David M. Brown's Blog

December 17, 2009

Beliefs about beliefs

Filed under: Philosophy,Science,Society and culture — davidmbrowndotcom @ 8:36 pm

In a mostly cogent critique of anti-scientific sensibility in the global-warming debate, James Taranto writes:

Hmm, if the global-warming debate has prompted “suspicion of the expert and the intellectual,” could it have something to do with the recent revelations that climate scientists manipulated and withheld data and conspired to suppress alternate hypotheses? Incredibly, [Associated Press reporter Ted Anthony] not only doesn’t answer the question, he doesn’t even mention the revelations that prompt it…

But the reason “science” no longer “wins” is that what often poses as science today is different from the real thing. To take an easy example, supposedly science-minded people often scoff at those who do not “believe in evolution.” The problem with this is not that they are wrong to defend evolution, but that they mistake evolution, a scientific theory, for a belief system. When you demand adherence to a set of beliefs, you are no longer doing science but something that has the form, if not the substance, of religion.

Similarly, what is clearest from the University of East Anglia emails is that climate science has become more political than scientific.

The overall point here is valid, but the example of the status of belief or disbelief in evolution is not so persuasive.

At the broadest level, the “theory of evolution” is simply that emergence of species and changes in the average characteristics of species have natural causes. Debate over the mechanisms of evolution and how these mechanisms operate is legitimate in a scientific context. But doubt about whether evolution per se occurs (or insistence that it does not) is typically based on dogma and faith, on conviction held apart from logic and evidence. Creationism is not an alternative scientific theory about natural causation; it is a rejection of natural causation. Creationists assume that some kind of supernatural agency must be responsible for species. Their concessions to evidence of natural processes tend to be grudging, tactical and limited. They often refuse to fairly consider the evidence for evolution, because they “know,” in advance, that such evidence cannot be probative.

The cultural as opposed to scientific debate over evolution is not about natural selection versus acquired characteristics, gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium, or anything like that. It is about supportable claims about natural causation versus insupportable claims about supernatural causation. In contrast, the debate among climatologists and laymen about global warming and its purported anthropogenic origins—to the extent it involves actual considered argument rather than name-calling or dismissiveness—hinges on the alleged consequences of natural causal factors, on the extent to which we can plausibly identify these factors and exactly how they interact with other causal factors, and on whether the computer modeling based on controversial assumptions can track the alleged effects of these for decades into the future. We don’t observe heated debates about whether impacts on the atmosphere are natural or supernatural.

Taranto rightly argues that it is inconsistent with the requirements of rational scientific work to dogmatically reject or attempt to squelch debate about relevant evidence pertaining to these matters. To the extent to which climatologists, politicians and commentators do so for ideological or other reasons, they are lapsing into the approach of creationist scoffers at evolutionary theory, i.e., the approach of foes of open and rational scientific inquiry.

But Taranto’s exact meaning when he says that scoffing at those who reject evolution is akin to religious-style demands for adherence to a set of beliefs is not clear to me. I expect that he does not mean to imply that no matter how a person arrives at his beliefs, he is not properly subject to criticism on that score. I guess whether we’re on the same page depends on what is meant by “demanding” adherence to a set of beliefs.

Suppose Taranto had penned the following passage:

“To take an easy example, supposedly science-minded people often scoff at those who do not ‘believe that the earth revolves around the sun.’ The problem with this is not that they are wrong to defend planetary orbiting, but that they mistake planetary orbiting, a scientific theory, for a belief system. When you demand adherence to a set of beliefs, you are no longer doing science but something that has the form, if not the substance, of religion.”

What is the difference with respect to strength of evidentiary support between the theory that the earth revolves around the sun and the theory that species evolve? In each case, all of the abundant evidence supports the conclusion that the theory is a fact; we can point to relevant and observable features of nature: mass, gravity, competition for scarce resources, genetic drift, genetic mutation and recombination, the historical record as preserved in photographs or fossils, etc. In each case, there is no evidence to contradict the theoretical conclusion. That the planets of the solar system planets orbit the sun and that species evolve are not tentative hypotheses struggling for survival among seas of patchy and conflicting data.

Of course, it would be wrong to sneer contemptuously at a tot’s assertion that the sun revolves around the earth. But if a literate, competent adult consciously rejects the overwhelming evidence for a scientific claim—as opposed to merely being agnostic about the claim because he has not had a chance to review the relevant evidence or lacks the knowledge to properly review that evidence—is something not amiss in how he arrives at his beliefs? In his thinking? In public discourse we might abstain from characterization of an opponent’s thought processes. But this does not mean that the methods of arriving at one’s beliefs are irrelevant.



  1. But you are mistaken. Some of the “evidence” is contrived. Some of it is downright fraudulent. And there is much doubt as to whether evolution occurs. What Taranto eludes to is the fact that evolution, rather than science, is a tenant of faith of atheist humanism and the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind.

    Comment by Mike — December 18, 2009 @ 9:51 am | Reply

  2. Not what Taranto said or meant, Mike, which his follow-up post of the next day made abundantly clear, if it was not before.

    That there is fallibility and fraud in the world of science I have no doubt. But is the “much doubt as to whether evolution occurs” that you speak of within the context of scientific argument? Or is it about creationists judging the matter from an anti-scientific, anti-causal perspective, upbraiding scientists for failing to concede the allegedly overriding explanatory power of supernatural magic?

    Comment by davidmbrowndotcom — February 9, 2010 @ 8:11 am | Reply

    • Evolution is couched in the frame “science” for the purpose of lending it credibility. We have raised the notion of science to a level such that anything within that frame is supposed to be above reproach. But just because evolutionist were clever enough to frame the concept well, doesn’t mean it is true. That you equate evolution with the helio-centric solar system is comical. That you assume the evidence supports evolution as fact is also. What evidence supports evolution? The fossil record? It was shown to be a hoax in the 20s. Are our museums of natural history filled with examples of interspeciation? No, no evidence there. Molecular biology? No, the more we discover the less it looks like an accident could be the answer. Genetics? Same. Information theory? Aye, no help for evolution there. Finch beaks? They revert back to normal after the drought. Moth wings? The information for color is already there. It isn’t a mutation. You seem a true believer David. Evolution is a tenant of faith of the atheists and the dupes who believe them. English astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, calculated the odds of a higher life form evolving at 1 in 10^40,000. If you tie a hammer and saw to a fox’s tail and release it into the forest expecting to later follow it in and find a McMansion with a beemer parked out front, then you have evolution. The evidence increasingly points to intelligence. Anywhere there is systematic, organized information there is intelligence behind it, always. Science is about following the evidence. Wherever it leads.

      Comment by Mike — February 9, 2010 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

      • Try Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True. By the way, if the order or complexity of nature implies design and hence an intelligent designer (God, I presume), who or what designed the designer? Another God?

        Comment by davidmbrowndotcom — February 9, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

  3. Hahaha! you can’t be serious. The high priest of evolution. Even the cover is a lie, and the explanation of it admits it.

    Comment by Mike — February 9, 2010 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

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