Relying on intuition leads nowhere

One of the biggest reasons that people have a hard time believing in evolution is that it doesn’t make intuitive sense. How could my great(X 1000) grandmother have been a monkey? Even given the vast timescale that such changes occurred, it just seems impossible.  In cases such as this, one has to disregard intuitive feelings.     

Why should we ignore our intuition?  The answer is that so much of what we think is reality, simply is not. In this post, I am going to give two examples that show why reality is not what it appears.

The first example comes from Einstein and his theories of relativity.  Although I am sure that most people are familiar with his ideas, it is worth reexamining.  Einstein’s theory of relativity has passed every test that has been thrown at it. However, it just being a theory means that it is subject to refutation. For the sake of argument, lets say that it is fact.

The theory of relativity, at its most simple, shows us that things we take for granted are not always constant. Mass, length, and time all change depending on the movement of the observer compared to other observers. Does this make intuitive sense? Absolutely not. Even having learned these ideas when I was a child, it really doesn’t make sense to me. This is undoubtedly due to humans having evolved to never need to know about or use the consequences of relativity. If we lived in a world where we regularly traveled at speeds close to the speed of light, it might be another story.

The second example of how our intuition does not reflect reality is illustrated by the double-slit experiment. If you are not familiar with this experiment, please take a minute to read about it, or watch the video below.

Just so that we are on the same page, here is short description of the experiment.  Photons act like both a wave and a particle. If you shoot a beam of light at a piece of paper that has two slits that are close together, you will get an interference pattern. This is the same type of interference that you can see with waves in water or hear with sound. Here is where it gets cool (and creepy).  If you shoot single photons (or electrons or protons) at the double slit, you still get an interference pattern. Even if these particles are shot at a rate that is so slow that they cannot possibly hit each other, you still get this interference pattern.

What do the results of this experiment tell us? It tells us that each individual particle is actually interfering with itself. In some sense, the particle is actually going through both slits at once. Therefore, what we think of as particles moving through space are really probability waves that only collapse into a particle when it interacts with something.

These two examples show us that we can’t trust our intuition.  It tells us that what we see is not what we get, but reality is much different. The results of double-slit experiment, like relativity, have no real implications for our daily lives. It is no surprise that our intuition would disagree with these results.  Intelligent design proponents should not trust their intuition in matters of science, but they do. In fact, this logical fallacy of argument from personal disbelief appears to be one of their biggest talking points. It is too bad they can’t ignore their intuition and rely on the evidence.


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Casey Luskin is blind to blind cave salamanders

Casey Luskin (in Christopher Hitchens and His Cave Myths post) discusses some of Christopher Hitchens views. One of Luskin’s points really made me laugh:

In his debate against Jay Wesley Richards, Hitchens reportedly argued against God by alleging that God would not create certain features we observe, to which Richards aptly replied, “A sneer is not an argument.”

Are you kidding me? Did Jay Wesley Richards really just claim that you cannot use as an argument what God would have or have not done? This is laughable in light of the whole ID movement being based on what we would predict God would do. Hitchens’ comments were indeed a sneer, but more importantly they use the exact same reasoning that intelligent design proponents use. However, IDers conveniently ignore the myriad examples of unintelligent design.

Luskin counters that:

ID proponents regularly point out that evolution is quite good at effecting loss-of-function. While random mutations usually fail miserably at creating new complex biological functions, they are in fact quite good at messing up complex biological functions.

No matter how any ID proponent spins these facts, these “loss-of-function” changes are a prediction of evolutionary theory. They are just moving the goal posts to say that some things do happen by evolution, but other things were done by a designer, whenever convenient for their argument.  Of course, we have seen that evolution has occurred in a lab with the E. coli experiments done by Dr. Lenski’s group.  Here, the bacteria clearly gained the ability to use citric acid as a food source.  This highly controlled experiments shows that gain of function does happen, contrary to Luskin’s belief.

Denial of reality dehumanizes us all

On July 18, 2008, Richard Weikart writes about The Dehumanizing Impact of Modern Thought: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Their Followers. Allow me to summarize Weikart’s position: Modern science and the philosophy based on these findings are killing humanity.  Weikart starts by quoting a holocaust survivor(Viktor Frankl) who believes that the action taken by the Nazi’s was due to scientists.  While I feel for Viktor and everyone who suffered unbelievable horrors during the Holocaust, I do not believe his arguments are true. For example, he says:

I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers

This sort of opinion of scientists comes straight out of Ben Stein’s recent journey into scientist bashing.  Remember this quote from Stein?

the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed

Of course these kind of personal opinions do not really coincide with the evidence.  Stein and Weikart both want you to think that believing in evolution and therefore not believing in God allowed the Nazi’s to do such horrific things.  Richard Darwkins wrote an open letter to a victim of the Holocaust that dispels these falsehoods.  For example, Darwin is not even mentioned in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  However, Hitler did write:

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.

The rest of the post is essentially Weikart recanting the history of materialism, including the effect that evolutionary theory had on his perceived destruction of mankind.  One interesting thing to point out is that most of these philosophers that he points to were in the late 19th century.  What happened during this period of history? The last vestige of the most dehumanizing practice ended.  Of course I am talking about slavery, a practice that has been with humans before all of these supposed “dehumanizing” ideas.

I really think that the goal of Weikart in this post and many of the anti-evolutionists is to equate the belief in evolution with amorality. Why else would the Discovery Institute allow a post that equates Nazi’s with believing in evolution? But even if believing in evolution meant that you were the most immoral person in the world (it obviously doesn’t), it doesn’t change that evolution happened.  Reality does not care what effect it will have on those that uncover it. It could be true that humanity would be better off not knowing our true origins. However, we don’t really know and I don’t think that this fear is worth the ignorance. As Jesus once said “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32 


Theorizing about theories

Recently, Casey Luskin has started a series of blogs discussing the validity of the “evolution is just a theory” claim that some ID proponents make.  Luskin spends quite a bit of time going over various dictionary definitions for the word “theory”. I really don’t understand all this pining over the definition of a word.

 

The key here is that during these arguments over the various definitions of theory, it is obvious that evolutionary theory has risen above your everyday theory. It has withstood the last 150 years of scientific scrutiny with ever increasing amounts of supporting data.  ID/creationists know this, but they still want to use it as a talking point.

 

To be honest, I frankly don’t care about this whole debate.  Nothing bugs me more than to see an ID/creationist make this argument.  It is simple semantics and nothing more. The focus should not be on the definition of theory, it should be on the facts that support the theory. Other bloggers have given this topic more attention that I (including skepticon and airtightnoodle).  I applaud them for doing so because it is a tool that has been used repeatedly.  As skepticon says:

 

It’s been the catch cry of pseudo-scientists and the ideologically driven who attempt to undermine the public’s perception of scientific evidence and push their own pet alternative. 

Still, it is so easy to point out that the theory of gravity, big bang theory, plate tectonic theory, and the theory of relativity, all have the word theory attached to them.  How many ID proponents would argue that they are just theories.  In my experience, every argument along these lines ends up saying that these other theories are completely different and are completely accepted.  Of course, this is just another moving the goal posts fallacy from the evolution deniers. 

 

But why does the general public usually buy into this hypocrisy?  As Luskin states (quoting from a The Scientist article, emphasis mine):

 

public discontent with classical evolution as an inclusive theory stems parly from an intuitive appreciation of its limits 

 

This is one of the main reasons, I believe, that people do not accept evolution. Humans cannot really comprehend the imponderable timescales required to produce the vast diversity of life that is currently residing on this planet.  However, just because something doesn’t make intuitive sense doesn’t mean it is wrong, also known as the argument from personal disbelief. 

 

As an aside, Luskin uses the term “Darwin-skeptic” throughout this post. This is a term that I have not encountered before, but appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to provide some legitimacy to ID/creation. This new term seems to put all the burden of proof on evolutionists and none on intelligent design proponents. It seems just like an extension of the “teach the weaknesses” methodology.

 

Michael Savage: enemy of morality

Wow.  I am shocked beyond belief.  The skepTick has posted about the infamous heartless Michael Savage.  Yes, the same man who was fired from MSNBC for telling a caller to “get AIDS and die.”  This time he is telling his audience that there is really nothing wrong with autistic people.  He says that an autistic person is just a “brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out”

Media matters has a clip of Savage’s ridiculous rant. Warning: Be prepared to get pissed off.

You can sign an online petition to get Savage fired here.

Geoffrey Simmons on not knowing the direction of the sun

Geoffrey Simmons, in a never ending series of self-promotional posts, questions the evolutionary processes that led to the ability of plants to grow up:

The pat answer is that prehistoric flat plants decided to compete for more sun. But where did this need to compete arise? How could a limp ground hugger accidentally develop systems to support excessive weight – maybe tons of wood – root systems to support the weight, transport systems to move the water and nutrients up, and defense mechanisms against weather and pests?

Simmons does not buy the pat answer, but it is a perfectly reasonable causation. Imagine a limited area that is overrun with flat plants. Since there is no more area on the ground, any move in the vertical direction is going to yield exposure to more sun. The need for weight supporting structures, transport systems and defense mechanisms simply followed. This would have been obviously brought about by natural selection. The fact that Simmons can’t see this is actually astounding. I guess his billions of missing links, including upside-down wombat pouches, adhesives used by Barnacles and Mussels, and velvet worms, can all be summarized as an argument from personal disbelief.

Simmons ends with a ridiculous analogy. This of course has become a pattern with creationist/IDers. When they can’t really make a good argument that is based on reason and evidence, they appeal to an analogy that is specifically crafted to prove their point.

Did you notice the derogatory statement that plants accidently developed the ability to grow upright? Or how about how plants decided to compete? This wording would not really be used by scientists and is yet another example of an ID proponent trying to win points by making evolution sound absurd. However, Simmons inability to see natural selection in such an obvious place is what is really absurd.

Update:  The skepTick has an alternate (and more funny) view of Simmon’s post.

Casey Luskin is wristless

Tiktaalik (courtesy of NSF)

On July 14, 2008, Casey Luskin asks: Tiktaalik roseae: Where’s the Wrist? In this post, Luskin essentially is saying that the recent transitional fossil of Tiktaalik does not have anything resembling a wrist. The trained scientists who published the paper (Neil H. Shubin, Edward B. Daeschler and Farish A. Jenkins, Jr), the scientists that peer-reviewed their work, and countless others who have read the work disagree with him.  Luskin is not a paleontologist and is in no way qualified to determine the structure/function of fossils.  However, it doesn’t stop him from trying in the name of Intelligent Design.

Lets first start by defining transitional fossils. Transitional fossils are fossils that illustrate an evolutionary transition. They can be identified by their retention of certain primitive traits in comparison with their more derived relatives.  In Tiktaalik for example, its “fins” have many bones and a range of movement that are characteristic of both fins and limbs, but can not really be called either.  Luskin does not understand this and keeps going on about how Tiktaalik doesn’t have a wrist.  This false dichotomy of either having a wrist or a fin is at the heart of Luskin’s misunderstanding.

For example, he states:

So when we come to Shubin’s technical analysis, he admits that Tiktaalik does not have not real a “wrist,” but at best he says that it has some bones that foreshadow a wrist. But does Tiktaalik’s fin really foreshadow a wrist, and how closely do its bones resemble a real wrist?”

This ambiguity between a wrist and a fin that Luskin is referring to is the exact reason that Tiktaalik is called a transitional fossil (see above). It has features of both and can’t be accurately described as either. If it was just a wrist, then the ID proponents would say it wasn’t a transitional fossil.  Paleontologists would agree there.  Luskin goes on to state:

In other words, the joints can flex or straighten. Shubin may be correct, but this is nothing special: the same could be said for living fish species that are capable of using their fins to prop themselves up. And they certainly don’t have wrists.

What Luskin is not understanding here is that the bones were in a configuration for propping themselves up out of water. A very big difference.

To sum it all up, Casey Luskin is not qualified to attack the credibility of Tiktaalik as a transitional fossil.  He does not understand or see that this is a transitional fossil that should and does have elements that are related to both.