Monday, September 19, 2005

What makes a crank a crank?

The other day, I was amused to read PZ Myer's highly entertaining slapdown of Timothy Birdnow, who posted to the mis-named website The American Thinker an appallingly ignorant article entitled, The Case Against Darwin. PZ was brutal as he usually is with such confidently asserted ignorance about evolution, but no more brutal than the material, a listing of the usual creationist "critiques" of Darwin served up with some truly egregious errors in basic biology--such as not getting the number of phyla even close to correct (Birdnow claimed there are 5 when there are 30) and the claim that DNA molecules are "composed of the even simpler RNA molecule"-- deserved. Predictably, Birdnow whined in his blog that he was being abused and then laughably removed his response and created a new Blogspot blog entitled Darwin's Inquisition, where he re-posted his original laughable response, entitled Darwinist Declare Jihad on Birdblog. (No, that's not my typo.) He even ran to William Dembski's blog begging for help, claiming that he's being "assaulted by PZ Myers and his Panda's Middle Finger minions at my website," while directing poetry back at PZ that, ironically, he doesn't seem to realize applies to him far more than his critics.

It is not my intent to pile on and add another point-by-poing blog slapdown of Mr. Birdnow to those of PZ. There's really no need, as Mr. Birdnow has dug himself into a deep hole and made an utter fool of himself flaunting his amazing ignorance of biology and then, when all his errors were pointed out to him, claiming that his errors didn't make his arguments less valid. (Besides, I can't come close to PZ when it comes to giving creationists like Birdnow the blog slapdowns they beg for.) When faced with legitimate (albeit somewhat rough) criticisms of the blatant errors in his presentation and his arrogance in refusing to recognize how much he does not know, Birdnow went running to Dembski, making him hardly worth bothering with as much as I have. Rather, what caught my eye was an interesting exchange in the comments of his post that summed up quite well what makes creationists cranks. Indeed, it summed up a characteristic of cranks in general, which is why I wanted to make it my launching point.

A commenter going by the 'nym of StaticNoise said:
Without the complete taxonomic relationship of organisms we can't possibly guess at ancestral relationships and declare evolutionary theory completely settled. There has been a persistent campaign by evolutionists to bully the lay public, as evidenced in this thread, into accepting that the debate is over.
Another commenter called Dr. G. Hurd, recognizing this as an argument from ignorance, retorted:
Can you tell me the exact trajectory of every round of every rifle fired in the Second world War? Can you tell me the names of every person, civilian or military, who died on Nov. 17th, 1943 as a result, direct or indirect, of the Second World War?

Obviously, your failure to do so "proves" that the "theory of the Second World War" is a total fabrication used by historians to "bully the lay public, as evidenced in this thread, into accepting that the Second World War is over."
Hurd nailed it right on the head! And succinctly, too! In fact, I wondered as I read his comment whether he had had some experience dealing with Holocaust deniers. Why? Because one of the key claims of some Holocaust deniers is that there could not have been nearly as many Jews killed in the Holocaust because, as they like to demand, "Where are the bodies and ashes?" Or, alternatively, they like to ask they like to make the fallacious claim that there is no forensic evidence that victims were gassed. As creationists do about mainstream scientists, they make claims that "mainstream" historians try to "bully" the public that the "debate is over" while implying that, if historians can't come up with a Holocaust death toll that accounts for every single Jew, Gypsy, Slav, and others who died at the hands of the Nazis, this somehow casts grave doubt on the very historicity of the entire Holocaust. (Oddly enough, they never ask the same questions or raise the same doubts about the Dresden firestorm or the Hamburg bombing, instead accepting without question even the most obviously inflated death tolls--a point I and others often throw back in their face, asking the same question, "Where are all the bodies?") In any case, in their their zeal to deny the Holocaust, Holocaust "revisionists" magnify uncertainties in estimates of the death toll or minor controversies over various aspects of the Holocaust, selectively disregarding the massive quantities of other documentary, physical, and forensic evidence supporting the contention that the Nazis intentionally developed a campaign of mass murder designed to eliminate European Jewry and any others that they saw as inferior or potential enemies of the state.

[DISCLAIMER: I do not mean to imply that creationists are anti-Semitic, as virtually all Holocaust deniers are, or Nazi apologists, as some Holocaust deniers are. I doubt that you would find a larger percentage of anti-Semites or neo-Nazis among creationists than you would in the general population. As I have pointed out before, I use this example to illustrate similarities in the fallacious reasoning the two groups use. I realize that such comparisons need to be used with care, hence this disclaimer.]

This sort of selectivity in attacking flaws in a theory or history is not limited to pseudohistorians like Holocaust "revisionists," of course, as "Dr. G. Hurd" pointed out by using his obviously absurd example. Creationists, including those of the "intelligent design" variety, like to pull a similar fast one, implying that, because we do not understand everything about how evolution occurred, because there are gaps in the taxonomy, because we do not entirely understand every step, because we haven't found each and every transitional fossil, this must imply that evolutionary theory is somehow fatally flawed and untrue. They ignore how much we do understand about evolution (which is a lot) and focus on every "flaw" in evolutionary theory, real or perceived, and every area where our understanding is incomplete, trying to magnify them in order to cast doubt on the theory of evolution. (Of course, they are also happy to overlook the fact that there is zero scientific evidence for "intelligent design.") The second implication, if you buy their claims that evolutionary theory is fatally flawed, is that their pet idea of "intelligent design" must be correct (or at least better). They seem to think that, by attacking evolution by hook or by crook, they "prove" that "intelligent design" is a reasonable alternative, all, conveniently enough, without having to produce any actual positive evidence for their alternative idea. (I won't dignify it by calling it a "theory.")

Indeed, this sort of behavior is almost a sine qua non of every variety of crank and pseudoscientist, be they "intelligent design" creationist or altie. Cranks tend to crave certainty, and, usually unintentionally, they often misinterpret weaknesses in current theory as fatal flaws that completely negate the theory. To them, if every hole isn't filled in, if every doubt isn't addressed, if every detail isn't understood, then theory must be invalidated, and, by implication, theirs must be a reasonable alternative. Science doesn't work that way, though, nor does history. For such disciplines, there will always be areas we do not understand in as much detail as we would like, and there will always be areas that current understanding doesn't adequately explain. However, these areas must be examined in light of what we do understand. For example, for evolution we understand a lot. There is an enormous amount of observational and experimental evidence from many disciplines that support current theory.

Unfortunately, science will always be susceptible to this sort of attack, at least in the eyes of nonscientists, because it is the very nature of science that no theory is ever final. Although to become elevated to the level of a "theory," a set of scientific postulates must have an enormouse amount of evidence supporting them, making them the best current understanding of a natural phenomenon that we have, no theory is ever considered to be the final word; every theory is subject to revision (most common) or replacement with a better theory (much less common) when new evidence and experimental results warrant it. To me and most scientists, science would be a boring and unrewarding field indeed if it were otherwise, because we would have very little to study. Much of the excitement of doing science comes from the possibility of discovering something new and unexpected that adds to our understanding of nature. Indeed, contrary to what cranks seem to think, the greatest glory in science is not confirming current theory but modifying it or even overturning it for something new. Unlike scientists, however, cranks don't understand that only pointing out and exaggerating the flaws in current theory is enough. They conveniently forget the part about having to produce strong evidence that supports their ideas, evidence strong enough to convince the vast majority of scientists.

14 example(s) of insolence returned:


At 9/19/2005 10:39 AM, Blogger bushpigeon said...

Another example that fits this model perfectly is the bogus "controversy" over whether Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. Gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare are magnified, and alternative "theories" that are far more implausible are peddled. For example, cranks argue that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays despite the small problem that he died before about half of them were performed.

 

At 9/19/2005 11:41 AM, Blogger Rockstar Ryan said...

They require detailed evidence from us, yet base their ideas on the supernatural.

Cranks are most certainly unbelievable. Good post Doc.

 

At 9/19/2005 10:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of my favorite examples of "nonscience" from people who question biological evolutionary theory. (Sorry that I cannot recall the specific sources):
1. A poster on Pharyngula demanded, amongst other things, a precise explanation of how consciousness arises from the brain, before he would take materialistic science seriously. (That is, he wanted someone to do it right then, in a form that he could understand and would accept.)
2. Some creationist demanded that scientists produce the verifiable sequence, parent to child to grandchild and so on, to show the process of speciation in the fossil record.
VKW

 

At 9/19/2005 11:03 PM, Blogger Orac said...

Yes, that is one aspect of cranks. They demand explanations down to the most minute detail from their opponents, but exempt themselves from anywhere near the same level of rigor. And, even if you try to explain things to them in detail, it's never enough. They always demand more.

 

At 9/20/2005 9:10 AM, Blogger Matt McIrvin said...

Some related phenomena:

1. Historical attacks. Cranks will usually try to go back to the founding sources of a science and attack them or the people involved, in the belief that this will cause the whole edifice to come tumbling down. Thus we have attacks on Darwin's or Einstein's reasoning without addressing everything that's been done since them. (See also the trade in deathbed-recantation stories.)

2. Lack of correspondence to existing theory. Sheldon Glashow once said of physics cranks that their single most common failing in proposing new ideas is to explain in the new framework why the old theories fit the data so well. This is an essential feature of new theories: in order to be convincing, they have to have at least some hope of connecting to the established ones in the realm where the old theories match the data. Cranks can't do this, which is why they instead concoct strange arguments to the effect that the old theories didn't fit the data at all.

 

At 9/20/2005 1:55 PM, Anonymous jre said...

What I found particularly delicious was that PZ Myers listed Birdnow's argumentative points, pointing out that each and every one was in error, and Birdnow admitted it -- then went on to insist that it didn't matter and his argument was as stong as ever!

MYERS: Look, you stupid bastard. You've got no points left.
BIRDNOW: Yes, I have.
MYERS: Look!
BIRDNOW: Just a flesh wound. [kick]
MYERS: Look, stop that.
BIRDNOW: Chicken!

I'd considered doing an extended parody of that exchange using the Black Knight conceit, but it got to be more trouble than it was worth.

 

At 9/21/2005 1:42 PM, Blogger QrazyQat said...

I've seen this as well in my own exchanges with advocates of a certain fringe theory. You can point out that a given promoter alters quotes and changes conclusions of researchers on any number of points, but the idea that just maybe this should make you suspicious of the rest of their writings doesn't add up for the acolytes. I mean, just because they did it here, and here, and there, and they do it here, and this place, etc., doesn't add up to any doubt at all on any parts you haven't checked out.

 

At 9/22/2005 1:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its funny how these guys just never get the point science is about what we dont know yet. I "think" it was Einstien that said "If we knew what we were doing it wouldnt be called research !"
I like the "Two Questions for Creationists" found at http://www.ebonmusings.org/evolution/twoquestions.html. It pretty much puts the ID argument in a nutshell.

 

At 9/22/2005 5:28 AM, Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Mr. McIrvin's post struck a chord with me. I've long been fond of an essay by the physicist Jeremy Bernstein for New Yorker in which Dr. Bernstein imagines what it would have been like in 1905 to have been the unsuspecting editor of a physics journal who received in the mail one of Einstein's papers for publication. How to tell that Einstein was not a crank? One of the two main points Bernstein made was that Einstein explained why the old theories appeared to work so well, rather than railing away that the old theorists were themselves cranks and crackpots. It may be worth your tracking down the Bernstein essay, which he republished in a collection.

But second, I think it's important to note that, in a well-refereed fight, truth wins -- for both Holocaust and evolution.

Mel Mermelstein took up the challenge of a neo-Nazi sympathizing group to "prove" that the Holocaust occurred. Among other things, Mermelstein had the tattoo on his arm from his own incarceration, and he had the records of his lost family members. The denial group, funded by veteran wacko Willis Carto, had developed the shtick of claiming whatever proof was offered was not good enough, and refusing to pay the offered $50,000 prize. Mermelstein, however, knew the laws of sweepstakes. He sued, claiming that his presentationt of the proof was an acceptance of a bona fide contract, and fulfillment of the same contract, and left it up to California courts to determine the rest.

In a brilliant move, the judge took judicial note of the Holocaust. That is, he ruled that the evidence for the Holocaust, including Mermelstein's contributions, is so solid that it need not be proven in court every time -- rather like 2+2=4, no expert witnesses must testify. Consequently, the only thing left was whether the rest of the terms of the contract were valid. The court found it a legitimate sweepstakes, ordered that Mermelstein had indeed proved the Holocaust, and ordered Carto's group to pay the money.

In California, at least, it is settled law: The Holocaust occurred. Other courts may take that decision under advisement.

Similarly, evolution won in Arkansas in 1981. Creationist experts, when put under oath, confessed there is no science basis to creationism, that is instead based in scripture. In a side issue, the court found that there is no bias in science journals against creationism (or ID), it's just that creationists don't do research to support their claims. No research, no publications -- one needs no cabal to stand the academic ground against . . . nothing.

Judge William Overton ruled that the Christian clergy and others who sued Arkansas were right -- evolution is science, creationism is religious dogma. It is, therefore, against the Constitution to teach creationism, religious doctrine, in science classes in public schools. Government may not advocate religion.

And because that decision rather squarely labelled creationists as "cranks," creationists sought a new label to disguise their crankiness -- and "intelligent design" was born.

In a fair fight, the fact of the Holocaust is established. In a fair fight, the evidence for evolution wins.

Keep the fights fair.

 

At 9/22/2005 8:56 PM, Anonymous jre said...

Wow!
What a thoughtful and information-rich comment!
If any blogger needed an incentive (other than the natural desire to have others act as if our opinions mattered), it would be the prospect of attracting the Ed Darrells of this world.
Orac -- you have created a field of clover, and now the bees have come.

 

At 3/03/2006 8:34 AM, Blogger Mark said...

First, the "argument from ignorance" comment and the the quoted example of WWII. Evolution and teh TofE are apples and oranges. We have people still alive today that were actually there when WWII was fought and they OBSERVED it. No-one was around during the alleged beginning according to the TofE, i.e NO OBSERVATION. Second, the reason we know that WWII is over is again because of OBSERVATION and of course specific documentation, nothing even close with the TofE.

Next, ID is based upon the scientific method, not supposition or pure 'faith'. Where in the scientific method does it state that 'the vast majority of scientists' are necessary to make something plausible. Example...Before Mt. Everest was discovered, what was the tallest mountain in the world?

Mount Everest...of course...you see, the truth isn't dependant upon majority consensus, it just is, regardless of who agrees with it or not!

ID is supported by a large # of scientists from numerous fields, and many of them don't have a religious tie at all. There are serious flaws in the foundation of the TofE that cause all of the rest of the 'Theory' to be unstable and ready to topple. The only thing 'holding it up' are the 'bullies' who don't want to hear anything else. The TofE, is the sacred cow (so to speak) that cannot be touched.

Complex Specified Information has onlye ever been observed to be caused by intelligence, yet when those supporting the TofE see it in the natural world, they call it the outcome of random mutations, chance, survival of the fittest, what-have-you + lots of time...all while not having a single shred of observable verifiable evidence. Only conjecture and supposition. Yet, those who support something other than the TofE are laughed at, shouted down, and mocked for having 'blind faith'. You might want to take a good look in the mirror about your motivations and why you belive what you believe.

 

At 3/03/2006 8:35 AM, Blogger Mark said...

First, the "argument from ignorance" comment and the the quoted example of WWII. Evolution and teh TofE are apples and oranges. We have people still alive today that were actually there when WWII was fought and they OBSERVED it. No-one was around during the alleged beginning according to the TofE, i.e NO OBSERVATION. Second, the reason we know that WWII is over is again because of OBSERVATION and of course specific documentation, nothing even close with the TofE.

Next, ID is based upon the scientific method, not supposition or pure 'faith'. Where in the scientific method does it state that 'the vast majority of scientists' are necessary to make something plausible. Example...Before Mt. Everest was discovered, what was the tallest mountain in the world?

Mount Everest...of course...you see, the truth isn't dependant upon majority consensus, it just is, regardless of who agrees with it or not!

ID is supported by a large # of scientists from numerous fields, and many of them don't have a religious tie at all. There are serious flaws in the foundation of the TofE that cause all of the rest of the 'Theory' to be unstable and ready to topple. The only thing 'holding it up' are the 'bullies' who don't want to hear anything else. The TofE, is the sacred cow (so to speak) that cannot be touched.

Complex Specified Information has onlye ever been observed to be caused by intelligence, yet when those supporting the TofE see it in the natural world, they call it the outcome of random mutations, chance, survival of the fittest, what-have-you + lots of time...all while not having a single shred of observable verifiable evidence. Only conjecture and supposition. Yet, those who support something other than the TofE are laughed at, shouted down, and mocked for having 'blind faith'. You might want to take a good look in the mirror about your motivations and why you belive what you believe.

 

At 3/03/2006 8:36 AM, Blogger Mark said...

First, the "argument from ignorance" comment and the the quoted example of WWII. Evolution and teh TofE are apples and oranges. We have people still alive today that were actually there when WWII was fought and they OBSERVED it. No-one was around during the alleged beginning according to the TofE, i.e NO OBSERVATION. Second, the reason we know that WWII is over is again because of OBSERVATION and of course specific documentation, nothing even close with the TofE.

Next, ID is based upon the scientific method, not supposition or pure 'faith'. Where in the scientific method does it state that 'the vast majority of scientists' are necessary to make something plausible. Example...Before Mt. Everest was discovered, what was the tallest mountain in the world?

Mount Everest...of course...you see, the truth isn't dependant upon majority consensus, it just is, regardless of who agrees with it or not!

ID is supported by a large # of scientists from numerous fields, and many of them don't have a religious tie at all. There are serious flaws in the foundation of the TofE that cause all of the rest of the 'Theory' to be unstable and ready to topple. The only thing 'holding it up' are the 'bullies' who don't want to hear anything else. The TofE, is the sacred cow (so to speak) that cannot be touched.

Complex Specified Information has onlye ever been observed to be caused by intelligence, yet when those supporting the TofE see it in the natural world, they call it the outcome of random mutations, chance, survival of the fittest, what-have-you + lots of time...all while not having a single shred of observable verifiable evidence. Only conjecture and supposition. Yet, those who support something other than the TofE are laughed at, shouted down, and mocked for having 'blind faith'. You might want to take a good look in the mirror about your motivations and why you belive what you believe.

 

At 3/03/2006 8:40 AM, Blogger Orac said...

This blog has been shut down and now exists only as an archive site. Consequently, comments are being shut off. Go to the new blog.

 

Links to this insolence:

Create a Link

<< Home