Sunday, September 4, 2011

Church of Evolution: preview of a book unfinished, unpublished, and unread

Rabbi Shmuley (who, it transpires, is not an invention of 30Rock) has been kind enough to add me to his mailing list, and without me having to pray to Santa. The two of us have little in common but his bearded mutterings make for a lovely guffaw at breakfast. So, I stay subscribed.

His latest comes when I’m on holiday and have time to ponder profundities. The author of the forthcoming Church of Evolution (Santa, can you hear me?) asks: Does questioning evolution make you anti-science?

What quality of publication is so titillatingly titled a tract likely to be? Too impatient to wait for release, I’m going to hazard a guess based on the powers of logic manifest in Shmuley’s Huffington. Alas, Shmuley’s gordian beard is something even Ockham’s razor will strain to tame.

Look how many errors he can cram into a single sentence! “No scientist has ever witnessed evolution directly and science itself says that this is impossible given the vast amount of time needed for species to evolve.” One sentence, four errors. That’s more than an error every seven words.
  1. Loads of scientists have seen evolution. And they are dwarfed by the number of non-scientists who have seen it, all too close and personal. As rodents, insects, bacteria, and viruses acquire resistance to our means to combat them, we are watching, and suffering, evolution in action.
  2. Science, then, obviously does not say that seeing evolution is impossible.
  3. What science actually says is that speciation takes more time than any one observer can give it (not the same as saying that you can’t catch evolution in the act).
  4. And what’s with this demand for observables? Observables are fine, but deducibles are what science is about. Deducibles and explanations. If we are only to believe in observables, then we should all denounce the millennium. (All of that “year two thousand” nonsense that the Christians were going on about was clearly a big hoax. After all, no one has ever lived to see a millennium. Not even Methuselah…)
This doesn’t bode well for Shmuley’s Church. But maybe such errors are collateral damage in his higher purpose. So, why is he airing these and other errors in public?

Rabbi Shmuley is rallying to the defence of Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, who recently cited gaps in current understanding of evolution as grounds for general scepticism, and Paul Krugman went all Nobel-laureate on him in the New York Times. Shmuley is the man for the task because has been “reading extensively on evolution” since the 1990’s, and has organised, moderated, and participated in debates against such venerable evolution-populists as Richard Dawkins.

Watching how Shmuley moves from gaps in theories to chasms in reasoning tells us much about the likely quality of Church of Evolution.

His basic case is that he and others have unmasked the truth that Dawkins and similar refuse to admit: “evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue”. (He doesn’t consider that debating an opponent who can cram four errors into a single sentence is like fighting off a locust swarm with a fly swat.) The fact Shmuley thinks this is worth saying, and that he goes on about it at length, reveals how unqualified he is to write about evolution.

An extensive reader on evolution cannot fail to observe that there are people currently publishing scientific articles about evolution. This is a deep and profound observation, so I’d better not let it pass by unbelaboured. Today, at this very moment, now in fact, there are scientists, yes real live scientists, who do science professionally, and these scientists are publishing research into evolution in a myriad of journals (or maybe it’s a panoply), and these very journals are dedicated to publishing nothing but the research of such scientists. What could this profound and inscrutable revelation possibly mean?

One explanation is that scientists know everything possible about evolution. Every single thing there is to know, they know it. They discovered it ages ago and they have no unanswered questions left. Not a single, niggling one. And so to fill the void in their lives, they publish the same unoriginal, non-finding over and over again, in different journals, whilst failing to see the gaps that Shmuley-Perry’s perceive.

No, that’s not it. The extensive reader on evolution must surely have figured out that the reason there are still scientists answering questions about evolution is because they themselves are still asking them. And why do people ask questions? They do so to make a rhetorical point. Or else to identify and fill a gap in their knowledge.

So, if you want to prove that there are gaps in evolutionary theory, you don’t need to extensive reading starting in the 1990’s. You don’t need to organize, moderate, participate in, or even attend debates about evolution. All you need to do is check to see whether there are scientists working on the theory of evolution and you know it’s not a done deal.

This is so blindingly obvious that one has to wonder why the author of Church of Evolution bothers to comment on it.

The reason is that gaps have special significance to the religious. They are fundamental currency for the godly. God, you see, is basically play-doh. Sure, they come in prepackaged parcels, but God and play-doh can be squeezed into any shape you want. And, in particular, as my pre-school niece will gladly demonstrate, there isn’t a gap you can’t squeeze play-doh into. So, show the godly a conclusion they don’t like and they grasp for gaps, just as the thirsty, given a tetrapak, grasp at straws.

But if the gaps really were god-shaped—that is, if the gaps really did undermine the scientific quest for understanding—then surely scientists would have figured this out by now and gone off and done something else. After all, some of them have phd’s and are bright enough to publish in journals. And scientists are really good at killing off ideas that don’t work (remember ether? how about phlogiston?).

So, the godly grasp at gaps in theories because they hope to squeeze god into them. But the easiest way to check for gaps—by asking whether there are scientists at work—is also the surest way to tell you that aren’t any god-shaped gaps going.

You don’t need to be “reading extensively on evolution” to reach this conclusion. Think about it. Does Road construction ahead mean ‘Road with flaws’ or ‘Road inconstructible’? Does it mean ‘No road can ever be built here’ or ‘Experts say a road can and should be built here’? Going on about gaps in theories is a sign that one’s extensive reading is outsized by the extensive gap in one’s understanding.

The moment towards the end of his Huffington where Rabbi Shmuley reveals that god-shaped gaps are what he’s really after, also reveals a second reason as to why he is ill-suited to assess the state of science. He writes that “the Biblical account of creation easily accommodates an evolutionary ascent, seeing as … G-d created first the mineral, then the vegetable, then the animal, and finally human life forms. The only question is whether or not this was guided.”

Where scientists seek explanations, all Shmuley offers is compatibility. His alternative—to graffiti “cos God said so” on every scientific paper that comes his way—explains nothing. Science moves forward when people find places where rival accounts become incompatible and then test them. Incompatibility is key to explanation. So Shmuley’s grand idea is useless. Anything compatible with everything explains nothing.

So, what does this bode for Shmuley’s future Church? If its author can squeeze four errors into a single sentence, rebuttal point-by-point will be pointless (remember the locusts). So we must ask instead: does Rabbi Shmuley have the logical wherewithal to assess the state of evolutionary science in the first place? Well, for one thing, he doesn’t realize that ‘Scientists at work’ is one of the best guarantees we can have for the validity of major ideas—just as ‘Road construction ahead’ means ‘Experts see this as the best way forward’. There is no road from gappy to holy. Moreover, after all his “extensive reading”, he still doesn’t know what evolutionary theory is for. We want explanations, and explanations arise from incompatibilities. Shmuley’s approach is compatible not only with the truth, but with every delusion imaginable.

The gap-happy Church of Evolution will doubtless enlighten us as to the evolving nature of anti-evolutionism and the forces that animate it. But pray for the trees that are felled to print it, for they will be pulp not once, but twice.

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