Thursday, March 03, 2005

Tasty comment by John Derbyshire in The Corner over at National Review; I like The Corner because it's generally pretty lighthearted, sort of a break from the normal fairly serious tone of National Review. I'm surprised at how often Derbyshire and I agree, though he's a social paleocon and I'm not. What we both are is pro-religion atheists and strong believers in the scientific method, if that makes sense. Big bang, yes. Evolution, yes. Global warming, dopey. Lomborg, yes. Ockham's razor, yes. God, no. But religion, at least the moderate kind, good.

I subscribe to this 100% and I rather wish I'd written it.

"Mr. Derbyshire---Your review of Simon Singh's book in the Feb. 28 issue of National Review included a general defense of the integrity of scientists. Singh, you say, 'gives the reader a valuable lesson in the progress of scientific inquiry, in the nature of scientific method and the means by which controversies in science are resolved. A great deal of nonsense is talked and written about this, particularly by anti-evolution propagandists. Singh's account shows plainly that the generality of scientists are neither passionless Mister Spocks, weighing evidence with cold, flawless objectivity, nor grim upholders of a pseudo-religious dogma determined to defend crumbling theories to the last ditch.'

"Would you be as comfortable with that quote were 'anti-evolution' replaced by 'anti-global-warming'? I'm afraid that I can't recall whether you have written anything about Bjorn Lomborg, but National Review has certainly had a lot to say about the scientific establishment's defense of the 'pseudo-religious dogmas' of environmentalism against Lomborg's skepticism.

"You say that scientists are 'reluctant to let go of the convictions of a lifetime, but usually willing to do so when faced with convincing evidence.' Do you believe that to be as true of environmental scientists as it is of physicists? What about evolutionary biologists?"

Reply: The key phrase there is "convincing evidence." Broadly speaking, when evidence is very sparse, the human side of scientists comes out, and there is much grandstanding, politicking, and ego-tripping. So it was with the Big Bang until the 1970s, when the weight of evidence began to make the anti-Big-Bangers look silly. When evidence reaches a critical mass, science at large swings behind the better theory. A few eccentrics like Hoyle might hold out; but science **at large** knows the difference between a theory that fits the evidence parsimoniously, and one that doesn't. Not only does it know it, in fact, it depends on that knowledge for its livelihood and reputation! I don't know any counterexamples to this rule. The problem, again, is that when the evidence is scanty, pretty much anything can be made to fit.

With global warming things are much worse than they were with Big Bang because there are more political points to be made (Rich countries BAD! Poor countries GOOD!) and more gummint money to be spent. The fundamental problem is the same, though. The evidentiary database is just too sparse. You can make any sort of case from it. The earth is a large object: measuring its average temeperature is a tricky business. Trying to see whether that temperature has changed across decades is an order of magnitude harder. And then you have to try to figure out whether, if there *is* change, it's caused by human activity. (Followed, of course, by the question: If there is change, and it is human-caused, DOES IT MATTER?)

Evolutionary biology presents a different case. The origin of species by natural selection via mutated forms is the only theory we have. There isn't another one. ("God makes it happen!" isn't a scientific theory, only a metaphysical one.) There is no competition of theories here, of the type Big Bang vs. Steady State, or Global Warming vs. No Global Warming (or Man-Made Global Warming vs. Natural Global Warming). Nobody has an alternative theory. This may be just a failure of imagination on the part of biologists. Perhaps next week someone will come up with an alternative theory for the origin of species that will make Natural Selection via Mutations look silly. Until that happens, though, NSvM is the only game in town. And it looks pretty good. We don't have any observations that contradict it (e.g. a species of winged insects arising in a single generation from a species of un-winged ones). *And* the more we learn about the actual mechanisms of morphology & inheritance, the better the theory looks. Of course it might be all wrong -- it's just a theory; but at present there is no reason to think it's all wrong, and again, NO ALTERNATIVE THEORY.

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