Creationism, Design and the Watchmaker Fallacy

watchmaker

In 1802, British theologian William Paley imagined himself finding a watch on the ground while he was out for a stroll. That imaginary timepiece, though there was nothing intrinsically valuable or distinctive about it, ended up being probably the most celebrated and notorious ticker in the history of theology and philosophy. Because Paley conjured it up to make a point about what he perceived as the inescapable origin of the universe:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

It’s hard to believe that an educated and intelligent individual like Paley would ever even fall for, much less contrive, such a silly and self-refuting argument. But it has shown the kind of staying power that all bad ideas have. Even today, it’s often summoned out of its crypt to defend creationism — which its promoters now believe they can sneak under the radar disguised as “intelligent design”.

The “argument from design” has been making the rounds for centuries. (Robert Frost put a sinister and ironic twist on it in his sonnet titled “Design”.) Basically, the argument from design is the belief that the universe is so complex and intricate that it could not have developed without being guided by a supreme power. This seems derived from the premise that a supreme being would be able to design a universe more complex and intricate than any universe that could develop by “chance” (if you want to think of it in those terms).

The latter is in a sense a reasonable conclusion; assuming that there really is a supreme being, then by definition it would be able to perform feats that nothing else can — including “chance”. But even if we grant this to be true, it does not follow that the particular universe we live in would require a designer. We simply have no way of confirming that assumption.

A related argument practiced by creationists is first causeThe reasoning is that since everything in the universe has a cause, then we can trace all the causes back to a First Cause, i.e., God. But the very notion is a self-contradiction: on the one hand, everything has a cause, and yet on the other hand, there is something that presumably doesn’t. The concept of a first cause also posits a naively and drastically oversimplified model of how the universe functions — a linear construct in which A causes B and B causes C and so on. But the real universe does not operate in a straight line; it operates in an unfathomably complex web of mutual influence. To single out a “first cause” is not only impossible but pointless.

The problem with the claim that “God created the universe” isn’t that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s downright meaningless. As we mentioned before, “God” is term subject to a broad range of definition. And how exactly would the universe be “created”, anyway? Many people insist that the universe could not have just developed out of nothing, so it must have been created, somehow, out of… well, nothing. By a Creator who came from… well, nothing.

The creationist/ design/ first cause argument falls prey to a fallacy known as infinite regress; which is to say that if the existence of the universe proves the existence of a creator, then the existence of a creator must prove the existence of a creator of the creator, and so on and on and on. The decision to cut off the chain after the second link, as creationists do, is purely arbitrary.

As for Paley’s notorious watch metaphor, it’s a classic false equivalence. He is juxtaposing a thing that we know to be created with a thing that we don’t know to be created and concluding that because it’s possible to find characteristics they have in common, then both must be created. What he’s overlooking is that their differences are much more significant than their similarities — a problem he even stumped his own toe on by comparing the watch to a rock.

The essential property that is intended to make the analogy work is the property of irreducibility. Remove one of the tiny gears (each of which was specially crafted for a specific, identifiable purpose) from a watch and you significantly impair or terminate its functioning. That certainly is a strong indication that the watch was designed and manufactured rather than “just happened”.

The universe, however, is quite another matter. On every level from the most microcosmic to the most macrocosmic, the universe is in an unending state of flux, with elements constantly growing old, dying out, being replaced, or just being lost altogether. People lose teeth, hair and organs and life goes on. Indeed, not only do we have wisdom teeth, tonsils and appendices removed, but these organs appear to be useless at best. Countless entire species have become extinct. Stars go nova, obliterating everything in the neighborhood.

While each of these events might make a difference at some level, the universe takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Can the same be said for Paley’s watch?

Ultimately, if you choose to believe in creationism, you must do so on the basis of faith alone. There is no line of reasoning that will make it more logical than any alternative(s). This need not be a problem as long as you keep religion in its proper sphere of cognition. It is when we try to substitute dogma for science that we run into problems of cosmic proportions.

It may be okay to say that “God created the universe”, particularly since nobody will even know what that means. But that does not mean it’s okay to teach kids that the earth is 6000 years old. It isn’t, and it isn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science Deniers, Flat Earthers and the Modern Galileo

galileo-and-cruz

“Ted Cruz DESTROYS Sierra Club President Over Global Warming”. So said the headline of one of the Internet spinfests making the rounds recently. Another said “Ted Cruz 1, Sierra Club 0”.  Or in the words of a blog writer for Michelle Malkin, whose problems with the real world we’ve discussed before, “Global Warming Causes Sierra Club President to Melt During Ted Cruz Questions About ‘Cooking’ Planet”.

Cruz’s own website even crows about his supposed triumph by posting links to gushing reports about the incident from the mainstream media and from right-wing propaganda outlets. (But I repeat myself.) All of which just goes to show that you can spin just about anything to your advantage if you have your skull inserted into your rectum far enough.

This take on events achieved search engine saturation — it was almost impossible to find an accurate account of the incident referred to, because the spinmeisters had piled up such a deep heap of rubbish to dig through. Unfortunately for them, they committed — as they often do — the fatal error of providing a link to a video that is supposed to buttress their cause, but in fact totally explodes it. (Compare, for example, the birthers who provided a link to a video which they claimed depicted an attorney for President Obama admitting that his birth certificate is forged.)

Suppose the spin were true. What if Cruz really had handed Sierra Club president Aaron Mair his testicles on a salver. What exactly would have been the significance? Damn little. Mair’s background is in sociology, history and political science, and he is by profession an epidemiological-spatial analyst, which is basically someone who studies the geographical distribution of disease. He does not claim to be an authority on climate science, which just might be why he accepts the research of those who are experts.

Cruz, however, is another matter. With a background in public policy, law and politics, he believes he does know more about climate science than those who study it for a living. He’s even dubbed climate science a “religion.” He knows that global warming is a hoax because it still snows in New Hampshire. No, really. In fact, he places himself in some rather elite company as a maverick scientific thinker:

Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

Aside from the fact that he is turning reality on its ear, fancying himself a modern Galileo and casting the scientific community in the role of a backward religious establishment, there is something staggeringly stupid about that utterance, even by Cruz’s usual standards. But we’ll return to that later. First let’s look at what actually happened at that hearing.

It helps to understand how hearings work in a GOP-controlled Congress. When Planned Parenthood was the target of a smear campaign by a group circulating deceptively edited videos, Congress went after (not the perpetrators of the fraud, but) Planned Parenthood’s CEO, Cecile Richards, whom they subjected to a very nasty, one-sided, accusatory inquisition.

When terrorists attacked an American consulate in Benghazi, Republicans went after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who coincidentally was the favored contender for the Democratic nomination for president — even though there’s really nothing to investigate, they’ve reportedly now investigated Benghazi more than they investigated 9-11, which occurred on American soil, had a much heavier toll, and actually involved an administration’s gross negligence. And many of us still remember the congressional shark orgy around Clinton’s husband over his sex life, a witch hunt mounted under the comically transparent pretext that it was somehow in the national interest.

So it shouldn’t come as a great shock that given the platform, someone like Ted Cruz would seize the opportunity to grill a Sierra Club representative in an attempt to vindicate his own ineptitude. And while Aaron Mair was not as well prepared for the vicious onslaught as were Richards or Clinton or Clinton (this one was, after all, unscheduled), he was equally firm and patient — I’m not sure that he rolled his eyes even once.

The “platform” was a hearing on government regulation. But at one point Mair observed:

That people of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution, and climate disruption should not be up for debate any more so than the science behind climate change itself.

Well sir, Cruz saw his opportunity, so he pounced.

I’m curious: Is the Sierra Club, is this a frequent practice to declare areas of science not up for debate, not up for consideration of what the evidence and data show?

Among other things, this is a false attribution. It isn’t the Sierra Club that declares “areas of science not up for debate”. It’s scientists themselves. As Mair repeats far too many times (but what else can you say to such Cruzian nonsense on the spot — he had a better response later), the organization stands behind the consensus of 97 percent of scientists. At one point, however, he did refer to the “preponderance of evidence”, which gave Cruz another golden opportunity, noting that as a lawyer he learned that it only took a certainty of 51 percent to establish a preponderance.

I don’t know what kind of lawyer Cruz was, but surely he is not so inept a mathematician as to confuse 51 with 97. If only one scientist says something, or only one percent of scientists say something, by all means you can take it with a grain of salt. If 51 percent of scientists say something, you can consider it a matter of legitimate debate. If 97 percent say something, you’d do well to start paying attention.

Actually, Mair was wrong. He was citing a commonly quoted figure when he said that 97 percent of scientists concur with the global warming scenario, but this figure is off. The actual percentage is more than 99.99 percent. Yet Cruz still knows better.  And he has a simple explanation for why virtually all the scientists are wrong: those scientists only say what they do because they receive “massive grants”.  The “grant” card is a standard component of the anti-sciencer’s toolkit; if all else fails, just suggest that giving scientists money hopelessly corrupts them — unless of course that money comes from a petroleum company, and then the research is above questioning.

The implication is that nearly all scientists, even the best and brightest, can be bought. If that were true, it’s hard to imagine that science would have made anywhere near the progress it has — we might well be still in the bone knives and bearskins stage.

I’m curious, Senator Cruz: would you prefer that scientific research be carried out by shoe salesmen in their basements on weekends — or by individuals wealthy enough to fund their own research? Just how big does a grant need to be to qualify as “massive”? Should it be in the neighborhood of, say, the 15 million you received from major polluters this year?

Cruz asks whether it’s true that there has been no warming trend for the past 18 years. Mair responds, simply but accurately, that no, it isn’t true. Cruz presses on, laying a trap by asking whether Mair knows what “the pause” refers to. Mair fails the test. So what? “The pause” is a statistical burp that absolutely does NOT show a cessation of global warming. Cruz believes it does. So which of them is more uninformed?

In short, it’s true that Aaron Mair wasn’t stellar in defending himself at his de facto trial; but however bad he may have looked, Ted Cruz definitely looked much worse. And it was entirely his own doing. That tends to happen whenever a pompous individual poses as more knowledgeable about a field than the collective experts in that field — unless of course the individual in question really is a Galileo.

Which brings us back to that little statement Cruz made above. Let’s look at it again. Sorry, but it’s just too good to use only once.

Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

As you probably realize, the clash between Galileo and the church had nothing to do with the shape of the earth. It occurred because Galileo had stated the earth revolved around the sun, while church officials insisted that the earth (and they themselves) were at the center of the universe. They were dead wrong about that, but they at least knew the earth was round — as virtually everyone else did.

Today, the term flat earther is applied figuratively to a person who clings obstinately to a narrow-minded belief that is contradicted by the evidence — like, oh, certain senators from Texas. But once upon a time, many people literally believed that before modern times. people literally believed the earth was flat. Not only is Cruz buying into this myth, he is quite ignorant about a key event in the history of science and the iconic conflict involving the scientific genius whose shoes he presumes to fill.

Did we mention that this character is chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness? Did we mention that he wants to be president of the United States?

 

The Red Herring of “Settled Science”

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It has become very popular among climate science deniers to say that “the science is unsettled”, as if such a statement settles anything. It doesn’t. Of course the science is unsettled. Science is almost always unsettled. That’s why they call it science instead of religion. But just because scientists don’t know everything doesn’t mean they don’t know anything. There’s still much they don’t know about global warming, just as there’s much they don’t know about cancer and Pluto. That does not mean they’re uncertain that any of them exists.

“Settled science” is a straw man suggesting that scientists claim to have all the answers. How could they when they usually don’t have their own radio talk shows? And I’ve never heard a one of them claim to know everything. What you might hear them claim, however, is that they know more about the field they work in every day than does someone who’s never worked in it at all. Fancy that.

Charles Krauthammer (pictured) recently paid tribute to the “settled science” decoy with an article in the Washington Post titled The Myth Of Settled Science. He prefaces his remarks with the insistence that “I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier.” But he certainly uses the tactics of a denier, including cherry picking, misinformation and distortion. And he follows the Golden Rule of today’s rabid ideologues: When All Else Fails, Attack President Obama.

He quotes a statement by the president that “the debate is settled … climate change is a fact” , for which he believes the president deserves the appellation of “propagandist in chief” — an irony too thick to cut with a chainsaw– and pontificates that

“There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge.”

Scientists, of course, subscribe to no such credo, nor does Obama. He didn’t say that the science is settled, but that the debate is settled — i.e., the debate over whether global warming is a fact. And on this point he was all too accurate.  The debate indeed has been long settled among competent and disinterested scientists. Plenty of people still contest that conclusion, of course, just as plenty of people contest that a landing on the moon really occurred. But neither is really a debate in any meaningful sense.

Such individuals often cloak themselves in the mantle of “skepticism”, as if a skeptic would be more likely to doubt scientists than crackpots and ideological fanatics with little or no scientific background. You can also doubt gravity if you like, and test out your conviction with as many leaps from tall buildings as will support your thesis.  In the words of physicist and advocate for scientific literacy Neil deGrasse Tyson, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” One might argue that the leapers from buildings hurt nobody except themselves; but sometimes before they leap they get themselves into positions of power and influence. And they have a habit of vilifying and ridiculing people who do support science. (See Gore, Al.)

Are scientists sometimes wrong? You bet. But that doesn’t mean science itself is wrong. And you need a lot more to establish that scientists are wrong than ideological fervor and cherry-picked details.

Krauthammer likens global warming to mammograms, which have been used for many years to prevent breast cancer but which, according to one study, are more or less worthless. It’s a weak analogy because mammography research is experimental and remedial, whereas climate research is purely observational.  A more appropriate analogy would be: “The certainty that global warming exists is like the certainty that breast cancer and x-rays exist.” Or, if Krauthammer’s assessment is correct: “The idea that mammograms prevent breast cancer is akin to the idea that global warming can be dispelled by flapping your bedsheets at the moon.”

Krauthammer can speak with some authority about mammograms, having been trained as a physician. But to the best of my knowledge, he has little to no expertise in climatology. Which doesn’t seem to make any difference to the cult of denial.

It’s interesting to note that Krauthammer is generally considered a “conservative” — which may not be entirely fair, since he holds certain positions (i.e., pro-choice) that are antithetical to contemporary boilerplate “conservatism”. But he is a regular contributor to Fox “News” and The Weekly Standard. And he certainly follows the winger playbook on this one.

“Conservatives” — whether they’re genuine conservatives or modern neocons fraudulently wearing the badge of conservatism — have a long, long history of being on the wrong side of science. You’d think that just once in the long, long history of the human race, they could get it right. But they seem very, very determined not to.

(See previous posts,  Myths, Misconceptions and Mindless Misinformation About Global Warming and NASA Data, Computer Projections, Opinion Polls and Them Dang Libruls.)

Misquoting Gore. Again. Still.

Al-Gore-Freezing

As 2013 was coming to a halt, the cult of climate science denial believed they had great reason to gloat. After all, hadn’t their favorite bogeyman, Al Gore, predicted 5 years ago that the Arctic would be free of ice by now? And wasn’t there still plenty of ice left at the North Pole? And heaven knows, as long as there’s at least one icicle left on Santa’s beard, it totally proves that global warming is a hoax. Ditto if we can establish that Al Gore has been wrong even once in his life.

Sorry to pop the bubbles in your champagne, deniers, but you got it wrong on both ends; both Gore and the scientists he was quoting were all too accurate.

Climate science denial is predicated on the belief that climatology is part of an evil commie plot to destroy the American economy by nibbling away at the mountain of profits raked in by corporate polluters. Somebody forgot to pass that memo along to the CEO of ExxonMobil, who has acknowledged not only that global warming is real, but that fossil fuels “may” contribute to it.  But the global warming “skeptics”, as they like to fancy themselves, know better.

If you’re one of these cultists — oops, “skeptics” —  then I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is that them thar evil commie scientists were indeed mistaken. The bad news is that their error is minor, and not one that will be very friendly to your dogma. On the contrary, the estimates were too conservative: Arctic ice is disappearing even faster than projected.

The “skeptics” generally try to discredit climate science by stringent cherry picking. Unable to grasp the concept that global warming is an AVERAGE increase in WORLDWIDE temperatures over a LONG period of time, they instead seize upon very short-term variations in temperatures in one location, particularly if they happen to occur during the winter. The folly of this type of cherry-picking “skepticism”, particularly with regard to arctic ice, is readily apparent in the following graph borrowed from Truthout:

Arctic Ice

Yeah, there was a spike in the ice in 2013, just as there had been in certain previous years; but there’s still an unmistakable downward trend. Any gambler who records his wins and losses at the craps table long enough can show you a graph like this one. It doesn’t mean that probability is a hoax or mathematicians are frauds or casinos are generous. But gosh, ain’t it fun to just forget the facts and ridicule Al Gore.

If you try Googling something like “Gore’s 2013 prediction”, you’ll come up with an ocean full of blogs sneeringly touting Gore’s pronouncements that the Arctic would be ice free by 2013. What an idiot!  What a lunatic! What a shill! What a propagandist! What an opportunistic manipulator!

But what you’ll have a much harder time finding is his actual words. So let’s take a look at them. Chances are you saw them here first:

Last September 21 (2007), as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is “falling off a cliff.” One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.

In case you’re having struggles with the Mother Tongue, let’s point out that there’s a difference between “could” and “will”; between “one study estimated” and “without a doubt”; and between “in as little as 7 years” and “in at most 6 years”.  In their ever-mounting desperation for a Gore flub, the anti-sciencers also turned to a speech he made in 2009, in which he supposedly said that the arctic ice could be gone in 5 years. Even if that had been what he said, that would mean this year (2014) and as of this writing it’s only January. But what he actually said was this:

Some of the models suggest that there is a 75 percent chance that the entire north polar ice cap during some of the summer months will be completely ice-free within the next five to seven years.

His office later clarified that he meant to say “nearly” instead of “completely” — in which case he was, again, too conservative, as the Arctic is already nearly ice-free during summer — but even as it stands, the statement leaves way too much wiggle room for anyone to declare that it’s wrong. Except, of course, for the Gore-hating science deniers. They’ve even misrepresented the words of the scientific source Gore was citing. But their most extensive smearing and distorting is, as always, reserved for Al himself.

As its own Exhibit A against Mr. Gore, PJ Media, one of those innumerable bastions of disinformation and general wingnuttery out in the blogoshpere, presents a brief, undated, uncontexted, garbled, and possibly edited clip of Mr. Gore appearing to say that arctic ice could be (or might be, or something) gone in 5 years. PJM notes that a presumably more damning clip that it had alluded to previously seems to have vanished down the “memory hole” along with, presumably, its smoking gun evidence that global warming is a hoax and thousands of the world’s top scientists are frauds. Doncha hate it when that happens?

The campaign to discredit Mr. Gore has been long, intensive, nasty, silly and downright bizarre. For sheer silliness, it’s hard to surpass the recent grade school gigglefest at Fox “News” over the fact that Mr. Gore’s book finally has, as any book eventually does (are you ready for this?) gone on sale. (Snicker snicker tee hee) Except maybe for photographing a copy of the book in the snow. But above all, there’s the standard practice of heavily editing his own words, as above.

As discussed previously , the Gore haters were relentless, systematic and unscrupulous in their efforts to assail Gore’s credibility during the 2000 presidential election, twisting his words like pretzels. When he said of a student’s campaign to clean up the toxic spill at Love Canal, “That was the one that started it all”, the librulmedia, taking its cue from GOP propagandists, quoted him as saying “I was the one who started it all.” And even more famously, of course, his observation that “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet” will be forever remembered as “I invented the Internet”. They branded him permanently as a pathological liar without producing even one lie he’d told.

Not content merely to distort his words, the Gore haters have distorted his actions as well, pegging him as a blustery con man. What a hypocrite, they say, to warn people about the dangers of pollution when he, like any successful American, lives in a nice house and travels on planes occasionally. Obviously, he’s spent 4 decades warning about climate change just so he can put a feather in his own cap and rake in a few bucks in the process.

What you probably won’t hear these folks talk about is how he used planes after Hurricane Katrina. Remember Katrina? Even if you’re one of those sage souls who pooh-pooh the commie notion that global warming may have contributed to it, and instead chalk it up to gay marriage and abortion, you probably agree that the government’s finger-in-the-ass response to it was less than stellar — under the “leadership” of the guy who, by all evidence, had stolen Gore’s job.  Meanwhile, Gore himself shelled out $100,000 of his own money to secretly charter two planes to fly to New Orleans and evacuate 270 stranded citizens — an effort in which he physically assisted. And he refused to discuss it with the media when they found out about it. A big spender he may be. A self-aggrandizing phony he ain’t.

Somehow, the rightwing anti-science vendetta against Albert Gore, Jr. reminds me of a line from the movie Love Story. Perhaps it’s because the author of the book , Erich Segal, was a friend of Gore’s at Harvard. Perhaps it’s because Gore’s good faith reliance on an inaccurate newspaper article about the book was transformed into another of his baldfaced “lies”.  Perhaps it’s because the line in question was uttered by Gore’s Harvard roommate, future Hollywood superstar Tommy Lee Jones.

In any case Jones’ character, upon hearing the news that the male lead is romantically holed up in his room with his girlfriend, initially responds, “Again?” But then after a moment’s reflection, he amends it to the more appropriate reaction: “Still?”

Likewise, when I hear about the smears and distortions against Al Gore by climate science “skeptics” I seldom think, well there they go again.  Because in all these years they’ve never once put on their clothes and gone home.