Posted by: The Amoeba | February 7, 2009

Of Evidence, Evolution, and the Principle of Principle

As I’ve already mentioned in this space, 12 February 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin‘s birth.

(It also just so happens to be the 200th anniversary of the birth of a minor figure in American political history, one Abraham Lincoln. I write minor, because his birthday, along with that of one of his predecessors, has devolved to a pretext to get Americans to do something more important than the celebration of Independence, Union and Emancipation: buy cars. But I digress.)

Among the reams of paper, barrels of ink, and teramoles of photons that have been spilled on Darwin’s behalf (and in his despite) lately is a new book, Why Evolution Is True, by Dr. Jerry A. Coyne, who is a professor at the University of Chicago (which ranks right up there with Harvard and Princeton as a nesting place for eggheads).

The book, I am told, does a beautiful job of taking the reader, step by step, through the kind of evidence that allows scientists to state (as I did, less eloquently) that evolution is, for all practical purposes, a fact.

For all the good it does.

Coyne himself tells of the businessman from Chicago who responded to one of his presentations thus: I found your evidence for evolution very convincing – but I still don’t believe it.

Now, I’m actually prepared to cut the businessman some slack, for the same reason I accepted Sherlock Holmes’s refusal to remember that the Earth travels around the Sun. Knowledge of planetary orbits doesn’t do much for crime solving – “you say that we go round the sun”, Holmes snarled at Watson in A Study in Scarlet; “If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” Evolutionary theory likely doesn’t do much for business in Chicago – while activity in a church might mean plenty, in terms of connections and reputation. At least until the heat gets back to barracks.

But when 30% of science teachers – science teachers! – in the United Kingdom (I don’t wish to know what the USA number is) believe that creationism should be taught in schools, that crosses a line. A science teacher should know how science works.

Then again, most folk who know how science works know better than to subject themselves to the slavery (in terms of both pay and respect) of the average secondary-school teaching job. Speaking of Lincoln.

The problem, as more and more of the Jerry Coyne type of people are beginning to understand, is that the debate over evolution isn’t about evidence. To quote Massimo Pigliucci’s review of Why Evolution Is True in Science magazine – I’d point you to the review, but they’d make you pay to read it. I don’t know what brasses me off more: that We the People in these Untied States, whose ascendancy as a nation has, for more than a century, depended on mastery of science and technology, insist on a system that makes its scientists tin-cup their way through life, or that so many of us scientists, especially those in leadership positions, accept this tin-cupping as the way things should be.

Where was I? Oh. Yeah. To quote Pigliucci:

The clash is not a scientific debate, it is a social controversy. … Coyne admits that the issue goes far beyond science, into philosophy and questions of meaning and morality.

One of the first things I learned about the difference between scientific and philosophical debate was in the starting point.

Philosophical debate, I learned (and I’m oversimplifying here for several reasons, including my desire to finish this post sometime before dawn), starts with a principle in which one believes, and seeks to defend it.

Scientific debate starts with a hypothesis which one sets up, and seeks to attack it.

The problem with philosophical debate is that any intelligent person can figure out a way to defend a principle. Decisions, if any, are made on the basis, not so much on the evidence of the argument, but on the eloquence (or, perhaps, the brute force) of the arguer. The process resembles Swipple’s Rule of Order (a Murphy’s Law corollary): “The one who shouts loudest has the floor”. Or, perhaps, the one whose missiles make the biggest BOOOOM on impact.

In scientific debate, you may be the most stunningly persuasive orator since Cicero, but if your facts don’t line up behind your argument (and you didn’t secure tenure first), you’re going to be teaching high school. Maybe. Only the idea that survives your own attack (not to mention everybody else’s) has a chance of turning into a theory that allows the development of computer software that works (or, in the case of Microsoft’s stuff, doesn’t).

I have heard, through my life, people who call themselves (American) “conservative” lavish high praise on people of principle. People who announced their beliefs and stood behind them. They hated people (the husband of the incumbent Secretary of State comes to mind) whose actions were based, not on a principle, but on what evidence suggested might work in a particular situation.

I eventually ceased to be surprised at this way of thinking. After all, it occurred to me, a person who stands still, physically or philosophically, is one hell of a lot easier to hit.

But then, life becomes a hitting contest (see BOOOOM, supra).

Haven’t we just gone through eight years of standing still on principle in these Untied States?

Do you still have your 401K? Screw that. Do you still have your job?!?

All we are saying / Give science a chance.

Sorry, John.

  O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions expressed are mine, as a private citizen.



  1. Fantastic post, OC. I learned a lot. In a debate, is the proposition a philosopher and the opposition a scientist?

  2. No such debate usually happens, Dawg (and, thank you). The scientist gets so engrossed with arguing with him/herself that the philosopher ceases to be of interest – except to the audience, which participates in, or at least watches, the philosopher’s victory celebration, without perhaps understanding what they’ve won.

  3. I was asking specifically about an Oxford-style debate, which might happen. As I understand it, one participate seeks to defend a position and the other seeks to attack that position. I always thought of that as symmetrical until I read this piece.

  4. *one participant.

    Good grief, I am no philsopher nor scientist nor reference librarian.

  5. I see, said the blind man.

    Actually, in my understanding of that form of debate, both sides establish a belief (side 1. that the answer to the question posed is “yes”, side 2. that the answer is “no”), and seek to support that belief – to justify their position (which may include arguments against the other side’s assertions). I read that the philosophers call this “argument by justification”. The winner, if there is one, is the one who most impresses an audience with the weight of their justifications – or their charisma – or their ordnance.

    The scientist (at least, the one who follows Popperian reasoning) does not engage in argument by justification. To the scientist, the answer to the question is always “No” – unless all the facts at hand establish that the answer cannot be “no”. Which (this is important) does not mean that the answer is “yes”, only that it is not “no”. The fancy words for this are “empirical falsification” – something may be true if and only if it cannot be proved false.

    This style of argumentation makes lousy theatre. Ideally, there’s no emotion in it at all, just an assessment of the facts and whether they do or do not prove the assertion wrong. Personalities are subordinate to the information – this is one reason why scientists constantly write using the passive voice when every English professor in the universe (and a few who sneak in from alternate dimensions) screams at them not to.

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