October 10, 2005

Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers Pt. 2" - A continuing exercise in disingenuous rhetoric

[Second in an ongoing series of responses to Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers."]

Meyer continues with the Afterword from Of Pandas and People, written by himself and Mark Hartwig
(A Note To Teachers Pt. 2: The Status of Evolution as a Fact)

Despite the great value of presenting opposing viewpoints, the popular debate over origins has fostered several misconceptions about evolution, design and science itself. To get the most benefit from this supplement, teachers should understand these misconceptions and be prepared to face them in an open and fair-minded manner when they arise.
So, while lauding the benefits of open debate and opposing viewpoints, Meyer is about to counsel teachers that there are certain concepts for which he doesn’t accept the value of open debate.
One misconception concerns the status of evolution as a fact. In the origins debate it is common to hear the assertion that evolution is not merely a theory but an indisputable fact. Educators who take this view argue that it is futile and misleading to present non-Darwinian views as serious alternatives to Darwinian evolution.
The factual status of evolution, however, depends critically on what the word "evolution" means. Yale biologist Keith Stewart Thomson points out that scientists have used the term in at least three different ways.

The first meaning he identifies is "change over time." In this sense, to say that evolution has taken place is to say that change has occurred and that things are different now from what they were in the past. The fossil evidence, for example, reveals different organisms from one geological period to the next.

When the word is used in this sense, it is hard to disagree that "evolution" is a fact. The authors of this volume certainly have no dispute with that notion. Pandas clearly teaches that life has a history and that the kinds of organisms present on earth have changed over time.
Take note of what has been conceded here because it will soon be taken back. Meyer is trying to appear reasonable by accepting that life has changed, it has a history which can be read in the fossil record, and that the diversity of organisms can be seen to be mutable. If one understands something of the fossil record it will be immediately obvious that not only does the history reflect change but there can be readily seen a pattern in the changes. That is to say, the changes are not unrelated. They show patterns of antecedence and consequence. There is change over time. There is relatedness. But Meyer is going to take issue with this observation, one that is every bit as obligatory as the simple recognition of change in the fossil record.
The second meaning that Thomson identifies is descent with modification--the idea that all organisms are "related by common ancestry." Evolution in this sense is a theory about the history of life. In Darwin's view, that history can best be depicted as a single branching tree--a genealogical tree--in which life diversifies over time.

Many people assert that evolution in this second sense is a fact, just as gravity is a fact. But the two situations are hardly analogous. The fact of gravity can be verified simply by dropping a pencil--an experiment anyone can perform. Common ancestry, however, cannot be directly verified by such an experiment. We can no more "see evolution in the fossil record than paleontologists of Darwin's day could "see" creation events. The best we can do is infer what might have happened in the past by piecing together circumstantial evidence from many different fields.
Meyer is attempting to develop a more sophisticated version of the common creationist complaint – “Were you there?” Any philosopher of science (which Meyer ostensibly is) should know that all science is inference to one degree or another. Even testing gravity by dropping a pencil relies upon assumptions and models and inferences, some of a less removed sort, but inferences nonetheless. Historical scientific inferences can and have been tested and verified to degrees of confidence virtually equal to observing a pencil fall. Meyer’s deception is intended to foster the impression that evolutionary biology is not rigorous, not a “real” science.

Another dodge at play here is the subtle slithering from discussion of the “fact” of evolution into the “theory.” Meyer begins by purportedly addressing the notion of the fact of evolution (that being the evidence for common descent we see in the fossil record, the genetic code, and molecular clocks) but then attacks evolutionary "theory," the overarching body of ideas that gathers and explains the empirical evidence. He continues with this tack below.
Darwin, for example, sought to establish common descent by examining evidence from several different areas: paleontology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and embryology. Others have relied additionally on evidence from genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry.

The problem with this kind of historical detective work, however, is that it seldom produces a conclusion that forecloses other alternatives. As philosopher of biology Elliot Sober points out, there may be any number of plausible explanations--or "past histories"--that can account for the same evidence. Sober's observation recalls the insightful warning of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. "Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing!" said Holmes. "It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something different."
Once again, someone familiar with these issues might feel tempted to question Meyer’s qualifications as a philosopher of science. Of course there are always any number of alternate explanations, some obviously more plausible than others. But science does not deal with proofs, and science does not foreclose on alternative explanations. As in every other scientific discipline, the explanations developed by evolutionary biologists are considered provisional. They are the explanations that best fit the evidence as we know it. Meyer knows this, and knows as well that Elliot Sober is no friend of ID, but continues with his duplicitous attempts to paint evolutionary science as insular, paranoid, and conspiratorial.
The point is, unless we can eliminate all competing explanations,, it's presumptuous to call descent with modification a fact.
More deception here, and a continuation of conveniently conflating the “fact” with the “theory.” Descent with modification is part of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian theory intended as explanation for the facts found in the fossil and genetic records.
As most people understand the term, a fact "is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as something definite, permanent and independent of any subjective interpretation by the scientist." By this definition, descent with modification simply doesn't warrant the status of a fact. Far from compelling a single conclusion, the evidence may legitimately be interpreted in different ways, leading to several possible conclusions. None of those conclusions warrants the status of "fact."
And if biologists were presenting conclusions drawn from evidence as “fact” then Meyer might have a point. But he


Blogger Barron said...

Goodness... I hadn't realized how egregious OPAP was! I thought it was a lot more stealth then this. This is much more bold faced then DI is most of the time. I really didn't expect quotemnining of all things!

I'm surprised that OPAP doesn't receive more fisking considering the "...Pandas also presents a clear alternative..." sentence. Doesn't that make this a clear statement of the ID belief?

11:55 AM  
Blogger RLC said...


As you suggest OPAP has gotten a free pass for quite a while. But the Dover trial is bringing to public light just how closely allied are ID and "scientific creationism," and Panda's is a big part of that.

I won't be surprised to see the ACLU lawyers making liberal reference to OPAP during the course of this thing. It connects the dots in a very direct and inarguable fashion.

1:44 PM  
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