Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The anti-evolutionist case: Fred Reed, “scurrilous” indeed

The student mentioned in yesterday’s post sent me four of the anti-evolution articles that she was impressed with. No offence to her—students are there to learn and learning to spot unreliable sources is particularly tricky—but they are far worse than I was expecting. Here are the two emails (with minor changes for readability) that I sent back this morning.

I’m posting them here for two reasons. In case any else needs alerting to the atrocious incompetence of Fred Reed’s writings (read my other posts to see that I don’t go in for exaggeration). And as an illustration of how to avoid being duped by a Kruger-Dullard, someone who mistakenly believes themself expert enough in an area to offer “scurrilous commentary” on the “foolishness” of others (to quote Reed).

It’s common sense. Before you trust someone in foreign terrain, you test them on ground you both know. When it’s my mother’s medical musings, where I have minuscule factual knowledge, I go for the statistical/experimental jugular: if a “trial” can’t possibly show what the authors think it proves, then they can’t tell bad science from good. They’re Kruger-Dullards.

In the case of biological (rather than cognitive) evolution, I’m competent only in the shallows: when the argument dives deep, the details drown me. Fortunately, Fred warms up with a potted history of science and some comments on what scientists think they’re doing. This is bread and butter stuff. And he gets diametrically wrong, attributing to scientists in general, and Newton in particular, the very opposite of what they say, believe, and do. A Kruger-Dunning delusive if ever there was one.

I started off with a general piece about two world views (ah, rival world views, like my first book) and, after a quick skim, this was my response (“smooth-tongued” picks up on a comment of the student’s about Reed’s writing style):

Hi ******,
Thanks for forwarding. I’ve skimmed one and I’ll take a look at the other three, but so far I’m not impressed. The writer understands some basic principles of science, but also makes several errors that are typical of highschool-level understanding: mechanism died with Newton, determinism died with Poincaré (replaced with chaotic determinism, or deterministic chaos), the digression into ethics and evolution misrepresents what evolutionary theory actually posits and covers and wholly ignores the contributions of cognitive science, where, incidentally, Chomsky has addressed the “problem of consciousness” and the significance of volition, which Fred presents as arch-problems that science has ignored. Not a promising beginning.
What’s really weird though is his premise that, if we divide the world into those who think we can know it all and those at peace with the inevitability of ignorance, then scientists fall in the know-it-all camp. The claim is quite bewildering. Knowing/asking/understanding are all biological processes. They are therefore limited just as every other biological process is. Just as there are speeds we can’t run at, and sounds we can’t hear, and wavelengths we can’t see, so there are questions we can’t conceive of and answers we can’t give. And even if that weren’t true, we’d never have enough time to answer all our questions. So ignorance is inevitable and anyone who gives the matter a moment’s thought knows as much. Enlightenment scientists were aware of this, reviving a tradition that goes back to Aristotle at least (suppressed under religious influence in the interim).
If somebody, especially a smooth-tongued somebody, tells me that they’re going to tell me the problem with science and then makes so rudimentary an error as to claim that scientists believe all questions to be answerable, then I conclude that they are either ignorant or dishonest. Either way, I’m disinclined to trust anything else they say. After all, if they get the basics wrong, they’re only going to get more confused when it comes to the details.
Let me know if you disagree. More as and when. Regards, Daniel

I’d intended to stop there, but there’s nothing like bollocks for breakfast and a quick click brought me to a critique of judicial rulings on intelligent design in science classes. My response:

OMG, this is appalling!
Next came Newton. There were others before him, but he, though he was himself a Christian, was the towering figure in the rise of mechanism, the view that all things occur ineluctably through mindless antecedent causes. He said (remember, I’m simplifying exuberantly) that the physical world is like a pool table: If you know the starting positions and velocities of the balls, you can calculate all future positions and velocities. No sprites, banshees, or Fates, no volition or consciousness.
This is the exact opposite of what Newton said. Descartes was the billiard ball physicist. Newton was accused precisely of reintroducing “occult forces” on a par with sprites.
OK, this guy is way too ignorant to be worth reading. I’m stopping here.
Regards, Daniel

The misunderstanding was so preposterous, there was no point going on. I regret to say, Fred Reed isn’t “simplifying exuberantly”. He’s an exuberant simpleton. And on science (at least), he writes pure rubbish.

(Hmm, this post is more ad hominem than I’d like. Sorry Fred.)


  1. "Newton was accused precisely of reintroducing “occult forces” on a par with sprites."
    "Was accused" by whom? How do we know whether this accusation was reasonably founded?

  2. Fred actually does have a few interesting questions to ask, shame that you were apparently too arrogant and thin-skinned to get to them as it would be interesting to see them answered.