Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Current Counter-Reformation

Those who have been following the intelligent design/ Darwinian evolution debate for a long time will appreciate Tom Bethell's retrospective on the early years. Those who have come to the controversy more recently will benefit from reading about its origins.

Bethell writes:
I first heard about Phillip Johnson from a retired lawyer named Norman Macbeth. Two decades earlier Norman had written a marvelous book called Darwin Retried and it made a big impression on me. We became friends. He lived in Spring Valley, north of New York City and I stayed with him several times.

More than once we went to see a friend of his, Ron Brady, who taught philosophy at Ramapo College. He too was a Darwin doubter. Macbeth would take me along to meetings at the American Museum of Natural History, where he introduced me to curators at meetings of the Systematics Study Group. Some were amazingly critical of Darwinism.

One day, in the fall of 1990, Norman told me that he had recently heard from a lawyer at UC Berkeley's law school -- "Boalt Hall," but I hadn't heard of that. The lawyer's name was Phillip Johnson. He had just written a book critical of Darwin, and had sent it along so that Macbeth could render a verdict. He didn't show it to me, but he told me it was excellent.

We were both delighted to know that another lawyer would be entering the lists and helping to make the case against Darwinism. Macbeth died about a year later. It was as though he knew that he had passed on the baton.

It wasn't until the following summer that I met Phil Johnson at his house near Berkeley. By then I had read Darwin on Trial, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Curiously, the concept of "intelligent design" wasn't explicitly invoked in the book, and ID certainly didn't exist as a movement. An odd parallel is that the word "evolution" doesn't appear in Darwin's Origin of Species. (The word "evolved does occur, once, and it is the last word in the book.)

I was familiar with some of the arguments in Darwin on Trial, but I now realize that the key to the book's influence was that religious objections to Darwinism were replaced by scientific and philosophical ones. Macbeth's book had done the same, but it never achieved the resonance of Phil's book.
Bethell's column brought back memories. As a grad student Norman Macbeth's book was one of several that inspired me to challenge the dogma that Darwinism (or more precisely materialistic "molecules to man evolution") is a scientific theory in my Master's thesis. My belief then, and still today 30 plus years later, is that it's a metaphysical hypothesis, based on untestable assumptions and a faith commitment to materialism.

If Darwin's Origin of Species triggered a "Reformation" in intellectual history then today we're experiencing a counter-reformation in which Norman Macbeth and Phillip Johnson have been pioneers and leading players.

The rest of Bethell's article is interesting and instructive. Give it a read.

Climate-Change Game-Changer

Matt Ridley is a highly celebrated science writer who recently (October 31) gave a speech at the Royal Academy of Arts in Edinburgh Scotland on confirmation bias (seeing what you want to see in the data), pseudoscience, and climate change. It's a fascinating ten pages of PDF that'll grab you in the first paragraph and cause you to not want to move until you've finished it - at least, it will if you have an interest in any of the three topics he blends into his lecture.

Drawing from history, both recent and not so recent, Ridley begins by formulating "six lessons" which we should bear in mind about scientific controversies:
  • The media is incredibly gullible.
  • Facts are like water off a duck’s back to pseudoscience.
  • Heretics are sometimes right.
  • Some great scientists, like Newton, dabbled in pseudo-science.
  • Be careful of your own confirmation bias.
  • Never rely on the consensus of experts about the future.
Having elaborated on these he launches an assault on the sacred cow of climate change alarmism that is perhaps the best piece I've ever read on the subject. I have no doubt that many of his listeners were squirming in their seats. He sets the table with this:
Using these six lessons, I am now going to plunge into an issue on which almost all the experts are not only confident they can predict the future, but absolutely certain their opponents are pseudoscientists. It is an issue on which I am now a heretic. I think the establishment view is infested with pseudoscience. The issue is climate change.

Now before you all rush for the exits, and I know it is traditional to walk out on speakers who do not toe the line on climate at the RSA – I saw it happen to Bjorn Lomborg last year when he gave the Prince Philip lecture – let me be quite clear. I am not a ‘denier’. I fully accept that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, the climate has been warming and that man is very likely to be at least partly responsible.

When a study was published recently saying that 98% of scientists ‘believe’ in global warming, I looked at the questions they had been asked and realized I was in the 98%, too, by that definition, though I never use the word ‘believe’ about myself. Likewise the recent study from Berkeley, which concluded that the land surface of the continents has indeed been warming at about the rate people thought, changed nothing.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that you can accept all the basic tenets of greenhouse physics and still conclude that the threat of a dangerously large warming is so improbable as to be negligible, while the threat of real harm from climate-mitigation policies is already so high as to be worrying, that the cure is proving far worse than the disease is ever likely to be. Or as I put it once, we may be putting a tourniquet round our necks to stop a nosebleed.

I also think the climate debate is a massive distraction from much more urgent environmental problems like invasive species and overfishing.

I was not always such a ‘lukewarmer’. In the mid 2000s one image in particular played a big role in making me abandon my doubts about dangerous man-made climate change: the hockey stick. It clearly showed that something unprecedented was happening.

I can remember where I first saw it at a conference and how I thought: aha, now there at last is some really clear data showing that today’s temperatures are unprecedented in both magnitude and rate of change – and it has been published in Nature magazine. Yet it has been utterly debunked by the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick.
The case Ridley amasses in the remainder of his speech is devastating, or at least it seemed so to me. It may be that climate change is indeed the imminent threat some climatologists say it is, but the evidence that that is so seems exiguous at best. Moreover, the harm that's being done by government policies in an effort to mitigate CO2 emissions is extremely high in terms of both lives and treasure, especially given the paucity of empirical warrant.

Read his speech. It could be a game-changer for you. Thanks to Scott for calling it to my attention.