Saturday, May 21, 2005

Professor Rubinstein digs himself in deeper

I normally post either lighter fare (or nothing at all) here on weekends, but last night I became aware of something that led me to make an exception yet again.

Last weekend, during a Sunday random link roundup, I mentioned a jaw-droppingly, mind-numbingly bad piece of anti-evolution writing by a British historian, Professor William D. Rubinstein, that I had found via PZ Myer's evisceration of the sillier assertions and "doubts" about evolution in the article. This article was a fantastic example of how highly educated people who have presumably been well trained in the evaluation of evidence in one field can stumble very badly when they start commenting on another field that is outside their area of expertise. What was truly amazing about the article was that Professor Rubinstein uncritically parrotted a variety of long-debunked anti-evolution canards usually spread by "intelligent design" creationist advocates to the point that it demonstrated such a lack of understanding of basic biology and even the very fundamentals of basic evolutionary theory that I found it hard to believe that it was written by an academic.

Professor Rubinstein's article provoked a firestorm of criticism (to use a cliché) and many responses, which seemed to surprise him. Well, yesterday, Professor Rubinstein decided to respond to all the criticism with a comment of his own (scroll to the comments for May 20 to find it). He was surprised at the number and intensity of the responses and seemed hurt--yes, hurt!--that anyone might conclude from his piece that he might be a creationist. Observe Professor Rubinstein's response, with my comments added:

None of my previous articles for the Social Affairs Unit have attracted more than ten responses, most have only attracted a few responses. When I, for example, advocted abolishing the income tax-- www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/000214.php--it only received two responses. When I posted my article on evolution I did not expect it to attract a single response, not on a site unrelated to science or biology, let alone more than seventy.
That's nice, but what did you expect? You attracted the attention of quite a few scientists who couldn't believe the number of fallacies you included in it. Your article richly deserved the scorn that was heaped upon it. Besides, arguing about tax policy is different in that there are good arguments to be made for abolishing income taxes as well as for keeping them. There are no good scientific arguments for creationism.

I wish to make only two points in reply. First, to reiterate what I said in the article, I am not a “creationist,” and would not allow any of what I wrote to be cited by fundamentalists, although there are a wide range of non-“creationist” critics of evolutionary theory.
If you are, as you claim, "not a creationist," then why did you ignorantly parrot long-discredited and fallacious creationist "criticisms" of evolution? Sorry, Professor Rubinstein, but through your article you walked like a (creationist) duck and quacked like a (creationist) duck. You shouldn't be surprised when so many people concluded that you are a (creationist) duck, and I don't buy your denial. Also, you seem to be laboring under the delusion that you have control over what fundamentalists will cite. They will cite your work whether you approve of their doing so or not. You've put it out there on a public website. Unless you remove the article, anyone can cite it simply by linking to it and quoting from it. Even if you do take it down, they can quote from it.

Finally, to which "non-creationist" critics of evolutionary theory are you referring? Whom, specifically, and what is their critique? If there is indeed such a "wide range" of these critics, then why didn't you mention an example or two? Here, you seem to be playing another game many creationists play by equating controversies among evolutionary biologists over the mechanisms driving evolution with "criticism" of evolutionary theory. Let's get one thing straight here. Modern evolutionary theory is one of the most successful and well-supported scientific theories there is. There is indeed controversy about the specific mechanisms that drive evolution, but the fact that evolution occurs and the broad outlines of the mechanisms by which it occurs are not in dispute among biologists. See here for more.

You could always prove me wrong by getting specific regarding these "noncreationist" critics of evolution, but somehow I doubt that you will.

Secondly, I would be happy to donate say one hundred dollars or fifty pounds to charity if, by the end of ten years from now (May 2015) anyone can produce an example of evolution in the animal world which has occurred during that time span - that is, the appearance of a new species of animal, which does not exist today, but which is descended from an existing species. (Of course this must occur in the natural world - laboratory experiments are excluded). I readily admit that ten years is a ridiculously short period, but there are more than one million species of animal life and new species should be appearing all the time, surely. I would stipulate a much longer time frame - fifty or five hundred years - but won’t be around to monitor the results.

(Professor) William D. Rubinstein
I honestly find it hard to believe that you would repeat yet again the "speciation has never been observed" canard, which is what you are clearly doing here with "offer." Heck, you even admit that 10 years is a "ridiculously short" period, thus implicitly acknowledging the speciousness of your challenge. Indeed, I would point out that the "ridiculously small" amount of your proposed prize should someone point out an example of new speciation by 2015 strongly suggests that your challenge is more for show than any sort of substance and you know it. In any case, speciation has been observed, and once again Talkorigins.org has many examples (and here as well). I suggest you check those examples out and be educated.

I had thought that perhaps PZ and I were too hard on Professor Rubinstein. Now that I see his non-response to the criticisms of his article, in which he failed to address directly any of the substantive concerns raised by PZ, me, or any of the commenters on his article, I realize that perhaps I was too easy on him. Professor Rubinstein is Exhibit A for why expertise in one area does not necessarily translate to expertise in another area. Indeed, it boggles my mind that a man trained to wade through detailed primary historical evidence could make such basic mistakes. I suspect that the reason it is possible for him to make such egregious errors is that he doesn't have the scientific background to properly evaluate the sources he has looked at and lacks the humility to recognize what he doesn't know. (He doesn't even seem to know the definition of the word "theory" when used to refer to scientific theories.) Consequently he gives more credence to fallacious "criticisms" of evolution than they deserve, most likely because they appeal to his pre-existing beliefs. When I write about history on this blog, I do so with a distinct appreciation for the limitations of my understanding of history. Indeed, always in the back of my mind is the fear that I may be making a fool of myself commenting on a field outside the area of my expertise (something I've probably managed to do at one time or another, despite my best efforts). Unfortunately, Dr. Rubinstein doesn't appear to have that same appreciation for the limitations of his understanding. If he had, he would have shown a little more humility and probably would have tried to learn some basic biology before forging ahead with an article that could only sully his reputation and make him appear a fool.

11 example(s) of insolence returned:


At 5/21/2005 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does the theory of evolution, as proposed by Darwin, address the origin of life, or does it deal exclusively with what happens AFTER life is initiated?

 

At 5/21/2005 5:05 PM, Blogger PZ Myers said...

Darwin does not address the origin of life, period. Have you read his book?

Modern biology is split. Most regard the origin of life as a separate issue from evolutionary biology sensu stricto; however, this is comparable to the division between biology and chemistry. It isn't a "real" separation -- biology grades insensibly into chemistry, and there is a whole discipline of chemical evolution which does address the origin of life, and is informed by evolutionary principles.

Basically, your question is poorly formed and accomplishes little other than to tell us you don't know much about the science.

 

At 5/21/2005 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PZ - relax! Not everyone is a creationist troll.
Anonymous might have been honestly just asking. You don't have to jump down their throat quite yet.

I swear, I think there's some sort of post-traumatic ID disorder, caused by too much exposure to constant creationist "arguments."

-Dan S.

 

At 5/21/2005 6:28 PM, Blogger Orac said...

I rather suspect it was anonymous' use of the term "as proposed by Darwin," as well as his putting "AFTER" in all caps that caused PZ's creationist detecting antennae to start twitching. Certainly the phraseology made mine start twitching.

 

At 5/21/2005 6:45 PM, Anonymous Danny said...

*Eyes start twitching*

Anyway, nice response to Rubinstein's article on evolution. I had a high school history teacher that advocated young earth creationism, which she introduced in the last few weeks of class. I had enjoyed her class throughout the year until then, I even joined the history club. Oh, betrayer of my trust~

Also, in one entry in the last Skeptic Circle, a blogger notes that Philippine history textbooks (by one of the most influential and distinguished historians of the last century) contain highly uninformed "criticisms" against evolution. No doubt a lot of historian know better, but those that do not are the ones that are destroying the impressionable minds of kids.

 

At 5/21/2005 9:20 PM, Anonymous Vasha said...

It seems that Rubinstein's work as a historian is also up Orac's alley. I found the following review of his book The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis.

http://www.24hourscholar.com/p/articles/mi_m0411/is_2_49/ai_64332277

I quote: "William Rubinstein is no Holocaust-denier, but his book The Myth of Rescue is a good example of what may be a related phenomenon--denial that any more Jews could have been rescued from the Holocaust....Rubinstein has positioned himself far beyond the bounds of reasonable debate, by offering the extreme and untenable proposition that "No Jew who perished during the Nazi Holocaust could have been saved by any action which the Allies could have t aken at the time" (x)....Bereft of documentary evidence to support his angry theory, Rubinstein resorts to ignoring documents that conf lict with his predetermined conclusions, manipulating facts and statistics, and piling high the pseudotechnical data he hopes will impress readers who are not experts in the field."

Orac, have you read The Myth of Rescue? Is it as screwy as this review claims?

Vasha

 

At 5/22/2005 6:12 AM, Blogger Internal Medicine Doctor said...

What a beautiful find vasha. I'd be fidgeting just getting my fingers on this book. But ORAC. Oh god, you know how much he knows about WWII adn you tell HIM about this.

And you thought PZ had creationist antennas.
Well, let's see where this goes.

 

At 5/22/2005 9:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PZ Myers said: "Darwin does not address the origin of life, period. Have you read his book?...

Basically, your question is poorly formed and accomplishes little other than to tell us you don't know much about the science."


I have not read his book, that's why I asked the question. I believe in evolution, the mountains of evidence that support it are convincing even to those of us who are not science oriented. However, to make a case for evolution on a creationist blog is much easier if one concentrates on what happens AFTER life starts. If you think my question was poorly formed, it's only because your intellectual elitism restricts your participation in this debate to the arena of hardcore science. That leaves the common, bible-thumping masses to the rest of us. And if we can't get an answer to a simple question without getting insulted for asking, well, you're not making it any easier.

 

At 5/22/2005 9:47 AM, Blogger Orac said...

Vasha, that is indeed an interesting find. I've never read The Myth of Rescue. I'll have to look into it when I get a chance. It never occurred to me to examine Rubinstein's work as a professional historian, for the simple reason that my main beef was with his creationist idiocy.

 

At 5/22/2005 2:12 PM, Anonymous pete said...

Didn't read Darwin's book? Which one? anyway check here:
http://pages.britishlibrary.net/charles.darwin/
and read perhaps the last paragraph of the Origin. Related info here:
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/spontaneous-generation.html

The best place to pursue related questions, after getting at least the very most basic background, is the talk.origins news group (which means discussion group). You can find it through google/ groups/advanced, but that is a clumsy approach. A dedicated news reader (e.g. Free Agent, a free download) is better.

OOL (origins of life) is now a regular research area although it has received only a tiny fraction as much research as, say, cancer.

 

At 6/04/2005 10:52 AM, Blogger spike said...

"Basically, your question is poorly formed and accomplishes little other than to tell us you don't know much about the science."

What? He's asking a question. As an English degree student I can tell you that it isn't poorly formed in any regard. Darwin's original theory is quite flawed.

 

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