Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Fringes

I recently went to an Intelligent Design presentation from the Discovery Institute. They showed a documentary they had just made and had a group discussion with four authors/scientists.  The one I was familiar with was Michael Behe. I enjoyed his book: Darwin’s Black Box. It pretty much kicked off the Intelligent Design movement and coined the phrase ‘irreducible complexity’.

I was raised in a culture of Young Earth Creationism.  This is peculiar to conservative evangelical -and mostly U.S.- Christianity.  (Through their missionary activity it also has taken hold in pockets around the world.)  The basic tenets are that the Bible is best read as literally as possible, therefore the universe was created in six 24-hour-days, and according to the various genealogies, we can estimate the earth to be only several thousand years old.  All scientific evidence to the contrary is generally chalked up to spiritually motivated scientists who want to make everyone atheists.  

In the past decade I’ve looked more into the subject of evolution, and since my religious orientation was changing I no longer had a motivation for rejecting the idea out of hand.  As I read more and talked to people with scientific backgrounds the idea that their motives were nefarious became harder and harder for me to accept.  Eventually I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘Fine. I see all the places where evolution not only explains stuff really well, but also has amazing predictive power, and I see that these people really don’t care if society is atheist or not.  (In fact, most of them are NOT atheists) And I’m certainly in no place to adaquately vet their work, so I’ll just accept the massive majority opinion on the subject.’  Since that time I found Biologos, ( ) an orginazation of (mostely) Christian evolutionists, and really enjoyed reading their work.  Their basic premises -as far as I can tell- are that evolution is merely a mechanism, not an ontological explanation for existence, and that the Bible is not best interpreted as literally as possible.  

So while I am convinced (as much as I am capable of such a state) that evolution is true, I still enjoy hearing other opinions on the matter.  One group I follow is called Reasons To Believe ( ) a Christian old-earth creationist organization. While denying evolution, they agree with the prevailing science regarding the age of the universe and earth.  I also follow the Discovery Institute ( ) an ostensebly agnostic organization that promotes intellegent design, very dutifully avoiding naming said intellegent designer.  Additionally I will occasionally check in on Ken Hamm’s Answers in Genesis. ( )These people represent the young earth creationism I was taught growing up, and are busy building multi-million dollar museums, themeparks, and a life sized Noah’s Ark.  They are very silly.

One thing my specific personality matrix has a very difficult time understanding is conspiracy theories.  As part of my continuing effort to really LISTEN to people, I’ve tried my darndest to understand the 9/11 Truthers, the Anti-vaxers, the Anti-Fluoride thing, the Chemtrails thing, etc. etc.  At every step I keep running into the problem that my mental model of human psychology and motives can’t possibly fit the theories. All of these theories require thousands of people to not only be mustache twirling villains, but actually insane enough to damn their own offspring with their actions.  I will grant that SOME percentage of the population has such characteristics.  But then imagining the power required to organize them, unify them in purpose and direction, silence any who change their minds, build an infrastructure that maintains and exercises their power in absolute secrecy… It simply breaks all my credulities into little pieces.  Granted, my mental model of human psychology and motivation could be completely wrong.  But I haven’t been convinced of that as of yet.

Like I mentioned, in order to believe Young Earth Creationism, some amount of conspiracy is generally invoked.  I’ve seen Chick Tracts and homeschool curricula claiming that the idea of evolution is in fact, a satanic conspiracy; scientists being the unwitting (or ARE they?!) pawns of the devil in his attempt to lead people to hell.  

However, once you get outside of the YEC circles, the flavor of the conspiracy changes pretty dramatically.  Probably because most of the people involved in organisations like Reasons To Believe and Discovery Institute are actually fairly well regarded scientists in their respective fields who work directly with “the enemy”.  They are much more sober in their assessment of the powers that fuel the theory of evolution and the social dynamics at play in its teaching and defending. Rather than shadowy demonic forces, they invoke the banality of ego, institutional momentum, politicized funding and group-think.  A deep well many philosophers of science have gone to for a very long time.  Now THIS is the kind of conspiracy I can follow.  This fits my mental model of human psychology and motives.

They (both Intelligent Design advocates and philosophers of science) point to both historical events and human foibles to demonstrate how wrong ideas can propagate and dominate the culture of science for long stretches of time.  I think their arguments are compelling, but also a double edged sword.  One can certainly take these ideas and run them into the ground.  See every flat-earther and fake-moon-landing apologist out there.  Surely one must recognize that the scientific establishments, cultures, and institutions bring a lot of power to bear on our understanding of reality.  But where does that power come from, given the previously mentioned banal human foibles that muck with our institutions and cultures so badly?  

I think the general consensus is that the power comes from the scientific PROCESS.  While the prevailing theories may come and go, Bacon’s model of the best way to go about vetting one’s own and other’s ideas has remained pretty much unchanged.  The fact that prevailing theories CAN come and go are testament to the power of that process.  Our institutional and cultural accretions around that process are, indeed, full of ego, institutional momentum, politicized funding and group-think.  The misunderstanding of critics come when the process of science is conflated with a particular mechanism by which it is facilitated. The mechanisms are certainly flawed.  But the process is sound.

And right now I’m worried that the mechanisms we have designed for the process of scientific inquiry are breaking down because they can’t scale to the breadth of fields that we have carved out.  What I mean is that there are so many fields, and subfields and sub sub fields that we are getting to a point where it’s almost fractal in nature.  To see this in action, check out any science wiki page, go to the Branches section.  In the Branches section click on the links to those, and you’ll find more. You can keep doing this for a good long time.  ( e.g. )

As such, no single mind, or even oversight body, can possibly know ENOUGH about all of these specialties to be able to coherently manage them, analyse them, theorize and unify them, or any other high-level process.  Science right now looks to me like millions of individuals digging very deep, very narrow holes, finding more data than they can possibly interpret themselves, yet unable to synthesize that data with the millions of other diggers, because all those other’s plates are full AND they can’t possibly learn enough about their own little pit, let alone someone else’s, or multiple other else’s!

One neat thing about this is that a universal theory like evolution can be applied to so many of these fields.  So when each scientist pops their head out of their pit and shouts to the others, “Yep, evolution explains what I’m seeing!” the others can do the same, and the theory remains useful as an explanatory framework.  The less-neat-thing is that when a scientist finds that evolution does not fit their data, or is contradicted by it, they have so much work to do that it’s easy to push that to the side, and say “Well I’ve heard so many others agree, there must be something I’m missing. I’ll get back to it.”  And that is a theme I heard more than once among the speakers at the presentation I attended.  Scientist A finds that their sub sub sub sub field has data that would seem to contradict the evolutionary model. Scientist B has data that would seem to contradict the evolutionary model.  So does scientist C, D, and E.  However, because they are so isolated in their sub sub sub sub sub fields, it’s very difficult to compare notes with those in other sub sub sub sub fields.  Not because they don’t think to talk to others, or have journals and other mechanisms for cross-pollinating.  But because sharing one’s doubt about a prevailing model carries a professional cost.  And in the case of evolution, since it is such a hotly politicized model, the cost can be devastating.  So the chances that scientist A and B will ever bring up their issues to each other will be rare.  Because of this social/political climate, I can very easily imagine a theory like evolution dominating despite being wrong.  

But that’s a very different thing than saying that I think evolution IS wrong.  Again, there is SO much that is SO beautifully, eloquently explained by it. ( )  But the biggest problem I have with all the Discovery Institute’s argments have nothing to do with their varacity, delivery, quality, motivation or anthing else they have any power over.  All those aspects seem right on to me.  I find many of their arguments compelling.  Especially their big hit: Irreducible Complexity.  The PROBLEM I have with their arguments is the same problem I’d have listening to ANY expert in ANY field argue against consensus.  I simply lack the knowledge, education, experience -and probably intelligence- to be able to tell a good argument from a bad one.  I can tell if the STRUCTURE of their argument is sound.  But I can’t tell if the data they present is the whole picture.  In other words I’m blind to their selection bias.  And it would take me a lifetime to truly investigate and learn everything I would need to in order to vet what they are saying.  Sadly, I’ve got better things to do with my life.  Like writing really long blogs no one will read.  Important stuff like that.

So while I enjoy reading on the topic, from almost all perspectives, I simply can’t get on a ‘side’ and root for the underdog, or hope that the noisy ignorant idiots will shut up.  I think the “best” option is to side with the consensus on a contingent basis.  I am genuinely puzzled by several ‘holes’ in the theory of evolution.  But when I read counter-arguments I’m left wanting, because I simply don’t know enough to even know what I don’t know or what any of those writing their arguments don’t know about knowing what they know or don’t know.  Know what I mean?  Me neither.

My gut tells me that the way nature works is way too haphazard, sloppy and gross to be the design of a Master Craftsman.  It’s easy for creationists to cherry pick all the astoundingly cool systems and say “That means God did it!”  But I look at things like the way our excretory and reproductive systems utilize the same organs, and…. Uh… I’m  not claiming to be the BEST designer ever.  But that is just TERRIBLE design.  And it can’t be blamed on The Fall.  (A lot of creationists say EVERY gross\bad thing on Earth is because of the sin that Adam and Eve did and God’s subsequent curse.)  So I think that if human bodies were artisanally hand crafted by a better designer than me, they would not have the theme park and sewage waste plant in the same building.  And there are lots of other less-funny examples of hodge-podge design language all over the place.  I don’t think that NEGATES the role of a designing God.  I just think it’s clear that there was some mechanism between the sculptor and the clay.  And a mechanism like evolution fits the bill really well.  

So while I can’t hop on board with these folks on the fringes of science, I can certainly identify with them and enjoy their work.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, remember me? I was that guy stuck in a bad situation, fanboying about 17 months ago (on the birthday post).
I ... felt like saying "hi" since the last two posts, simply because they resonate so well with me: some kind of soul-and-truth-searching, even knowing fully well that a lifetime is not enough to reach a conclusion.
So yes, at least one person reads your overly long blog posts :)

In case you're interested in how I'm doing these days:
My situation managed to mostly stay the same, thanks to bureaucratic mills grinding so slowly and some appointments coming up this month, that were made around the time I last wrote.
What did change, however, is how I started to view all of this: As the bad comedy that it is.
I might actually have blossomed into a full-blown maniac, meeting off-the-shelf non-solution answers from bureaucratic entities with cynical laughter. And I feel my personality nowadays has more in common with some comic-book-villains than a random person you'd meet on the street.
All part of the big show that's called "life", I guess.

As always; thanks for existing, and a special thank you for putting interesting thoughts into text for everyone to read.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Josh Foreman said...

Interpreting the 'why' behind the scenes is a very powerful thing. I've found that having many different interpretations to choose from is helpful. For example, when I was going through my divorce and custody battle to keep my kids safe, thanks to my religious upbringing I interpreted that devastating inner anguish as God refining me and making me stronger. Because of that I was able to bear it, and even find some joy throughout it. Hope is vital to getting through hardship. And wherever you can find it you need to grab tight.

I guess in your situation I'd recommend thinking of some other interpretations besides "bad comedy" I guess that's better than an interpretation like "The world is out to kill me" or "I'm doomed." But just putting other options in your vocabulary could do wonders. Just my two cents.

5:31 PM  

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