Thursday, April 01, 2010

Jay Richards and Casey Luskin on When to Doubt a Scientific Consensus

Jay Richards has a piece in The American on doubting a scientific consensus. I became aware of the piece through the Discovery Institute because he is a Senior Fellow there. Richards' paper is on global warming and he approaches the problem from a process perspective, rather than a data perspective. He lists twelve criteria for determining whether the consensus is evidence-driven or just "groupthink." Climate science is in its infancy as a science, coming of age only in the last twenty or so years. That does not stop Casey Luskin from comparing climate science to evolutionary theory, an established science, in a piece for Evolution, News & Views. It is not a warranted analogy. He writes:
Many of Richards’ criteria are clearly applicable to the debate over intelligent design (ID) and neo-Darwinism. For example, Darwin’s defenders make heavy use of personal attacks, and Richards suggests we ought to consider skepticism “When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.” Likewise, Richards’ criteria of “When scientists are pressured to toe the party line” or “”When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish” also have immediately obvious relevance to the ID-evolution debate.
Luskin makes broad, sweeping accusations here without a bit of evidence (even in the form of links to stories) to support them. To be sure, he is referring at least in part to Expelled! although, if so, he should mention that all of the points in the film have either been rebutted or contested. What other personal attacks is he talking about?

One of Richards' criteria for debating the consensus is when "different claims get bundled together." Richards' example of global warming is that a) the earth is warming and b) humans are responsible for this warming. He is quite correct that one can use different kinds of evidence to determine that there has been warming (although nothing like what was seen in the Jurassic where the average daily temperature for a large part of it was in the neighbourhood of 70 degrees). It is quite another thing to determine what the cause of that warming is, and that is where the conflict has arisen. The techniques to measure this kind of change and account for all of the variables present is monumental and scientists are only now getting a handle on what all of the data means. That does not mean that the earth is not warming.

In a swift smoke-and-mirrors move, Luskin now claims that the debate within the climate community and the debate over "Darwinism" are similar. He argues:
So the “bundling of claims” occurs dramatically in the Darwin debate as well, where modern day Darwinians bundle (1) “change over time,” (2) “common descent”, and (3) “random mutation + natural selection as the primary mechanism driving change” into one claim – “Evolution” – but they refuse to acknowledge the nuanced positions of critics who may accept (1) and/or (2), but doubt (3).
It is quite true that there are people out there who argue that the fossil record shows exactly what we think it does but are not keen on the notion of evolution. Davis Young might fall into this category, although I do not know how he has addressed the concept of evolution in recent years. There is really only one road for this perspective: progressive creation. There are some very serious roadblocks to this way of thinking. For one thing, one has to explain the incredible wastefulness of the whole creative enterprise. By most conservative estimates, over 90% of all species that have ever been created have gone extinct. While it certainly falls in the category of argument from personal incredulity, one has to wonder why God would make a creature and then, just a few tens of thousands or million years later, create one that looks a little bit like it but not quite—a few modifications here and there—and then kill off the first creature. The fossil record is replete with examples of this. In some instances, such as in the human line, it looks like there were multiple hominid species on the planet at the same time, all but one of which eventually died out.

One also has to explain other issues, which include the existence of pseudogenes that were once functional and are no longer but which are shared by humans and higher apes. These include the GLO gene for the formation of vitamin C, the RT6 gene on the T-cell lymphocyte, the NPY1 gene, involved in kidney cell formation, the urate oxydase gene, which involves the formation of purines, and Galactosyltransferase, involved in the formation of breastmilk. This represents a small list of the total number of human/ape shared pseudogenes. There is also the existence of ERVs, of which there are over 98 000, most of which are shared by humans and higher apes.

It is also somewhat simplistic to relegate all of the evolutionary changes to "mutation+natural selection" when there are many other processes, such as gene flow, genetic drift (founder effect, in some instances), and stochastic biogeographic events. What is also buried in this definition is the tempo and mode of evolution, delineated in the seminal works of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and augmented by the systematics revolution of the 1970s and 1980s and, more recently, evolutionary development.

Luskin also doesn't point out that the progressive creation position isn't testable in any scientific fashion and has yet to be adequately defended by its supporters at the Discovery Institute.

At the end of the article, he quotes Michael Crichton and, if I understand what he is saying, he has completely misread him. He quotes Crichton as writing:
The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. … There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period. … Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.”.
Crichton is referring to how scientists speak, not the views that they hold. When Crichton wrote the essay that Luskin is referring to, it had just been declared that there was a consensus that global warming was anthropogenic in nature and that the debate was over. Crichton is stating that this is a political statement and not a scientific one and that in a truly scientific environment, the hypothesis that global warming is anthropogenic should always be tested. That was the problem.

There is not a reputable astronomer on the planet that doubts that the sun is 93,000,000 miles away. There is not a physicist on the planet that doubts that E=mc2 describes the relationship between energy, mass and the speed of light. Do they speak of it as being a consensus? No. That doesn't make it false. There are very few biologists or palaeontologists who doubt that evolution has happened. In fact, they are certain of it. That is the nature of the evidence. When the Discovery Institute trots out their "Dissent from Darwin" list, it is populated by physicists, medical doctors, and materials scientists. In fact, the list has everything but palaeontologists and biologists, the two groups that can actually competently evaluate the evidence.

It is easy to say that biologists and palaeontologists have "a consensus" that evolution happened and then quote someone like Crichton who argues that "a consensus" isn't science, therefore, "Darwinism" isn't science. That is just another in a long line of straw men that the DI seems to erect. I can make that kind of analogy also by telling you that an AMC Pacer is better than a Mercedes Benz. After all, a Pacer is better than nothing, and nothing is better than a Mercedes Benz, therefore, it follows that a Pacer is better than a Benz. This doesn't change the fact that AMC is out of business and Mercedes Benz is not. If you ask any one of over 95% of the biologists out there, they will tell you that evolution has happened and is happening. That is not "consensus." That is evidence.

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  1. Anonymous6:00 PM


    I enjoy your blog and basically am in agreement with you about evolution and Christianity. This is slightly off topic, but I'm wondering something. The scientific consensus is that human chromosome 2 is scientific evidence for human evolution. I can certainly see that it's consistent with the theory of evolution, including humans. However, what would you say to a YEC who points out that it's also consistent with YEC, since the combining of two chromosomes into one could have happened after Adam and Eve?


  2. Casey Luskin has made the very same point that you have. He argues that the fusion occurred in the human line and, therefore, has no bearing on the ape/human ancestry argument. Well, for starters, this doesn't explain the fact that chromosome 2 in humans is composed precisely of two ape chromosomes and the junction point can even be identified on both the ape chromosomes and the human number 2.

    The other argument, one that admittedly falls under the "argument from personal incredulity" banner, is this: why would God create from scratch 22 pairs of chromosomes that have one centromere and two arms of genetic data, capped by a telomere each, and then create one pair that has non-functional telomeres in the middle with two functioning centromeres, one on each arm, as if you had taken two complete chromosomes and fused them? God has gone out of his way to do one thing and then make it look like something else.

    Casey Luskin has brushed aside a large number of genetic anomalies by simply saying that this change took place in the human line and, therefore, has nothing to do with ape/human ancestry. This bypasses the fact that you almost have a smoking gun here.

  3. Anonymous9:04 PM


    A devil's advocate response to your first response, from a non-expert like me (so I'm sure I'm missing something), would be that the ape and human chromosomes were indeed very similar for functional purposes, and then in the (separately created, of course :>) ) human species, the joining of two chromosomes occurred. So it wouldn't be a deceptive act by God at all. I've heard that Reasons to Believe says this chromosome is actually evidence against common ancestry. I frankly can't see how this could possibly be, but I don't see how it's definitely evidence for it either. I do believe evolutionary creation makes good sense, though. Thanks,

  4. Just finished listening to Fuz' take on A. Sediba. He gets some thing right and others wrong. I will post on it over the weekend. He was very clear about one thing: he is not a young earth creationist.

  5. One thing that came out of the RTB broadcast that struck me: there was none of the heavy-handed "oh those stupid evolutionists" remarks that you get from the Discovery Institute, whether it be the condescension from Cornelius Hunter and brick wall responses from William Dembski. While Fuz Rana did not agree with the evolutionary paradigm, he did not ridicule it either.