Skeptics Blown It?

Prior to attending the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington this year, I read the discussion paper on the role of science in environmental policy and decision making, Illuminated or Blinded by Science, prepared by the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. It seemed to me to be a reasonable document. It included a discussion of some of the issues which have to be considered by policy makers in the environmental area and pointed to some of the difficulties, institutional and procedural, in using science to form environmental policy. Following on from the request in the paper for comments from the public on how science could be better incorporated into environmental policy, the team leader for the discussion paper, Mr Bruce Taylor, gave a presentation to the Skeptics conference in which he introduced the paper and asked for views on it.

I was dismayed by the vehemence of the criticisms of the paper expressed by members of the audience (I regret not being fast enough on my mental feet to contest them at the time). The nature of the criticisms wasn’t entirely clear to me. They seemed to be based principally on the fact that science was not the only instrument of environmental policy formation and that the discussion paper had considered other issues such as the role of social values in setting policy.

Science may well be the best system we have developed to describe and understand the physical world but it is naive to think that governments will use it to the exclusion of other issues to form policy in the environmental area. For instance, it’s worth remembering that science doesn’t necessarily say anything about moral values. The formation of policy is a political process, and if we want science to be part of it, we have to understand how to bring science into the political system.

Mr Taylor asked the Skeptics for help in making science a more effective part of policy formation. He didn’t get it. I think the Skeptics blew it. I doubt very much whether the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will see the Skeptics as a source of rational comment on the effective use of science in the public arena in the future.

Alan Hart

Global Warming

The Skeptics have expressed a sound and healthy reluctance to subscribe to anthropogenic greenhouse gas theories of global warming, for the last several years. There now appears to be a growing amount of evidence proving just how right we were. As a regular subscriber and reader of New Scientist and Scientific American, I have been following this with interest. While SA has an editor fully committed to “greenie” nonsense (as witness his attack on Bjorn Lomborg), New Scientist is more open to new ideas. NZ Skeptic readers may find the following of interest.

  1. 23 August 2003: Glacial extensions of the polar ice caps on Mars are now in retreat. Peninsulas and islands of ice disappearing. A little hard to explain in terms of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, but (Occam’s Razor) easy in terms of astronomic phenomena such as solar output or cosmic rays. Scientific American, while not admitting to be at all wrong, reports in June 2003 that satellite measures of solar output show it is increasing, albeit very slightly.
  2. 13 September 2003: Under the title of Global Warming: the New Battle, it appears that meteorologists are adopting a new stance. “The priority now is to start preparing for its consequences…” While none of the global warming gurus have admitted fault in describing mechanisms, it appears that many want to move away from anthropogenic greenhouse gases and simply accept that the temperature increase happens. Maybe they are starting to realise they may not have been correct.
  3. 20 September 2003: Professor Philip Scott (Biogeography) describes recent research (also published in GSA Today 13, p 4) describing ancient records in rocks that suggest 75% of changes in global temperature were caused by changes in cosmic ray density. Also a paper (Nature 408, p 698) showing real problems trying to relate CO2 levels with ancient temperatures. Scott also points out that current computer models do not predict why it is that, while surface temperatures rise, the atmosphere just above remains cold.

If these revelations continue, I suspect that the greenhouse gas theories will soon be quietly dropped.

Lance Kennedy, Tantec

Indian Socialism

Bob Metcalfe (Forum #68) is confused. My letter (Forum #67) drew attention to the opinions of others on the antiglobalisation movement. The Oxus Research Foundation, New Delhi seems to think that the terms “socialism” and “starvation” can be used without further definition and I would agree.

Why “Socialism” rather than “Communism” or “Marxism”is interesting; perhaps because it seems a more neutral term. But the early Congress party was proud of its Marxist roots, and in the early years of independence India received a large amount of aid from Stalinist Russia.

True, India has not had a nationwide famine since British rule ceased. The terrible event in 1943 caused enormous suffering because during the war, aid was unavailable from outside. The comrades of the Congress party blamed lack of planning — the socialist solution. But once in power they never had to face the same conditions that produced the earlier event. Planning did not prevent frequent local famines in newly independent India. The authorities alleviated suffering with the same measures used in capitalist societies’ relief efforts.

True, “people have starved in America”; Bhalla himself points out the coincidence that India and the US launched a “war on poverty” at about the same time, the early 1960s. But then the US had a food surplus and India a food deficit. India now has a food surplus. My opinion is that this owes more to the “Green Revolution”, than to political policies.

However the Indian government of the time is to be commended for welcoming the Green Revolution even though it offended socialist ideology. Socialists were generally of the opinion that it would do nothing for the World’s poor.

Indeed poor Indian farmers were thought to be those who would suffer most under the new type of agriculture that would benefit only the “big corporations”. Fortunately this prediction turned out to be untrue.

Of course the anti-globalisation people are the intellectual heirs of those who opposed the Green revolution (this is where this correspondence started). Their arguments are nearly identical and their ideology indistinguishable. The failure of those earlier predictions is forgotten or ignored.

Bob Metcalfe quotes Sen to the effect that democracy or dictatorship is a better indicator of possible famine than socialism or capitalism. China, which has adopted capitalism without renouncing dictatorship would seem to provide a counter-example.

This debate has received “something other than glib generalisations and inaccurate case studies”. The problem is that few people have bothered to read the literature. My earlier contribution was an attempt to draw peoples attention to an unpopular side of this controversy. I doubt one can do better in a letter.

Jim Ring

In Defense of Intelligent Design

In New Zealand Skeptic No. 64, Warwick Don critiqued Ian Wishart’s article Walking with Beasts, published in Investigate, June 2002. This is Wishart’s response.

Having just read Warwick Don’s critique of my article on Intelligent Design in your winter edition, I wonder if I might offer some observations.

Firstly, there is some fudging on the use of the word “Creationist” that needs clearing up if this issue is going to be intelligently debated by anyone. As I pointed out right at the start of my article in Investigate, the use of the word “Creationist” in that article primarily referred to people who believe there is evidence of intelligent design in the natural world. Belief that the Universe was created does not, of itself, require that one subscribes to the Biblical or any other version of creation. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking published a paper this year postulating the existence of a deistic creator, yet one would hardly call Hawking a “Creationist” in the way Warwick bandies the term around.

To discuss the scientific evidence for and against the existence of intelligent design in the universe is not, of itself, to become embroiled in a theological debate. It is more analogous to a naturalist finding indentations on a forest track and debating whether they are natural ground undulations or footprints. This is a perfectly legitimate scientific exercise.

Warwick talks of a need to avoid discussion of the bigger picture when he says, “…the undoubted problems associated with the origin of the universe or with the origin of the very first life forms on this planet are irrelevant as far as organic evolution is concerned.”

With respect, I submit Warwick’s approach is fundamentally flawed, and here’s why: The distinctions we humans draw between the different scientific disciplines are artificial. We have made the delineation that says biology is a complete science, physics is a separate science, chemistry is a separate science and so on. In the real world, all the sciences are ingredients of the others.

To approach the study of organic evolution as though the rest of it has no bearing is akin to a group of biologists locking themselves in a biosphere forever and never opening the door to the wider world, never daring to question how the organisms in the biosphere actually got there. Without knowing the “how” of it, the organisms could, for all they know, have spontaneously generated (chemical evolution), been introduced from outside (alien seeding) or been miraculously created on the sixth day! The point is, whatever the origin, biologists locked into this mindset will never find the answer because they refuse to look for it.

With respect, that’s taking good honest skepticism way beyond the rational and into the Three Wise Monkeys territory.

Warwick is concerned that opening the door to intelligent design in schools means opening the door to exam papers quoting Genesis and Job. Not so, and again this confusion arises from a failure to drill down to the absolute core of the argument. Sure, intelligent design science can be used to support Biblical creationism, but as Warwick correctly points out there is a “distinction between acceptance of evolution [intelligent design] and non-scientific implications derived from it.”

In his own critique, Warwick cites further examples that unwittingly display the current problems of evolutionary theory: after having a go at my skepticism on ancient whales, he firstly supports the ancient whale trail I was doubtful of then adds “Incidentally, based on new fossil evidence, the mantle of whale ancestor has shifted from the mesonychids (alluded to above) to a related group, the artiodactyls, and more specifically to the hippopotami.”

Which is it? Mesonychids or hippopotami? Trying to nail alleged fossil ancestors to support the theory of evolution is like trying to pin the tail on a donkey moving at very high speed. After 150 years we’re all still arguing about whether Archaeopteryx is the transitional fossil or not.

Objective skepticism recognises that the best way for the truth to emerge is through vigorous debate and presentation of evidence. Anything less is not skepticism but dogma, similar in form to the anti-science dogma of the Catholic church in the middle ages. As the old evolutionary saying goes: “Two dogmas don’t make a dog, Ma.”

Warwick appeals to Eugenie Scott’s “necessary methodological materialism” as sound philosophical basis for shutting out any evidence that might point to an Intelligent Designer. But who voted and made Eugenie Scott the world’s leading expert on the boundary between science and philosophy? In short, no one.

If an Intelligent Designer does, in fact, exist, but our system of science as proposed by Eugenie Scott is unable to accept this even if said Designer suddenly appeared in the clouds at 3pm one Tuesday and spoke to the entire world in a thundery voice, then our system of scientific inquiry is flawed. “You can’t put God in a test tube” says Scott, therefore you have to ignore it. How exactly can one justify ignoring such an event, where a supernatural entity interacts directly in our space time universe in a way that can be measured? And if one can’t defend the position of ignoring that particular event, on what philosophical or scientific basis do we ignore the evidence pointing towards a Designer at more subtle levels? Surely it becomes a matter of the degree of evidence required before we start dusting off the test tubes and setting a God-trap.

And if it is only a matter of degree, then on what basis can we then justify ignoring even the slightest evidence for the existence of a Designer, if over a period of time the accumulation of slight evidence could lead to irrevocable proof? That would be akin to paleontologists throwing away individual T-Rex bones as useless, and only keeping a complete skeleton if you’re lucky enough to find one.

The intelligent design movement is not asking scientists to become theists, it is merely asking science to follow the evidence wherever it leads, without introducing presumptive biases such as those advocated by Eugenie Scott and Warwick Don. Let scientists do the digging unfettered by religious or anti-religious bias, and let theologians argue over the implications in another arena. In other words, let the facts speak for themselves, whatever they may tell us.

[See Warwick Don’s response]

Science Friction: The Maxicrop Case And The Aftermath

It was a Ngatea farmer who finally got to Doug Edmeades on an Autumn day in 1985.

Then employed as a scientist for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) Dr Edmeades had amassed a considerable amount of information on liquid fertilisers and concluded they were useless. At this field day, he was put on the spot when the farmer asked how good the products were, and in particular Maxicrop. When told the answer, the farmer exploded and asked what MAF scientists – public servants funded by the taxpayer – were doing about it. At a time when fertiliser costs were rising (and farm returns shrinking) advertising for these products was everywhere yet the other side of the story remained untold. Dr Edmeades got his chance to redress the balance when asked to take part in Fair Go.

This appearance kicked off the Maxicrop trial, with the High Court ruling the product cannot and does not work. Yet despite this favourable outcome, Dr Edmeades became involved in a battle with MAF, on a similar subject that resulted in him leaving.

Science Friction is not just about the Maxicrop case, although this makes for fascinating reading. It is about the role of science in today’s increasingly commercialised world. Dr Edmeades believes under current conditions scientists are less likely to speak honestly and openly about various issues affecting society. And he ponders the implications of this.

Clearly written, with touches of humour, Dr Edmeades has produced a compelling book that is highly informative and raises important questions. He even manages to make soil sound interesting! Definitely worth a read.

A Reflection on Changing Times

The following extract from William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution (pp 64-65) reminds us that things change but things remain the same.

The final sentence reminds us that widespread restlessness, pseudo-science and general foolishness may have tragic consequences:

America appealed, in fact, to what Jean-Joseph Mounier, one of the leading [French] revolutionaries of 1789 would later remember as “as general restlessness and desire for change”. It manifested itself in the vogue for wonders of all sorts, whether Franklin”s lightning rod, or the first manned flights in the hot-air balloons seen rising over so many cities in 1783 and 1784, or a craze for mesmerism and miraculous cures effected by tapping the supposedly hidden natural forces of “animal magnetism”. Established religion might be losing its mystic appeal, but science was bringing other miracles to light.

Belief in plots and conspiracies was yet another sign of the credulity of the times. The same cast of mind also tended to seek simple, universal formulae to resolve any problem, no matter how complex. Its limitations would be tragically exposed in the storm that was about to break.

Why Creationists Do So Well

Creationists are winning hands-down in the publicity stakes, despite, one presumes, no real assistance in the form of Divine Guidance.

Volumes of perceptive articles by competent scientists and philosophers have been written about the indefensibility of creationism. Still, the beast not only manages to stay alive, but also to deliver a nasty shock now and again by conducting successful forays into the science education arena. Why?

It is my opinion that the answers are found in the way science and creationism tend to conduct their campaigns: it is the latter camp which has consistently outsmarted its opponent in the public relations field. This adds a lot of points to the scoreboard in a democracy.

In the course of some twenty years of studying creationist literature and tactics, and people’s responses thereto, I have noticed a number of things about public perceptions of the issue.

Newton’s Law of Public Relations

There is a widely-held (mis)interpretation of the democratic ideal to the effect that for every view there is an opposite and equally valid view. (I call this Newton’s Third Law of Public Relations.) A corollary of this misconstruction being the simplistic sequitur that there are “two sides to every story,” creationism’s appeal to heed what is presented as “the other side of the story” finds many willing ears.

Also arising from this gem of common philosophy is the perception that science and religion represent the above “two sides.” The creationist case is highly dependent on the continuing popular belief that science and religion are mutually exclusive antagonists in the area of origins, and people must “believe one or the other.”

The 1960s are not that distant in time, and creationism skilfully manipulates the latent anti-establishmentism present in general society. People love an underdog (creationism) taking on an orthodoxy perceived as aloof and patronising (science), especially when that underdog is seen to challenge the ivory tower on its own terms and the establishment appears to be worried.

Creationism makes sense to many, if not most, people. Everything has a purpose, doesn’t it? Pure chance can’t possibly lead to something like the human eye, can it? You can’t really reconstruct an ape-man from a single tooth, can you? (Creationists love the 1934 Nebraska Man débacle.) That Aussie Doctor-guy found Noah’s Ark, didn’t he?

The list goes on, and the common theme is clear. The creationist PR machine identifies and manipulates public ignorance and misconceptions to its immense advantage.

Tentative Science

The one thing most people do know about science is that it is tentative — thereby opening the way for another gem of popular wisdom, the “but you don’t know everything” argument which when applied to any area of controversy involving science is regarded as creating an instant niche for an opposing view, no matter how absurd. (This principle also applies very much to the orthodox/fringe medicine debate.)

Furthermore, any perceived weakness in the orthodox case becomes a plus-point for the challenger. The creationist case relies heavily on using science’s tentativeness (portrayed as uncertainty) and occasional blunders (Nebraska Man) to bolster its public image.

People prefer certainty. A naked ape arising fortuitously on an inconsequential planet in a far corner of the universe is just too much for most people to handle — especially when placed in opposition to the creationist Linus’s Blanket of “you are so special.”

Science’s response to creationism has frequently been counterproductive in that it has reinforced the public misconceptions which creationists have turned into assets.

The ridicule levelled at creationism by some exasperated scientists and science educators reinforces the image of science as a patronising, superior Olympus inhabited by an esoteric elite who harbour undemocratic views.

And there is more than a vestige of 19thcentury anti-religiosity (especially anti-Christianity) left in the scientific community.

When scientists turn their literary skills into a diatribe against Christian scriptures and belief, the result is definitely good PR for creationists.

Catch-22 Situation

Of course, we are in a three-way Catch 22 situation when it comes to replying to creationism:

  • If we ignore the creationists, we “haven’t got an answer” and seek to shield ourselves from valid criticism.
  • If we respond to creationism at all, they’ve “got us worried.”
  • If we respond by writing articles most people don’t understand we’re “snobs” and/or trying to “put up a smokescreen.”

Finally, if we try to argue at the intellectual level creationism operates at, we lose the match because we have tried to play it by the opposition’s rules, which are stacked so heavily in its favour from the kick-off.

The upshot is that we cannot defeat creationism on scientific grounds, and should stop trying to do so. Writing articles in academic journals may make us feel better, but we are preaching to the converted and only reinforcing our negative image by alienating the general public even more.

More importantly, a scientific response to a pseudoscientific argument publicly perceived as a scientific argument merely reinforces the opinion that there is a case to answer.

Creationism is not a scientific argument, but a religious one. However, we must appreciate that we are dealing with a vocal fringe minority who are not representative of Christianity as a whole, and we must therefore correctly identify the enemy — fundamentalism — and also identify our allies, the mainstream Christian churches.

Scientists should not venture into the area of biblical scholarship unless they are qualified in that area, for the public appreciates only too well that an expert in one field may be a layman in others. This is where we need an alliance with mainstream religion.

Such an alliance would put paid to the popular misconception that science and religion are incompatible. (Anselm, Teilhard de Chardin and new Zealand’s own John Morton appear to have had little impact on public thinking) and that creationism represents the battle of good, Bible-believing Christians against the tyrannical reign of atheistic scientists.

I believe that this aspect of the creationist case in the public eye is at the same time its Achilles’ Heel, and can be used against it.

For if we live in a secular democracy and creationism is a religious view, then while the right to profess that religious view is safeguarded, the right to foist it on others through state educational apparatus is an infringement of democratic principles.

Once this is understood by the general public, I suspect creationism will rapidly lose the positive public image it appears to have built up so painstakingly.