Antivaccine nonsense Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Paranormal Pseudoscience Science Skepticism/critical thinking

More antiscience from an old “friend”

Yesterday, I discussed how pseudoscience–nay, antiscience–may well triumph over science in the Autism Omnibus trial presently going on. One reason that this might happen is because of the primacy of feelings over evidence among the plaintiffs, to whose power even the Special Masters running the trial are not entirely immune. As a fellow human being, I can somewhat understand this tendency in the parents of autistic children. After all, the parent-child bond is one of the strongest there is, making it difficult for even the most rationalistic parent to think clearly when it comes to their children. I may not want their pseudoscience to triumph, but I can understand why they might be seduced by it. Less understandable is when feelings overtake science when it comes to other sciences, for example, evolution:

I’m not anti-evolution per se, I’m probably best described as an evolutionary skeptic. And while I’ve read far more evolutionary literature than anti-evolutionary literature – I’ve never even cracked open an ID book – I find the most convincing argument against evolution is the psychological one based on the behavior of its adherents. These people simply don’t behave like economists who know precisely how and why the Law of Supply and Demand exists and works like it does, they behave more like religious individuals full of self-doubt and terrified that their faith will be shattered at any moment.

It’s not like there aren’t as many, if not many more, intellectuals advocating ludicrous economics as there are individuals arguing what evolutionary biologists would consider to be ludicrous biology, and yet one never sees an economist being reduced to the rabid rhetoric of a Dr. PZ Myers or a Richard Dawkins. And there’s no shortage of evolutionarily correct individuals who wholeheartedly subscribe to economically absurd propositions that were conclusively disproven before Darwin first contemplated the various sizes of finch beaks.

Yes, it can’t be anyone other than our old “friend” Vox Day, the “Christian Libertarian” more commonly known for using the example of the Nazis as evidence that we as a nation could, if we only had the will, expel the 12 million or so illegal aliens presently in the U.S.

This time around, Vox seems to be providing what has to be the dumbest rationale for not liking evolution. Banish the thought of pesky evidence and science! Vox knows there must be something wrong with the theory of evolution because he doesn’t like the way that “adherents” of evolution behave when evolution is attacked. Of course, it never occurs to him that one reason why “evolutionists” have a tendency to become so annoyed at persistent attacks on evolution is that the usual attacks are repetitive, based on straw men versions of what evolutionary theory actually says, and derive from religion, not data or science. It never occurs to people like Vox that maybe–just maybe–it gets irritating to answer the same bogus “criticisms” of evolution time and time again, only to have them show up in the same or slightly different forms not long after. Willful ignorance and scientific illiteracy become tiresome after a while and, believe it or not, scientists are human. Sometimes, they can’t help but get annoyed. Actually, come to think of it, such a complaint from Vox is rather amusing, given what an unjustifiably high opinion he has of his own capacity to evaluate scientific evidence. More amusing still is Vox’s “nyah-nyah” attempt to “refute” the contention that the tendency of Republicans to reject evolution is evidence of their ignorance and scientific illiteracy:

Of course, it’s interesting to note that those presumably less intelligent Republicans are also wealthier, happier, are more likely to possess a college degree and live longer than their more evolutionarily-correct Democratic counterparts.

The lowest average life-expectancy in the nation is 72.6, in Washington DC, which at 90 percent Democratic is far and away the most Democratic voting community in the nation. The most Democratic state proper, Massachusetts (62 percent Democrat), has a life expectancy of 78.4. Meanwhile, the most Republican state, Utah, (72 percent Republican) has an average life expectancy of 78.7.

Of course, this has nothing to do at all with the contention that a refusal to accept evolution as a valid science is prima facie evidence of scientific ignorance (it is). After all, if scientific literacy correlated with wealth, the scientists would presumably be among the wealthy elite. Those of us in academia know that this is generally not the case, except for some scientists who also have an entrepreneurial bent and have been able to translate their discoveries into profitable businesses. Moreover, one does not need to understand much science to finish college, particularly if one is majoring in business or non-biology majors. It’s a non sequitur that reveals nothing more than Vox’s contempt for the scientific method, a contempt that he reveals in a followup post, in which he claims that science wasn’t responsible for penicllin:

Scientists and their blindly adoring cheerleaders are blatantly and habitually misleading about the way in which the scientific method produces technological breakthroughs as well as the noble dedication of science to nothing but material truth derived from empirical evidence. Consider, for example, how often penicillin is cited as one of the reasons we must be humbly grateful for science and then consider the truth of how it was “discovered.”

Basically, Vox claims three things about this story. First, because Ernest Duchesne, a French physician, who was thought to have discovered penicillin or a penicillin-like activity from mold 32 years before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin based on his observations of how Arab stable boys at his army hospital kept the saddles in a dark and damp room to encourage mold growth and how they told him that the reason was because the mold helped heal saddle sores faster, Vox concludes that he wasn’t doing science. Vox also adds that Duchesne wasn’t a scientist, but rather a military doctor. The problem is, you don’t have to be a formal “scientist” to do science. Science is a method, a way of knowing and discovering, a manner of thinking about the world. Formal training in science certainly helps one to do science, but it is not strictly necessary. If the methodology is sound and designed to test a hypothesis based on prior observations and if the observations were carefully made, that’s doing science. It is irrelevant whether it’s an army physician doing it or whether the results weren’t immediately accepted. After all, Ignaz Semmelweis’ results were not immediately accepted in many places (although they were not universally rejected, as is often portrayed by antiscience hacks like Vox), but there is no doubt that he was doing science. Duchesne’s methodology appeared to be sound sound, as the entry about him cited by Vox describes (a description that, tellingly Vox leaves out):

In a series of meticulous experiments, Duchesne studied the interaction between Escherichia coli and Penicillium glaucum, showing that the latter was able to completely eliminate the former in a culture containing only these two organisms. He also showed that an animal inoculated with a normally lethal dose of typhoid bacilli would be free of the disease if the animal was also inoculated with Penicillium glaucum. This contrasts with the strain discovered by Fleming, Penicillium notatum, which did not affect typhus.

That sure sounds as though Duchesne was using the scientific method to me. Ergo, he was doing science! Moreover, he did not discover the same antibiotic that Fleming did later, and Fleming was the first to isolate the substance with antibiotic properties made by the mold; in other words, Fleming’s discovery was similar, but not the same as, Duchesne’s. Interestingly, one possible reason why Duchesne’s work was ignored by the Institut Pasteur was because he did not claim that the mold made a substance with antibiotic properties, only that the mold somehow protected the animals from infection. Vox does have a bit of a point that the lack of attention to Duchesne’s discovery probably had something to do with his youth and lack of scientific credentials (although Vox did conveniently completely ignore other contributing reasons), but in reality this is nothing more than an atypical use of the Galileo Gambit to dismiss all science as rigid and unaccepting because of cases in which the scientific consensus did not immediately accept a new discovery later determined to be valid. No doubt, like any good crank, next Vox will be ranting against peer review.

Because of these aspects of the Duchesne’s case, Vox concludes, incredibly, that “science deserves no significant credit for the manifold benefits of penicillin.” This is bullshit, plain and simple. Duchesne made an observation, and then, based on that observation, formed a hypothesis. He then tested that hypothesis using the scientific method. Circumstances prevented him from carrying on the work, which would have likely involved a hypothesis that the mold produced a substance that inhibited the growth of bacteria. Unfortunately, his observations and hypotheses were not rediscovered for three decades. But rediscovered they were, and Fleming used the scientific method to carry them to the level of isolating the substance made by the mold that was responsible for the inhibition fo bacterial growth.

Vox then makes this ridiculous conclusion:

Of the most important human inventions, relatively few have been produced by scientists or by the scientific method. Science didn’t produce the wheel, writing, the printing press, the personal computer or penicillin. It didn’t produce anesthesia, the toilet or the airplane. And while science has provided humanity with an effective means of exploiting its non-scientific discoveries, on the other hand, professional scientists have done an even more impressive job of developing the weapons that currently imperil our continued existence on the planet.

Ah, the old argument from consequences fallacy. First off, no one claims that science is universally good. It’s a tool, a way of thinking, and as such can be used for good or evil. To turn one of Vox’s arguments against him, religion can be used for evil too. Does Vox thus think that religion is harmful, as he seems to think that science is? Moreover, Vox seems not to appreciate that you can’t truly separate knowledge, technology, invention, and science in a neat manner. Besides, some of his examples are specious. Anaesthesia depended upon an increasing appreciation of chemistry, physiology, and pharmacology. Are these not sciences? It’s also just plain ludicrous to claim that the invention of the computer or airplane didn’t depend on science; both required a sound basis in physics. Vox seems to be mixing up applied and basic sciences and rejecting applied science as not really being science–a common misunderstanding. I’d like to see him try to tell an engineer or an inventor that what he designs can’t be attributable to science.

Applied science requires a basis in basic science. My favorite example is, of course, biotechnology. When Watson and Crick discovered how heritable information was encoded in DNA, practical applications weren’t immediately evident. It took the discovery of restriction enzymes two decades later, enzymes that cut DNA in specific places, to harness the scientific understanding of genetics for practical use in making human hormones and other therapeutic proteins. Genetic engineering became feasible, a practical use of all the decades of genetics and biochemistry that came before.

Vox’s dislike of science comes as no surprise to me, nor should it to you. After all, this is the same man who as repeatedly fallen for easily debunked canards of the antivaccination movement. Clearly, Vox’s understanding of what science is and how it works weak indeed. What’s more amusing is that, for someone who fancies himself as so intelligent and rational, Vox’s arguments boil down to little more than emotion and personalization of what he doesn’t like based on what he perceives to be as the worst behavior of its defenders or the consequences of the science, neither of which have any bearing on whether the science itself is valid. For example, Vox can’t cite any scientific evidence against the theory of evolution, but he suspects that evolution is wrong because of the way some scientists (like P. Z.) get worked up over repeated fallacious and pseudoscientific attacks on it. He suspects that vaccines might cause autism not because he has a single clue about the scientific evidence regarding the issue but rather primarily because he thinks that health officials defending the current vaccine schedule have been dishonest. To boil it all down, he apparently doesn’t like science because not all of its products are unabashed good (in apparent response to his straw man argument that defenders of science do claim that it is an unabashed good), even going so far as to ask whether science “has outlived its usefulness to Mankind.”

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t apply his same doubts to religion. It’s obvious that the real reason Vox doesn’t like science is because it challenges religious beliefs in ways that he finds uncomfortable.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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