature organism. Also, much of the 5-6 millions years of evolution that separates humans and chimps saw significant changes in the human brain, especially the frontal lobes where the “higher” mental functions are located. It is therefore not surprising that humans have certain behavior, abilities, and levels of sophistication not seen in chimps. Again – so what?

It is hard to see even a ghost of a legitimate point in O’Leary’s ramblings. She is trying desperately to put materialists and evolutionists into a ridiculous box that she can then argue against, and then use that to justify the huge leap to her “spiritual” conclusions. But she merely gets herself tied up in false premises and failed logic.

O’Leary certainly represents for the ID movement on Uncommon Descent. Her writings are an excellent example of what happens when you start with an absurd and/or wrong ideological conclusion, and then try to marshal any argument you can to attack, without any regard for fact or logic, those who criticize your conclusions or who hold a more scientific opinion.

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