21 October, 2005

The unmovable post

One of the articles I edit on Wikipedia is the evolution article. The great majority of edits to this article consist of random individuals coming along and inserting their snide creationism-based dismissals of modern evolutionary theory (fleetingly, before their changes are promptly reverted). Here's a representative one, from today. I'm forced to imagine the writer as some sort of half-formed man-ape, picking in consternation at his brow-ridge as he painstakingly searches the keyboard for the correct keys:
Though evolution is not supported by scientific method (it is not observable and repeated), this experience causes the myth of evolution to fall into the category of a religious world-view rathern than a scientific theory. Evolutionists will show evidence for micro-evolution (small changes within a type of biological life form) then switch to macro-evolution to suggest these changes can result in biological life changing into another kind of life form like fish to human, or simple cell organism (there are no simple cell organisms in reality) to whales.
It's really not worth it to make fun of someone who writes blurbs like this. Pointing out their errors is simply demeaning to yourself. It's a pointless waste of time, like correcting the diction and pronunciation of a three-year-old; you're better off smiling benignly and helping them open that Motts' applesauce packet they've been struggling with.

I guess this is the way most biologists feel about engaging creationists in a public forum. As George Bernard Shaw said, "I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." Which is why people like Michael Behe can run around for so long unfettered, tearing up the vegetables and knocking over fenceposts.

The good professor recently starred as the defense's main witness in the intelligent design trial currently underway in Dover, Pennsylvania. Behe's standard argument is "irreducible complexity", which he illustrates via a mousetrap: a mousetrap is a useful thing that cannot have been produced by an evolutionary process. That is, if we remove any one component from a mousetrap, it becomes functionally useless. A system that evolved by the agglomeration of components, however, requires intermediates to be useful. Behe argues that many biochemical systems (e.g. the blood clotting system in humans (and biological cascades more generally) or the flagellar motor) show such irreducibility.

Behe's claims are easily rubbished. This talk.origins page features a gorgeous and simple demonstration of how an "irreducibly complex" system can evolve for gene cascades. But Behe persists because he can, in a public forum. In point of fact, no one can ever shut you up by proving you wrong; so long as you have money and an audience, you can talk gibberish until the cows are blue in the face and come home to the kingdom, and even be reasonably well-received by gullible ignoramuses.

In point of fact, I don't think anyone even cares about Behe's arguments. I don't think Discovery Institute types like Philip Johnson are interested in how robust these concepts are. To them, this is simply armor of a sort. Here's a moderately sophisticated argument that is impenetrable to the vast majority of the public. They'll never appreciate the argument being made; they'll never appreciate the counterarguments, even if anyone bothered to make them explicit. In such a situation, you merely have to pick the expert espousing the ideology that you're comfortable with. Victory.

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