A Deeply Seeded Misunderstanding

Whenever I feel listless, a passing depression, I can always go to AiG to inflame my passions (the floweriest way to reaffirm my living, if only to be angry at people purposefully misrepresenting my views, and the views of my peers).

To wit, this article that misses no opportunity to misrepresent the views of a very large swathe of the scientific community. Claiming evolution is a god of the gaps, and claiming that a high school biology professor would be stumped by a question as simple as “How does biology work?” To be fair, that last point may be less a show of weakness in the Theory of Evolution so much as it is a weakness of the public education system in certain regions. That’s neither here nor there, I suppose, just incidental.

To claim evolution is a god of the gaps shows either blatant willful ignorance or malicious intent; no one can live in the 21st century and display such a wild misunderstanding of evolution, and of the scientific field in general (though I recognize that I am being optimistic at best). The author draws frequent parallels to common “god of the gaps” terminology, repeatedly claiming that a professor of microbiology will answer any query regarding evolution with “evolution did it,” an obvious parody of “god did it.”

I recognize that there are many well respected scientists who will say that there was no supernatural agent involved in Creation, as a strong prediction rather than a hypothesis, but it seems even to me that the fairest conversation between the greater scientific community and the Creation science community would start and end with “Why do you fight science? If your God did it, will we not find his fingerprints as we move closer and closer to the answers we seek?”

The Creation Science movement had their hypothesis written for them several hundred years ago, and have decided that there is no room for improvement, studying all evidence through that lens, trying to come to a conclusion that was already written. Science does make hypotheses, and even makes strong predictions, but evidence that does not fit the hypothesis is (ideally) not bent to fit. The hypothesis is modified, and experimentation continues. Humans, of course, will attempt to justify their own hypothesis and bend evidence to make it fit, but that highlights the importance of blind peer review.

I think a fairly pure hypothesis, without the biases on display here, is this: “Life likely began via a natural process of which we are currently unaware.” Now we try to find what the process is. If we find God, then God it is. If we find another process, it is very easy to predict the line of the YEC; God kicked it off. When we find the process that started biology, they will claim God created chemistry as a precursor to biology. If we find out the mechanism of how the first matter formed, we will be told that God created the laws of physics to allow chemistry. When we find out how the laws of physics formed… Well, I don’t know where the goalpost will move to, but I will likely be dead by this time, and smarter people than I will be carrying this debate on.

That is the ultimate weakness of the YEC; the dogged reliance on a bronze age text, and the constantly moving goalposts make it seem almost like children who constantly change the rules to make sure they win. Now we enter territory that is almost quintessentially American; the idea of the flip flopper. No, I am not accusing the YEC to do so, that would be silly.

Evolution is the core of a flip-flopper, and that is not an insult. Based on what you know, you make a call. Then if the information available changes, so does the call. This is not a weakness, this is prudent. If you stand by something in opposition of all evidence, “on principle,” you have erred greatly–and yet, as the documentary “Outfoxed” showed constantly, changing your vote as information changes is apparently shameful to certain demographics in the United States. I believe, truly I do, that young earth creationism has taken root in the United States because of the fertile soil that praises strong predictions, and for some reason demonizes changing your mind. Science seldom makes blind strong predictions; you need evidence. Science is a shifting field, admittedly, because evidence is constantly changing. Scientists are getting better, getting smarter, coming up with ever more ingenious experiments and tests… To compare science in the 21st century to Darwin’s “On the Origins of Species” (as the YEC movement often does) is incredibly disingenuous. We know more than Darwin did, we have better data collection than Darwin did, and as the saying often goes, “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” We do not take Darwin’s work wholesale, we have improved on his ideas, refined the field. We have, to use the American colloquialism, flip flopped–but we did it because the evidence required it of us.

And the fact that the YEC will stand on a single hypothesis against all evidence… That is the true weakness.

There is one line that shows the true misdirection of the AiG writer more clearly than any other. “Evolution makes no useful contribution to scientific and technological advances.”

You see, the YEC will tell you that adaptation, not evolution, is the mechanism that makes bacteria resistant to antibiotics. They will tell you that adaptation, not evolution, at play when a new strain of a deadly virus comes into play.

Adaptation is evolution, and I still can’t even begin to understand how the mind of anyone can so fully ignore the very idea of evolution that they are completely blind to the fact that they admit that evolution is the mechanism by which every living thing operates.

The only part they disagree with, it seems to me, is where it all started. As science moves closer and closer to the answer to that question, it is only a matter of time until we watch them pick up the goalpost and move it again. And again. And again.

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Intelligent Lack of Understanding (Or Honesty)

More days, more AiG.

One expects creationists and Creation Scientists to dance around language where it comes to evolution, but so often it comes at the cost of either sounding like they don’t understand evolution, or using language that is meaningless if the listener doesn’t understand evolution. Or, perhaps more maliciously, relies on the ignorance of the user to even make the semblance of a point.

To wit, the linked article.

“But are there such things as beneficial mutations? In short, no, but let me explain.” Alright, friend–explain away. She goes on to detail how an improved resistance to antibiotics in bacteria often results in something something metabolism issues. She explains that the improvements come at a cost to survival in some other way. She explains that in the absence of antibiotics, nonresistant bacteria actually survive better.

This is the perfect example of evolution. Of survival of the fittest.

The thing is, antibiotic resistant bacteria don’t tend to grow in environments free of antibiotics. And that is exactly what evolution would predict. If every step of evolution was like a level up in World of Warcraft, where you get survival bonuses right across the board, every species would be perfect. But they aren’t.

Survival of the fittest, evolution in action, is all about small improvements that help you survive in the environment you are in. A Tibetan (the subject of another evolution-centric post I have made) won’t have the same survival traits that someone from Jamaica would.

Perhaps more real world examples are in order. Take the Cheetah; evolved almost purely for speed. The drawbacks is that they have very low stamina compared to other species, and sacrifice maneuverability due to the way their hip and shoulder joints work. They didn’t just get “Faster, stronger, better,” there was an obvious cost and an obvious benefit. They are not everywhere in the world, they evolved to fit a niche in the flat plains of Africa. Their survival traits would be worthless in the mountains for example.

Segue that into a mountain goat, which tend to be rather slow and comically awkward at times–but they are able to climb mountains in ways the boggle the mind. The thing is, if they lived in the same environment as a cheetah, in Africa, the goat would be eaten hilariously quickly. That is evolution.

MRSA doesn’t need to survive among non-resistant bacteria to be considered an evolutionary step. They have evolved to become the fittest survivor in hospitals, where antibiotics are used frequently.

The author of the linked article does not want to admit that, though. “One step forward for person A is one step back in situation B” is still evolution, even if they don’t want to use the word.

Perhaps even more egregious, then, is the paragraph where she states that while there are mutations that make people immune to HIV, and while we don’t know of any directly related drawbacks to being immune to HIV, they must be there because God. And I don’t even know where to go with that.

I know I am preaching to a group of people who mostly accept evolution, but I really wish I could just… I don’t know. Discuss what so many creationists think evolution is. They have said, frequently (and in some cases directly from the mouth of the prophet, Ken Ham), “That’s not evolution, that’s adaptation.” As though that is some kind of defense. As though adaptation is not the cornerstone of evolution. They are dancing around the words, which is fine in some cases, but it works because they actively campaign to make sure children (and by extension adults) don’t know any better.

“In addition, the detrimental effects may not be detrimental enough to affect the overall fitness of the individual.”

To paraphrase: “It isn’t really negative, but I really have a vested interest in convincing anyone who will listen that evolution isn’t real.” Oh, it might sound like I am being callous, but to fully appreciate the scope of it you have to look at the context.

“There are people who are immune to HIV, but it isn’t really evolution because there are drawbacks that are so small I can’t really quantify them.” That is focusing on the wrong part of that story so hard that I think I felt a gust of wind purely from the effort of it.

“Again, the mutations only improve a person’s chance for survival in a given environment (external or internal), such as if the person is exposed to HIV or cancer develops within a person’s body.”

More paraphrasing: “Yes, there is evolution, because evolution predicts that exact behaviour, but I choose to call it by a different name.”

And here is the worst quote. This quote is the true showing, the true face, of the creation scientist unmaked.

“… [F]or one thing, beneficial, information-gaining mutations would have to be a regularly occurring phenomenon and would have to “build” on previous mutations so as not to be “undone” and to keep the evolution going “uphill””

No.

No.

No.

No.

Evolution is not necessarily an uphill process.

Mutation can certainly undo other beneficial mutations.

Conditions change.

Imagine a gene that makes me immune to a disease that was naturally wiped out 20 million years ago. When I evolve a new function (maybe my eardrums are 10% more sensitive or something, thus allowing me to hear the intruder in my house, thus allowing me to fend him off, thus allowing me to procreate), perhaps I lose that immunity. But you know what? I am now better equipped to survive in my current environment than I would have been with my less sensitive eardrum and immunity to a disease that no longer exists.

This happens all the time. Think of Darwin’s finches; when their beaks changed size and shape, it may have made them unable to process nutrients (ie: eat) as well on their parents’ home island, but that means absolutely nothing to them on their new island, because their beak is awesome at eating stuff on this island. They have lost viability in an irrelevant environment, but they have certainly improved their survival chances in their current environment.

The repetitive use of “in their current environment” is important, because it is no less evolution if you lose something that was no longer undergoing active selection pressure.

It is by this mechanism that land dwelling animals lost their gills, obviously great for surviving water based environments, in favor of better lungs. Better lungs granting longer stamina, less stress on the heart, less stress on the body. So what, we can’t breathe under water any more? I am glad I don’t live underwater, and I would still certainly call that an improvement.

I can’t see you so I’m invisible

Perhaps it was just something that happened in my small corner of the world, but there was a time when small children would cover their own eyes and then declare themselves invisible. I suppose it is a weakness of myself as a writer that I had to explain my own title for clarity, but that title was far too appropriate to this topic to just let it slide by.

This may surprise you, but I was reading more AiG this weekend, and this article really helped me clarify some things. The first is that even the people of the highest education at AiG are completely blind and/or lacking awareness of way too much of the world. The second is that apparently adults are just as happy to scream the title of this blog post with all apparent earnestness.

The above linked article is about the five senses and how they fit into the world view of science versus how they fit into the world view of Christian theology. At several points, the (and I am quoting here, he calls himself this) “Ph.D. scientist” claims that trusting your five senses means you believe in the Bible, and any atheist who trusts their senses has inadvertently admitted to being a closet Christian. How is this wild leap of logic attained?

I will quote directly, I do not want to paraphrase and miss the meaning. “… It makes sense in the Christian worldview that our senses would be basically reliable. An all-knowing God designed and created both the universe and our senses, so it makes sense that those two things would “go together”—that our senses can reliably probe the universe… You want to reject my reason, but unfortunately, you don’t have a good reason to reject my reason, and you have no alternative. The evolutionist has no rational reason to trust his senses based on his professed worldview. Evolutionists believe things with absolutely no good reason.”

I have, in a past post, given my reason for trusting my senses–but I cannot recall exactly which post contained that bit of logic so I’ll present it here in direct contrast to the opposing view. I think that better, and probably more fair.

The above statement could be true, if all atheists existed in a vacuum–and by that I mean that we all existed and never talked to each other. Even science has told us to not trust our eyes, not nearly with the depth and clarity of what this Ph.D. scientist has expressed, anyway. In fact, even something that should be our most reliable sense, touch, can be very easily fooled. So for my first point of rebuttal, I think I’ve stated clearly (if quickly) that our senses are not granted by a great omniscient deity–or if they were, he did a very poor job of it (another example would be how the human eye is upside down, backwards, and prone to failure–not to mention has a blind spot that is not present in octopuses.). To address the points in parentheses previous, Creationists have frequently argued that the eye is not poorly designed, that everything works as it should — but to that I have always asked this: Why is the octopus eye so much better than ours, in terms of blind  spot? Or why is the eagle eye (and actually most bird eyes) so much better than ours, in terms of overall clarity and focus? For God’s own chosen species (taking racism up one level to specism), we really got the short end of the stick. How about sense of smell? Well, we have always relied on dogs to scent things, so obviously we have shortcomings there. Hearing? I think it is well known that bats, dolphins, and many other species have us beat quite badly on that sense.

OK, I think I’ve covered that part sufficiently, and that wasn’t even my goal here. The second part has to do not with why I believe we are not created, but why I trust my senses with any respectable surety.

Now, as I’ve discussed the fact that eyewitness testimony is terribly unreliable, I have indirectly admitted that my own sense of sight is unreliable. How can I trust it, then? Well, as listed above, my sense of sight is not unreliable all the time, which leaves me a window through which to escape; I can trust my sight through the timeless art of speaking with others. If there are three of us in a room, and two of us see the same thing but the third sees a seemingly fantastic room, we can generally assume that the two are more likely correct — though the margin for error is high, and I’ve just left a glaring hole for the creationist to attack. How about we shore up our defenses a little.

In the United States, there are some 330 million people. For the sake of argument, I usually say that I trust my eyes at least 80% of the time, with the remaining 20% being times where I have to rely on those around me for confirmation (“Man, are you seeing this right now?!”). Whether we agree on the interpretation or not (where I see science you see God), we both generally see the same thing, as made clear by our ability to describe what we see intelligently to each other. So taking that load, the 330 million person load, and dividing it to help us confirm whether what we see is trustworthy, we come to an astonishingly low margin for error. The math gets a little complicated, to the point where there are numbers the human mind is ill equipped to handle, so let’s settle for ten people in a room, all of whom trust their sight 80% of the time, and all of whom are seeing the same thing. The chance that all are wrong is given by this very rough equation of 10*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2*0.2, which gives us the chance they are all hallucinating the same thing as something in the area of 0.0001%. These numbers are obviously not binding but they paint a picture; by this method, the scientific mind can reasonably assert that what the ten people present are seeing is a true representation of the world. (Group psychology throws some of my math out the window then pees on it, very clearly demonstrated by the Fatima incident. I’ve added that for fairness.)

I think a more easily digestible example would be that of the sense of smell. Say you have forty people in a room, because we are at a social gathering. Some time into the night, one particular patron comments that they smell toast, and someone has burned it badly–what is your first reaction? I would imagine for some number north of 99% of the readers, this would not seem as though God’s designed senses are working as intended; you’d be calling 911, because someone in the room is suffering from a stroke, because not one of the other 39 people smell said toast. Why would God give us such a sense that so easily misfires?

To extend that example of using others to confirm your senses, what about the rubber hand experiment linked above? The premise of the experiment (and it is one of my favorite experiments of all time) is that you convince your brain (or the brain of some unsuspecting friend) that a rubber hand is, in fact, their hand. After you do this, you smash the rubber hand with a mallet, and the person upon whom the experiment is being performed will feel that mallet smashing their own hand, because our brain is easily tricked. It is only through realizing that your own hand has not been hit, or through further experimental means of tricking your brain back into believing that your hand is perfectly safe that the pain will instantly (and MAGICALLY!) subside–and one way of doing this is by using the others in the room as reference material.

We as atheists are not so quick to trust ourselves, either, but this is not a game of chicken–something I fear that many YEC adherents forget. It is not the first person to admit fault (jump out of the way of the train) who loses; in this analogy, actually, the atheist jumping out of the way of the train is far more likely to live a long and productive life. Anyone who grew up in a town with train tracks has heard of someone getting killed by a train playing chicken. No, this is real life, not a game — and in the fullness of time, as Sam Harris so succinctly stated, “One side will really win, and one side will really lose.”

Just because you do not understand how an atheist would see the world does not mean the atheist is completely blind. We just see through a different set of glasses. The problem is, your glasses seem to have this odd feature where it makes you shout that anyone wearing any other glasses is wrong (and probably a heathen), and then we have to spend valuable time defending our own vision. I mean, look at me; I just spent over 1500 words defending my own side. Tell me that this isn’t a waste of valuable internet space!

It’s funny, though — I wouldn’t even feel the need to defend myself if your logic didn’t seem so convincing to so many people. It wounds my own sense of the power of the human mind to admit that your side is claiming as many members as my side is (though, thankfully, it seems we’re headed towards a reversal).

I don’t feel like I really have a choice; I either have to defend science, or allow irrational belief to sweep this world I cherish, and tear it to the ground.

Speaking of, this gentleman felt the need to say his beliefs were rational and those of the atheist irrational. He believes these things because of something implied by a book written starting 3000 years ago, by hundreds of different hands. His whole idea of rationality is that “This religious document says that there is a God, and that is the entire basis for my rationality.”

Please, you have a PhD, give me some reason that is better than that. I respect the effort that it took you to get that PhD, but I do not respect the intellectual dishonesty you show, and the shame you bring to the very title. I respect your religion, but only insofar as it does not negatively impact the world — and too often it does just that.

You are in a position of power; show some decorum is what I am saying here. If you are going to call me (indirectly) irrational and wrong, please give me a better reason than that a 3000 year old book told you to insult me. I think I’ve given you good reasons defending my side, I’ll patiently await your rebuttal.