Thursday, June 12, 2008

I remain convinced that belief in large-scale evolution is religious.

     Now, don't get me wrong. It's a plausible story, unlike (for example) cintelligent designism. But I find no reason to think that it is scientific. No, the fact that scientists believe it is not such a reason.
     A scientific theory makes detailed (i.e. not vague) predictions. Gravitational theory permits predictions of the locations of the planets many years in advance. The predictions of evolution are rather limited. One can predict that something will survive and that it will be suited to survive in the environment in which it finds itself. Small-scale evolution is actually validated by the fact that we can simulate it (mimicking differential reproduction in electronic components) and get functioning electrical "designs" that performs tasks in ways we don't really understand. But the evolution that we can see is more like raw data. We can also see objects fall. But "objects fall" is not a scientific theory. A theory of gravity needs to predict the rate of fall.
     Another thing I notice is that people will say that they do not distinguish between "microevolution" and "macroevolution" because it is all "the same theory." As I stand outside, this reminds me remarkably of the way religions will say something like "god's word does not change." Even if it were a useful predictive model over parameters we have tested, we would still not know how far it would remain useful. Newtonian gravitational theory is very useful (for dealing with objects like cars and planes.) However, it breaks down when we deal with objects approaching light speed. Appeals to "it's the same theory" does not counter the fact that theories have limitations on the parameter over which they give useful predictions. Furthermore, it is only when a discrepency is seen that we know we have run into such a limitation.
     So, I don't believe that evolution is scientific. Small-scale evolution is an empirical observation -- making it true. But it is also true that Ronald Reagan was once president. That doesn't make it scientific in any way. Large-scale evolution may, in fact, be true. (We don't have the capacity to make direct observations. Just about any imaginable observation we can make could be fitted to the idea -- another trait of religions.) I certainly don't have an alternate story to propose. But it does not look scientific.
     I find it interesting that scientists are human. As such they don't always apply the scientific method appropriately. For example, the grand unified "theories" that they try to use for particle physics predict that protons decay (with an incredibly long half-life.) They conducted an experiment for 12 years using enough material that it would be predicted that they would find multiple decays each year. A grand total of zero proton decays were observed. According to the scientific method, one would tentatively conclude that protons are stable (until we find evidence to the contrary.) In actuality, the scientists decided they still like their GUT's and just decided the half-life must be longer. This reminds me of the "god of the gaps." So, scientists, just like anyone else, make claims which cannot (even in principle) be falsified by any conceivable observation.


Garret said...

I see where you are coming from publius. I have been doing a lot of reading on evolution lately- check out theses cool links-
29+ evidences and explore this guys myspace page for a little fun!

Pvblivs said...


     It's interesting; but it didn't take long before I found this.
     "Cladistic methods are often contrasted with 'phenetic' methods. Phenetic methods cluster and classify species based upon the number of identical characters that they share, that is, based upon overall similarity. Such methods can run into trouble with organisms like dolphins and tuna, which have many superficial similarities. These organisms, however, are not closely related and should not be classified together if one expects classification to reflect phylogeny."
     While they give a logical sounding reason for it, they pick the classification system that avoids declaring the idea false. Unsurprisingly, a red flag goes up in my mind. It's the same red flag that appears when people talk about how they "discern" which parts of the bible are literal.
     You have to realize. I did not wake up one morning and say, "You know, I'd like to call evolution religious." I just recognized that it wasn't just churches protecting their pet ideas.

Garret said...

Biologists today construct their phylogenetic trees based on Hennig's method, and because of cladistics these phylogenetic trees are reproducible and independently testable

The whole independently testable concept, the ability to disprove evolution based on evidence makes the whole project unique, if it can be called a 'religion'. I would agree that evolution can be used to answer some very big and important questions- questions that religions traditionally answer. This would put it in a position to compete with religion when handled by a group of people with an agenda. The question
should be- what are the reasons that macro-evolution, common descent are accepted and taught by the scientific community. It would seem that reasonable models are drawn from the evidences, and, as they are testable and in fact tested, they stand up to scrutiny.

I would ask, what would it look like if the theory of evolution were not a religion, to you? How would the language and approach be different?

Pvblivs said...


     I hope you don't if I summarize your question to "What would convince me that evolution is not religious?"
     Standing up to actual falsification attempts would convince me. As near as I have been able to determine no scientist has ever attempted to falsify evolution. For example, if a experiment was launched such that evolution predicts a specific outcome and that outcome is not predictable based on previous observations without reference to evolution. I have seen things where they set out to confirm evolution; and often enough, they find what they are looking for. But they have an out in case they do not find what they are looking for. When fossil searches come up empty, do they count it as a disconfirmation? Or do they respond that fossilization events are rare?
     An announcement of multiple predictions of the hypothesis, none of which having been tested for the result prior to the announcement, followed by an emprical test of all such predictions with the understanding that a failure in any prediction scraps the hypothesis with no excuses would convince me that it is not religious. In short, if they removed the shields that protect it from falsification and it continued to stand, I would be convinced. What I actually see is that any experiment set up is set up with possible results of "confirm" or "inconclusive." Nothing is claimed as a potential disconfirmer until after they are sure (by observation) that it will not happen.
     They started with "phenetic" methods. But these conflicted with the "theory." Rather than toss the "theory," they came up with new methods. These methods were designed to make observation a confirm, and spread about. Certainly, anyone can verify that these new methods produce confirming events.
     Fossil finds are a classic case of "counting the hits while ignoring the misses."
     I will give a challenge. It is similar to my challenges to religion -- for obvious reasons. Find me five tests where a prediction was made based on evolution, the outcome was unknowable based only on prior observations (after several hundred digs it becomes predictable that we will not find bunnies mixed with T-rex's) a theoretically possible observation was noted that would show evolution wrong, and the actual result confirmed evolution rather than disconfirmed it.
     Don't feel too bad if you can't find any such tests. I couldn't either. Everything had an out so that if a result did not confirm evolution, it would be inconclusive. If you check the restrictions that I place on the tests and you go over to a religious blog where I have listed my conditions for accepting a prophecy, you will find that they mirror each other.
     Now, I would like to give you some food for thought. What would convince you that "evolutionary theory" was religious in nature. Note that I do not ask what would convince you it was wrong. I am not convinced that it is wrong. I am only convinced that they rig the tests so that no outcome that they haven't made sure in advance won't happen will count as a falsifier.

Reynold said...

If ever they found fossil vertebrates in the pre-cambrian, that would disprove evolution. That hasn't happened, despit over 150 years of looking.

So, no, they do not just "rig" their tests. If scientists did that, then no theory would ever have been overturned, and as a result, no new theory would have come up.

We'd be a lot more ignorant of the world than we are now.