Friday, January 06, 2006

Civility and Its Discontents

Professor PZ Myers' interview on Daily Kos is a virtuoso performance on the art of the incisive answer:

DS [Interviewer]: I think it's fair to note you're also pretty liberal, and that academics such as yourself are often criticized for being 'too liberal'. How do you respond to that charge? What would you say to your more conservative scientific colleagues regarding the current political dynamic?

PZ: .......................

As far as the charge of being too liberal -- no one can be too liberal. We can only be not liberal enough. Being liberal means one is for civil liberties, equality, social justice, fairness. We work to improve the world, not maintain the status quo, and especially not to enrich those who already have too much. How can someone be too liberal?

DS: You're also unabashedly skeptical of super natural claims or the value of such ideas, be it Wahhibism or the more homegrown Neo-Christian right-wing variety. Is there room for compromise between religion and science in your view?

PZ: Sure. When religious superstition dissipates and wafts away before reason like a fog in the noonday sun, then we will have achieved an appropriate balance.

DS: Holy smokes, I can already see the angry e-mails coming in on this one ... You serious?

PZ: Seriously, that's the compromise. Religion is a clumsy farrago of myths and wishful thinking and old traditions which is irrelevant to our understanding of reality, and in fact often impedes our understanding. We lose nothing if it goes away. As people recognize its lack of utility, something that often (but not necessarily) happens as we learn more about science, it fades away. It's like Santa Claus -- as we learned more about how the real world works and how our parents fulfill all the roles of the fat old myth, we don't mind seeing it go away.

Creationists know this, and that is why they're afraid of science. I don't need to preach atheism -- all I need to do is point out the palpable structure of reality in the growing detail science provides for us, and those who are awake and aware will notice the disparity between the world around them and the clumsy, sterile, ludicrous fantasies of religion, and they'll eventually abandon faith. Or, at least, they'll throw away dogma and retire faith to a smaller, private part of their lives.

The Universe: it's the Anti-Religion.

DS: You have a Ph.D. in a life science, many creationists such as Jonathan Wells or Michael Behe have a Ph.D. in the same thing. What makes your point of view any more credible than theirs?

PZ: Nothing. I hope no one believes me because of some work I finished in 1985 that earned me a piece of paper. This is not about dueling credentials; it's about our relative accuracy in describing how the world works. My ideas are representative of those of the majority of scientists, which provide an excellent working framework for understanding a vast body of information, observation, and experiment, and are also productive in guiding new research. Wells' and Behe's ideas are just the latest excrescence of a 200+ year old primitive theology, are compatible with one old book of mythology, are a dead end for research. By their fruits ye shall know them, and their fruits are scabby, withered, and nasty. It really doesn't matter how many degrees we each have on our side.

DS: One of the criticism you and others level at Intelligent Design Creationism is that it's not science, or that there is no published work in peer professional journal. Why is it not science? Didn't Stephen Meyer get a piece in a peer reviewed journal though? What was that all about?

PZ: Well, first of all, sometimes real crap gets published in peer- reviewed journals, and sometimes really great stuff has to struggle to get the approval of other scientists. It's not an absolute sine qua non of good research -- it's more of a stochastic thing, where what counts more is what kind of work snowballs into a lot of research. As a lesser example, my grad work was as one of the first few people doing research on this new model system, the zebrafish I would go to meetings and people would complain that no one needs new models, fish are weird, we don't know everything about fruit flies so why are you going off in this other direction, yadda yadda yadda. What won them over was not one paper, but a growing body of work that caught the interests of many others, revealed some novelties in vertebrate development that weren't present in flies, and promised some useful and simple techniques to address specific problems of interest. Now there are thousands of people working on this one little animal, and it's become an important model system in the field.

That's what it takes for an idea to take off. The IDists have no research program and no data, so they're trying to cheat. Meyer got a piss-poor review paper (no original research in it at all) published in a small journal with the collusion of a cooperative editor; it would have had no impact on science at all. What made it something of a cause celebre, though, was that the DI wanted to use this for propaganda purposes. Normally, we'd let this kind of debris slide and sink without a trace, but the fact that there was a PR machine that was going to exploit it to push bad science on schoolkids and politicians meant we had to push back hard.

It really was a poor paper, too. I took apart one paragraph here--the scholarship was appalling, and it typically misrepresented the work that it cited. I think a lot of the people who objected to it were horrified that such a wretched piece of work could be used to damage the reputation of a respectable journal like the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

The whole shoddy affair illustrates why Intelligent Design creationism isn't science. They are scrabbling to put up a facade, but science isn't about words in a journal or a collection of degrees: it is a process. It's science if it is being continually tested, if there is research being done to critically evaluate the components of the theory. There is no research being done on intelligent design, nor can there be--there aren't any testable hypotheses in their proposal.

DS: One of the big claims made by IDCists involves a concept called Irreducible Complexity which means, as I understand it, that there are structures at many levels in living organisms in which each component is critical. Remove any component and the entire system fails catastrophically. And so, the claim goes that such a system could not develop in a step by step fashion required by natural selection because the transitory stages would have either have no adaptive value or result in the death of the owner. What's wrong with that?

PZ: This is the same logic that would say it is impossible to build an arch, because removing one piece would cause the whole thing to tumble down. Yet arches are built every day -- bridges must be miracles!

The answer, of course, is that arches are supported by a scaffold during their assembly, and similarly, "irreducibly complex" pathways were supported by duplications and redundancy during their evolution. I've explained this in a little detail here. Simply put, there are two broad explanations for how IC systems could evolve. One is that intermediate steps can be added by gene duplication that do not interfere and can even enhance the effectiveness of the pathway, and subsequent loss of redundancy makes them essential and unremovable. The other explanation is that it is a mistake to assume loss of a piece would cause failure; it may not function for the role you think it should, but it may function in some other capacity. Biological systems tend to be highly multifunctional and rich with redundancies, so none of this is surprising.

You asked earlier why people should think me more credible than Behe. One reason is that he has rested his career on this untenable nonsense of "irreducible complexity", which is so trivially false that it implies a deep misunderstanding of basic concepts of molecular evolution (DarkSyde, "Science Friday: Interview with a Mad Scientist," Daily Kos blog, Friday January 6, 2006).


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