10. A Question of Philosophy

OK, let's suppose you aren't fooled by creationist attempts to distort evolution into something other than what it is. That's when creationists will typically move to their backup plan: attack the very concept of science itself.

Audacious? Absolutely, but also a fairly successful tactic, for the simple reason that the majority of people did not particularly enjoy science class in high school, they never went on to take it at the university level, and in a very real sense, many of them have learned to resent scientists. Just look at the way scientists are typically portrayed in movies: arrogant, socially reclusive, seriously neurotic, possibly megalomaniacal. This resentment means that it is often quite easy in many circles to score rhetorical points by pointing out that "scientists don't know everything", accusing scientists of "arrogance" or living in an "ivory tower", accusing them of being "close-minded", etc. Thomas Kuhn in particular attacked science by almost exclusively attacking the psychology and character flaws of scientists, in what was really nothing more than a long-winded "attack the messenger, not the message" tactic.

Of course, attacking the messenger is a very weak argument. The more clever debaters attack empirical thinking itself, by employing one of the following methods:

  1. Attacking empiricism. This idea was pioneered by David Hume, whose argument can be distilled down to the idea that you can't be 100% sure that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow just because it did every day before (he actually used this exact example himself). In short, he argued that you cannot use physical experience as a basis for gaining knowledge about how the universe works. A skilled debater can make this argument seem surprisingly convincing, so you should keep in mind that it relies on a single conceit: that a piece of knowledge is either 100% certain or it's totally worthless, with no middle ground. This is the argument's central weakness. Once you accept that absolute knowledge is beyond the grasp of humanity (despite the best efforts of religious leaders to claim it), you will realize that a good system of intellectual inquiry will recognize this fact and work within that limitation, rather than pretending to have some detour around it.
  2. Attacking parsimony and atheism. One of the basic principles of science (known as "Occam's Razor") is that you only employ as many terms as you need. Or, put another way, you eliminate all of the variables that you don't find useful. One of those useless variables is God, who lacks measurement, observation, definition, mechanism, or predictive usefulness. And so, science really has no choice but to dismiss God. Not because scientists ignore that which they disbelieve, but because science must ignore variables that are of no use in their work. Like it or not, God falls into that category. Scientists can still be religious even though the nature of their work is not, just as mathematicians can go to church even though no one will ever write a mathematical proof with a "God" term. The signature example of the scientific approach toward religion was Kepler who, when asked why God was not mentioned in his equations of planetary motion, reputedly replied that he had no need of that term (despite being a very religious man himself). Unfortunately, since atheists are the most distrusted group in America (according to Gallup polling), this means that creationists can score political points by attacking science for not incorporating God, even though the same accusation could be made against mathematics or even automobile repair.
  3. Attacking the fallibility of scientists. Are scientists capable of error? Of course. Are there corrupt, incompetent, or dishonest scientists? With tens of thousands of scientists doing research at any given time, there must be. But you cannot damage the credibility of science by pointing out the human flaws of its practitioners, because science is based on a competition model. If scientists make mistakes or try to defraud their peers, at least one of their peers will eventually seize upon these mistakes or deceptions as an opportunity to write his own paper and make a name for himself. The scientific competition model (which is similar to the capitalist free market competition model) is the built-in error correction mechanism of science.
  4. Saying that evolution is not perfect, so it could be totally wrong. Any good scientist will admit that we lack perfect certainty about evolution theory. So this means it could be completely wrong, right? Some new piece of evidence could arise which brings evolution crashing down, right? Well, Not exactly. Isaac Asimov once wrote an article entitled "The Relativity of Wrong", in which he explained this better than I could, but let's just say that even if you could show that it is wrong, you would only be able to show that it is slightly wrong, in the same sense that the statement "pi=3.1" is slightly wrong. This is because we've already catalogued tens of thousands of species which are consistent with an evolutionary model, so any new theory would need to make very similar predictions almost all of the time. Imagine asking if Newton's theory of action/reaction could be overturned. Yes, any theory might be wrong, but just how much wrong can it possibly be?
  5. Equating trust in scientists to faith in prophets. A common anti-science tactic is to argue that anyone who trusts the major scientific bodies is no different from someone who has faith in religious prophets. The goal is to pretend that science is no more reliable than religion. But there is a difference between trust and faith. When you get into an elevator marked "3500 lb max weight", you trust that the elevator will actually hold 3500 lbs because it was designed by licensed professionals who can produce engineering calculations to justify their conclusions. Even if you don't understand these calculations, you trust them because the competition model and thorough testing means that if the science was wrong, someone would have either pointed it out by now or a disaster would have already occurred. If the elevator was designed by someone who claimed that God did his calculations for him and refused to justify his work in any other way, then you would need faith to ride it.

In conclusion, if there is one piece of logic you should take away from this, just remember that you can't dispose of an idea by simply showing that its source is not infallible.

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